With a warm heart: Muhalabiya welcomes returning families

How residents of Muhalabiya are working together to rebuild their community and welcome returning families.

Photo: Muhalabiya, Ninewa.

An hour from Mosul sits Muhalabiya, a sub-district within Ninewa that is home to over 40,000 Iraqis living in and around its fifty surrounding villages. Historically, the residents of Muhalabiya have taken pride in their cultural, religious and ethnic diversity.

However, the region suffered during the brutal ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) occupation. Many people lost their loved ones and homes, forcing them to flee. Only 10 percent of community members living in the center of Muhalabiya stayed behind. Unfortunately, some even lost their family members as they were recruited into ISIL.

After liberation from ISIL in 2017, families returned to absolute devastation and loss. Despite the challenges, residents were quick to welcome returnees with open arms, irrespective of their background. They were staying true to Muhalabiya’s deep sense of community and social inclusion.

Mayor of Muhalabiya, Abdulrahman Aldola, says, “We must show mercy to all IDPs including the families perceived to be ISIL-affiliated and allow them to return home. We now have hundreds of families living in our district with sons who have been affiliated with ISIL and there are no problems. I advocate for tolerance and that the families are accepted back and well received. All must be allowed to return, and we want to secure the future for next generations to come.”

Since liberation, UNDP has been working with the people of Muhalabiya to rehabilitate essential infrastructure, rebuild homes and support community-led initiatives to promote social cohesion. This comprehensive approach has included rehabilitating key municipality buildings to restore essential services while also working with the West Mosul Local Peace Committee to facilitate peaceful reintegration for families returning.

In October 2020, a peace agreement was signed in Muhalabiya to encourage the return of IDPs including over 1,100 families perceived to be affiliated with ISIL to their places of origin. It was led by the West Mosul Local Peace Committee, with sponsorship from the Governorate of Ninewa and support from UNDP. The community in Muhalabiya and the returning IDPs, including families perceived to be affiliated with ISIL, will benefit from a reintegration package that includes livelihood and psychosocial support, along with rehabilitation of their damaged homes.

As a part of this package, in August 2021, UNDP implemented a capacity-building programme for community leaders in the areas of return, including Muhalabiya, on practical applications of mediation and conflict resolution techniques and the role of moderate religious discourse. The aim is to equip the community leaders with tools and skills for the prevention of any potential communal tensions resulting from the return of families to their communities. Another programme was held for local government members, security officers and other officials to build their capacity in reintegration and community preparedness and acceptance of returns.

To date, UNDP has rehabilitated the region’s agriculture building, Mayor’s office, primary and secondary school, agriculture directorate and civil status building, benefitting its 40,000 residents.

Currently, UNDP is rehabilitating 175 houses along with the Directorate of Police, police station, National Security and Agriculture Storage buildings.

Ahmed*, 59, found out his son was killed after joining ISIL. Shortly after, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. “We were scared of him (our son),” confides Ahmed.

Hassan*, 33, has three children and is currently unemployed. His older brother joined ISIL, and his family has not contacted him since. They are unsure whether he is still alive. “Our son’s choice has tortured us,” confides Fatima, Hassan’s mother.

Mohammed*, 58, left Muhalabiya in 2017 and returned in 2019. His two sons joined ISIL and were killed. He shares, “the community was helpful when I returned, and I advise others to return as I did.”

While A’dil*, 40, a police officer and community member from Muhalabiya, says, “At first, I wished these families affiliated with ISIL wouldn’t return. But now we deal with them as innocent people, not criminals. The families themselves are not harmful. It is their members who joined ISIL and they don’t speak to anymore who are the problem.”

In response to families returning, Intisar Khader Hussain, 68, says, “We have always been known to be a peaceful society. We cannot punish people for decisions their family members made beyond their control. They have been equally affected by the conflict. I am happy to see how we are all welcoming them with open arms.” Intisar and his family fled to Dohuk during the conflict and returned last year. “I am so happy to see basic services being restored, such as electricity and the access to the civil status building where I registered my citizenship.”

Today, over 1,100 families have returned home through the peace agreement to restore essential services and social inclusion. This has been possible because of community-led efforts toward reintegration and peace.

*Names changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.

About the programmes:
Through the Community-based Reconciliation and Reintegration Project, UNDP will facilitate the return of 9,000 families to four areas of Iraq along with a complete reintegration package. The project supports return and reintegration of IDPs including families perceived as affiliated with ISIL in Anbar, Ninewa and Salah al-Din and those affected by increased gender-based violence and harsh economic conditions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been possible thanks to support from the Government of Japan.

Through the Funding Facility for Stabilization, UNDP will continue to work with the Government of Iraq and local actors to ensure safe, dignified, and voluntary returns and to lay the foundation for the successful reintegration of displaced populations into the community. Its 29 funding partners have contributed $1.4 billion to the programme, which has completed 2,944 projects in five governorates liberated from ISIL, improving the lives of more than 14.6 million Iraqis.

By UNDP Iraq

‏‏شعوب متمكنة، أمم صامدة -الحساب الرسمي لبرنامج الأمم المتحدة الإنمائي في المنطقة العربية. UNDP official account in the Arab States