How this passionate Christian from Samaritan's Purse is helping to save lives in war-torn northern Iraq
For seven tumultuous years, Matthew Nowery has been sustained by his infectiously strong faith as he works for Samaritan's Purse iin northern Iraq. Working latterly to heal the horrific damage done by Islamic State since they seized Mosul and the wider region in 2014, Nowery now serves as the country director of Samaritan's Purse-Northern Iraq and lives in Erbil with his wife, Sarah and their children, Ezra and Macy.
It's not an easy life. Nowery, who joined the organisation in 2005 and spent five years working with the persecuted Church in Sudan researching and documenting the atrocities committed against the Sudanese Church by the government of the north there, says now that he and his wife have 'fallen in love with the Iraqi people'. And, he says: 'While we don't understand why this heartache has happened we do know that Jesus knows them and loves them.' But, he says, 'It is difficult. It is an extremely tough place to work.'
Without his inspirational faith, it is hard to imagine how Nowery would have survived in the job. 'Our family has called Iraq home for nearly eight years now, and what we are seeing Jesus do in this country is unprecedented – we are seeing the hand of God work in ways that are difficult to explain,' he says. 'While it's hot and difficult – it is difficult to take it all in – within that as we are called to be light God is allowing us the privilege to be his light...It is an extremely tough place to work but I will say that the positive far outweighs the negative – and seeing Christ move in this land, my wife and I wouldn't trade it for anything else – we are committed to staying and helping as long as God allows us to.'
Which is just as well. For Mosul, despite official Iraqi claims of it having been 'liberated' from ISIS, remains in what Nowery says is a 'desperate' state.
'There is going to be a tendency to think now that Mosul has been declared liberated that the war is over and people will turn their attention elsewhere, and I just want to remind everybody that Iraqis need our help now more than ever,' he says.
'Many, if not most of the Christians cannot return home because their homes are not there, and it would be a tragedy to walk away – I want please to remind everyone how important work is now.'
Some 80,000 Iraqi Christian refugees fled Mosul and the Nineveh Plain under threat of forced conversion or execution when Iraqi Christians were driven from their homes by the ISIS advance in the summer of 2014.
Now, the government of Iraq has declared Mosul liberated from ISIS, but, as Nowery explains by telephone to Christian Today, on the ground 'there are still airstrikes and pockets of ISIS' doing huge damage.
'There are many civilians that are trapped in the region. We are seeing and hearing many reports of children that are caught in the rubble – civilians go in and are finding children and adults.'
One of the major initiatives that Samaritan's Purse is pursuing is its Emergency Field Hospital about six miles (10km) outside Mosul. The hospital has become the closest medical facility to the front lines of the coalition's efforts to remove ISIS from its Iraqi stronghold.
Since January when it opened, medical staff have treated 2,392 patients and performed more than 1,200 major surgeries. Samaritan's Purse teams are also fighting malnutrition in the camps by screening children aged six months to five years, providing food supplements and teaching mothers how to prepare nutritious food with the monthly rations. These are just two of many ways that the international charity, headed up by Franklin Graham, continues to help families displaced or wounded by the war for Mosul.
'Hundreds of lives have been saved from that field hospital,' says Nowery. 'But the situation on the ground here remains desperate.'
There is so much need for medical aid that within the hospital's first few days of operation it had treated about 100 patients suffering from life-threatening injuries. The hospital's director, Dr Elliott Tenpenny, said in January that the hospital plans to stay open for at least six months.
'We live and work in a difficult place,' she told the Christian Post. 'You wake up and go to sleep with the sound of artillery and gunfire around but we are protected by our security that is here. There is no specific incident that has made me fearful, but we are sitting close to a war zone and we hear the war going on behind us and we know what the people are going through in those areas.'
Now, Nowery tells Christian Today that the hospital will stay open for the foreseeable future. 'Given the immediate needs that are so prevalent in the area we have agreed to keep the hospital open for another 90 day period – our current plan is to keep it open for the month of September,' he says.
Elsewhere, Nowery explains that Samaritan's Purse still has much work to do. 'I think having spent significant time in this region and Iraq in particular, a lot of work is ahead of us – there is a lot of animosity between the different religions and ethnicities. Now more than ever need tor Samaritan's Purse to respond, to show the love of Jesus.
'Millions of Iraqis have been living in IDP [Internationally Displaced Persons] camps – they are now returning but finding almost total destruction: their homes, hospitals, clean water, infrastructure, electricity, generators, copper wiring – all have been destroyed.'
One of Samaritan's Purse's main goals in Iraq now is helping Christians that are returning and want to remain in Iraq. 'We are going to start with their homes. Most of their homes have been bombed and burned out – we have been serving these Christians since they were displaced in August 2015 and we believe it is very important that we walk arm in arm with them now,' Nowery explains.
Finally, Nowery appeals for prayers. 'I would ask everyone for their prayers – it is a dangerous country; there are a lot of remnants from war lying around. First, [for] safety for our team and for these families returning home – many of their homes are booby trapped; ISIS has wired them for bombs – and the many challenges ahead for both our team and other groups that are working here faithfully as well as Iraqis who are returning here.
'It is so important that they understand that Jesus loves them, he knows them and cares for them, and I ask for prayers that we would have a spirit of encouragement, in a manner that would honour them and honour Christ ultimately.'