The one family still living in a Christian village devastated by Islamic State is working to revive Christmas traditions that have brought at least a few of its people home for the holiday.
Tel Nasri was one of dozens of Assyrian Christian villages in northern Syria targeted by the jihadist group when it was near the peak of its power. They blew up its 80-year-old church on an Easter Sunday and abducted hundreds of people.
Kurdish forces and local fighters seized the village a few months later, in May 2015, but nobody has returned.
“I was born and raised in Tel Nasri, I’m still here and I’m staying,” said Sargon Slio, 51, a farmer who stayed on with only his brother and two cousins. Before the fighting, the village was home to nearly 1,000 people, he said.
Some 265 Assyrians were kidnapped from Tel Nasri, Slio said, and on their release, like the rest of the villagers, they fled.
“There used to be hundreds of people celebrating. You’d see dancing and hear singing. Everyone decorated the houses and Christmas trees,” Slio said. “Now we are four people.”
His mother, Zekta Benjamin, 73, has returned from Belgium for Christmas – the second time since she left in 2015. Another relative has come from Australia.
“I miss a lot the life of the village and my neighbors and relatives and everything in this place,” said the mother of 11, most of whom now are in Europe and the United States.
Along with his relatives, Slio tends to farms and makes repairs to a small church. He runs the abandoned village as part of a committee to protect the properties of minorities, which the Kurdish-led authority in the north set up.
“Being here in the village … it’s my moral duty to protect these homes as much as I can,” he said.
He hopes to get funding from Syria’s Assyrian Church and aid agencies to rebuild the big 80-year-old church of the Virgin Mary which the militants leveled.
He is also trying to encourage others to come home.
“These are our families, our loved ones … They say when the region becomes stable, we will all return.”