Thanksgiving conjures up so many memories: car trips in the station wagon; laughs at the kids’ table in the kitchen; graduating to the adults’ elegant feast in the dining room; delicious food; mashed turnips; Nana and Pop; watching football; and late-night Turkey sandwiches lathered in mayonnaise and served on a trolley with piping hot coffee or tea.
Thanksgiving memories return one to warm thoughts of home, and what home means. The feelings of love and of family remain even as the details fade. Home really is where the heart is.
For the more than 50,000 inhabitants of Qaraqosh, an Iraqi town on the Nineveh Plain located between ancient Nineveh (modern Mosul) and the bustling city of Erbil, the loving attachment to their homes and families took on a different meaning in the evening of 6 August 2014. Word reached the inhabitants of Qaraqosh that they had but a few hours to flee their homes. The maniacal forces of hate — ISIS — were on their way.
“We had six hours to get all of our sisters out,” recalled Sister Houda of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena. “We received a call, and we were told we had to clear out,” she recalled in the now peaceful offices of the community’s primary school in Qaraqosh.
With the bells of the churches ringing, warning people to evacuate, she recalled a panicked scene, with residents pouring into the roads with nothing more than the keys to the homes and perhaps a jacket or a coat.
By dawn the next day, the town stood still, empty of its inhabitants, and then the wanton destruction of Qaraqosh commenced, beginning with its beautiful churches.
“Our pride and joy, the Church of the Immaculate Conception,” Archbishop Nazar Semaan of Kurdistan, a son of Qaraqosh, recalled, “was used for target practice. ISIS scorched the interior and tried to bring the dome down — but it would not.”
Ordained a priest and consecrated to the episcopacy in the lovely sanctuary, the archbishop spoke about the hardship of those days, how his brothers and sisters lived a hand-to-mouth existence, not knowing if or when they would return.
Since ISIS was cleared out of the area and the villages and fields de-mined, some of the families returned, but many remained in Kurdistan or their places of refuge in Jordan or Lebanon, where they await on visas to the west.
ISIS as a military force may be gone from the region, but the mentality of extremism remains for some, was the comment heard by the CNEWA delegation, led by Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, throughout its pastoral visit to Iraq, which concluded on the evening of Thanksgiving.
Other challenges remain, ranging from security to economic stability, but the loving attachment of Iraq’s Christian families to their homeland, to their towns and villages such as Qaraqosh, remains strong. The memories of weddings and funerals, christenings and family feasts, family and friends together, not scattered to the four winds, keeps the community together, in spirit.
As the emigres plant new roots elsewhere, however, keeping those memories alive among their children and their grandchildren becomes increasingly difficult — a fact not forgotten or dismissed by the leaders of the Iraqi churches, Catholic and non-Catholic.
“Your visit here Msgr. Peter,” said Mar Najib Michael Moussa, Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, continues to give us hope, that Christians outside of Iraq have not forgotten us.” That was a refrain heard time and time again, from sisters, priests, bishops and members of the laity — and the point of the pastoral visit, not to just to Iraq, but to Lebanon as well.
“We come to you to be in solidarity, to pray with you, to listen to you,” said Msgr. Vaccari at the start of each meeting or gathering.
“We are here to give witness to your many sacrifices on behalf of the faith, and to tell your story to our friends and benefactors.”