Dominican Nuns Keep Hope Alive in Iraq

Paul Jeffrey of Catholic News Service accompanied Cardinal Timothy Dolan on his recent trip to northern Iraq.

Paul Jeffrey of Catholic News Service accompanied Cardinal Timothy Dolan on his recent trip to northern Iraq, and got to meet some of the extraordinary women who are serving the displaced in Kurdistan:

When the Islamic State group rolled across Iraq’s Ninevah Plain in 2014, tens of thousands of Christians fled for their lives to Kurdish-controlled areas of the country. They still wait in limbo in crowded camps, facing an undefined future. The only certainty they enjoy is knowing that whatever happens to them, a group of Dominican nuns will be at their side.

“We will not leave our people. Wherever they go, we will go with them,” said Sister Luma Khudher, a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena.

The Iraqi congregation was founded in Mosul in the late 19th century and, over the decades, the nuns have operated schools and clinics throughout the country. In the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion, many of their facilities became refuges for families displaced by the violence.

By 2014, driven out of Mosul by the Islamic State, many of the nuns were in Qaraqosh, where they were repeatedly assured that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters would protect the city. But the Kurdish troops pulled out late 6 August 2014, and the sisters were among the last to hurriedly flee for their lives.

Sister Khudher drove one of the convent’s four vehicles, the sisters packed tight as they crept along the dark and crowded highway to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. It took 10 hours to cover 30 miles.

“Our superior was with me in the car, and she wouldn’t let the sisters cry so that I could focus on driving,” Khudher said. “When we finally got here I couldn’t stop crying. All of a sudden I had to face the reality that I was not in my hometown anymore. I had left my church, my convent, I had left everything behind. And the people, like Jesus says in the Gospel, were like sheep without a shepherd.”

As tens of thousands of displaced Iraqis poured into Erbil and other areas, the Kurdish regional government, facing the collapse of its own oil-fueled economy, had few resources to offer. The country’s central government was far away in Baghdad and not overly concerned about a bunch of displaced Christians and other minorities.

It was the church that stepped into the breach, appealing for resources from around the world, organizing displaced families in tents, solving the myriad problems of a population that had lived a middle-class life back home, yet which had to flee with no advance notice, and thus no chance to bring along much more than the clothes they wore.

“We were in shock. We didn’t know if it was day or night. We just looked at each other and looked at the people and tried to listen to them. We tried to be strong for the others, but we were all the same,” Sister Khudher said. “Sister Maria (Hanna, the congregation’s superior) said we would start with diapers and milk. So we went to different camps, and it was my first time to learn that diapers have numbers. I was handing them out and someone would say, ‘Sister, this is not the size I need.’ I didn’t know diapers came in sizes.”

Diapers and milk soon became blankets and tarps and food. The nuns became the de facto managers of aid for much of the displaced community.

“The sisters were everywhere. When we asked about the needs of the displaced no one could answer with any authority except the Dominican sisters,” Michel Constantin, the regional director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, told Catholic News Service.

“There was a vacuum in the local church, which wasn’t ready to deal with such a situation. And the displaced priests weren’t trained to deal with this crisis. The sisters were more educated, they’d already been involved in social work with their clinics and schools and orphanages, and they were in direct contact with the people on the ground,” said Constantin, who quickly helped the congregation set up a clinic.

The Dominican sisters were not the only religious order around, but Constantin said they were unique.

“We talked with other congregations, but some said they didn’t know how to deal with refugees. Or they spoke different languages. Some said this wasn’t their mandate. But the Dominican sisters never talked about mandates. They said there’s a need and we’ll work day and night to meet it,” he said.

The sisters were also selfless, not mentioning their own miserable living conditions. Several elderly nuns died in the first few difficult months in Erbil.

“When we had asked the sisters about what was needed, they never mentioned themselves. They only talked about the needs of the people,” Constantin said.

Constantin says a group of Lebanese nuns collected their own funds to help the Dominican sisters with underwear, soap and shampoo for personal use.

The sisters expanded their medical work, adding mobile clinics to reach the displaced living in remote villages. And with local schools teaching in Kurdish, they began opening schools and preschools in Arabic and Aramaic for the displaced.

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