In the Summer 2015 edition of ONE, Don Duncan describes revisiting Iraq a year after the invasion of ISIS. One of the places he visited is a local orphanage:
I must admit that I had certain preconceptions and received images that crossed my mind as I passed over the threshold of the Holy Family Orphanage in Ain Kawa, Erbil, a recently-opened home for children in need run by the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena to cater to the needs of Christians displaced by ISIS last August.
In the village I grew up in in the Irish midlands, there was a house known as “the orphanage” where kids from various backgrounds were taken care of by a mixture of nuns and state-employed social workers.
The children in this home were of various ages and so were in various classes of the village’s primary and high schools. They were cloaked in a sort of childhood mystery. Who are they really? Who are their real parents? Do they really feel like brothers and sisters? What is it like to have so many “parents?” There was also a sort of sadness, I remember, that we projected on them: a supposition that to be brought up by anyone but your biological parents can be nothing but a tragedy.
So this was the sort of vague, unprocessed baggage that brought with me as I crossed the threshold of the orphanage in Ain Kawa But from that moment, I was constantly surprised and enlightened. The Erbil orphanage reminded me not of the orphanage in my long-ago childhood village but rather it reminded me of my own childhood home and upbringing. Again and again.
The children in the orphanage: Sally (20), Rita (16), Mariam (13) and Thikra (10) had an age-spread not unlike my own family’s. And while my family consists of six siblings and theirs of four, I could immediately relate to the dynamics among the children: it is recognizable to anyone from a big family: alliances exist between various siblings, chores are shared out and one helps or hinders the other, there is a chain of surrogate care from the youngest to the eldest where gaps in over-stretched parental care are compensated for in an organic and spontaneous way.
That said, while I was struck by all the similarities between my childhood and those of the girls at the Holy Family Orphanage in Ain Kawa, it became clear during my interviews that there were some deep, indelible facts in their lives that make it such that I could never know their experience fully. Only one of the four girls is a “true orphan,” in that both of her parents have passed away. All the rest of the girls still have one parent alive, for example or are from broken homes or from families who are incapable of minding them and so were placed in the care of the nuns. That is to say that these girls once knew what it was to have biological family and to belong to a family bound by blood and not by various family misfortunes. The parallels, I eventually realized, only go so far.
The displacement of the Christians of the Nineveh Plain by ISIS in August 2014 constituted a second displacement for these girls: the first being the one from their biological families. That said, the displaced girls of this orphanage have come to find themselves in perhaps the best possible circumstance of refuge. While other families are reduced to sharing rooms with other families, while domestic problems flourish across the displaced community, while children exhibit behaviors concurrent with symptoms of trauma, the girls of the Holy Family Orphanage in Ain Kawa have found themselves consistently swaddled in the love and comfort of the two nuns who take direct care of them and of the larger family of some 40 Dominican Sisters in the convent just at the end of their street.
Read more in “Grace” from the Summer 2015 edition of ONE. And check out this profile of the Holy Family Orphanage in the same issue.