In the past, we’ve reported on the inspiring work of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, and the courageous ministry being carried out under the leadership of their superior, Sister Maria Hanna. The sisters were among those driven from their homes by ISIS in August of 2014, joining more than a hundred thousand other Iraqis fleeing for their lives. The sisters settled in Iraqi Kurdistan. In our Spring 2015 edition of ONE, we chronicled their remarkable story of tenacity and grace.
In addition to her work rallying her sisters and the people they lovingly serve, Sister Maria Hanna has been updating her friends and supporters around the world. She sent the following letter a few days ago, spotlighting the many challenges they continue to face, but also expressing gratitude for the generous support they have received-including, most prominently, from CNEWA and its operating agency in the region, the Pontifical Mission.
The letter serves as a reminder of the hardships so many innocent families are enduring. But it also offers hope, revealing in a very personal way how CNEWA’s donors and partners are making a profound difference in the lives of countless men, women and children.
Dear Sisters, Brethren and Friends…
With the New Year greetings, I extend my gratitude for your continuous support and prayers. Also, I would like to share with you our highlights from 2015.
Thanks to the blessed efforts of people who are accompanying us, we have had an eventful year. In addition to accompanying the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) at the camps, sisters were able to prepare 400 children for First Communion in ten groups in different cities and towns in the region of Kurdistan.
We are grateful to the Lord that our efforts to open a primary school were fruitful. Eventually, we managed to get all the licenses needed from the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. Bishop Warda (the Chaldaean Bishop of Erbil) offered us a building that Catholic organizations built on property belonging to the Archdiocese of Erbil, and the Pontifical Mission [CNEWA], thankfully, furnished it. There are about 460 pupils — girls and boys and all are IDPs. Seven of our Dominican sisters are working at the school, with other teachers and administrators, also IDPs. Studying at our school is free. The salaries of teachers and staff (about $18,000 a month) have been granted by the Pontifical Mission [CNEWA] for this year.
People are thankful and happy for this project, as the condition of other schools is really miserable. Because of the large number of the IDPs, some schools have three shifts a day, each shift for different groups, and the number of pupils in a class could number more than 80.
Also, we managed to open another kindergarten for the IDPs as there is more demand this year. The families prefer to send their children to be educated by the Dominican Sisters. Now there are 440 children attending our kindergartens in Ain Kawa. Additionally, in a town called Aqra with 250 IDP families, we opened a kindergarten for 50 children. The kindergarten in Kaznazanalso has 130 children in attendance. These kindergartens are free of charge for the IDPs.
In both projects, school and kindergarten, sisters have been noticing much improvement in children’s behavior. They are more willing to listen to their teachers and it is easier for teachers to discipline the children. The schools are equipped with playground and a sport field, which gave the children a suitable environment to play and direct their energy.
However, people are still facing many challenges. As for the present condition in Iraq, it is still traumatic. We were shocked last month when seven individuals (parents with their 7-year-old son, and 3-year-old daughter and a lady with her 7-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter) drowned in the sea as they were trying to flee to Greece.
Everybody is physically and psychologically exhausted. It does not seem that there is any solution. People risk their lives. Immigration is increasing in all directions. Just before the end of the year, families of 167 persons were placed in Slovakia (at once) as part of immigration program, and there are more to go in the coming month. That, of course, shook the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine Of Siena [and also shook] the confidence of people about the future of Christianity in Iraq. Add to that, there are other families who are leaving the country [to go to] Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. In a matter of three months the number of children in our school fell from 520 to 460; also about 15 children from the kindergarten left with their families and more are planning to leave.
Although we are sad to see people leave, people who are living in prefabricated houses are facing a tremendously hard time, especially now in winter as these houses are not healthy at all; they are not made to contain large families, neither are they equipped for such harsh weather. They are extremely cold in winter, extremely hot in summer.
The recent news about the policy in the Middle East is not encouraging at all; nether is there anything promising. Everything is unknown and uncertain. Therefore, it is not surprising to see people leave. We pray that the doors of divine mercy may open for our brothers and sisters, that they may find people who could welcome them. As for us, we remain with the remnant here, to support the people intellectually and spiritually through educational projects and liturgical meetings.
Within the community, we are thankful for all those who helped us purchase a house which provided a better environment for our young sisters in formation program.We have started preparing for our general chapter that is planned to be held in July 2016.
We ask your prayers that God may enlighten us and grant us His wisdom to discern in our reality despite all the difficulties and pressures we are living.
Sister Maria Hanna, O.P.
Prioress of Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena — Iraq
Please support Sister Maria Hanna and her sisters, and the vitally important work they are undertaking on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Iraq. And please: keep them all in your prayers. Thank you!