Sister Noora Sabah prays with children preparing for first communion in a church in a displaced persons camp in Ain Kawa, near Erbil. (photo: Paul Jeffrey)
Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena sing during the Divine Liturgy in Ain Kawa, near Erbil. (photo: Paul Jeffrey)
At the Al Bishara School, Sister Montaha Haday teaches children from Iraqi families displaced by war. (photo: Paul Jeffrey)
Sister Ferdos Zora sings along with preschool students. (photo: Paul Jeffrey)
Sister Anahid leads a primary school for displaced children in Dohuk. (photo: Paul Jeffrey)
Since the brutal invasion of ISIS in August 2014, ONE magazine has chronicled the exodus of Iraqis from their homes. We have reported, in particular, on the heroic work of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, one of our partners on the ground, as they have cared for the displaced. Sister Clara Nacy, the new superior general for the congregation, shares with us some of the challenges her people are continuing to face, as they return to their devastated homes and struggle to rebuild.
I write this hoping to share a real picture of all that we, along with our people, have experienced in our three-year journey of displacement.
After 7 August 2014, we had no place to live. The house we owned in the Ain Kawa [neighborhood of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan] was not large enough to hold 74 sisters. Some sisters stayed for two months at the Chaldean Patriarchate. Then they moved into prefabricated containers for more than a year; some sisters still remain there.
Our main concern was to keep together and maintain our sense of community. It was hard to see our sisters scattered at the patriarchate, our convent and the camps, so the congregation thought that gathering the sisters together in one place was important.
In the fall of 2015, CNEWA and a few NGOs helped us purchase two houses connected to each other, which we turned into a convent. It was a better living space and we were able to turn one room into a small chapel. Buying the house provided a decent place for the sisters to share their daily religious practices: praying together, having recreation together and eating meals together.
During the first year of displacement, we suffered many losses. Seventeen sisters died of heart attacks. They were very distressed by what had happened to the Christians in Iraq and to the country as a whole. They had hoped to move to the motherhouse that was being built in the town of Qaraqosh [about a 40-minute drive southeast of the city of Mosul] before the invasion of ISIS; but they were badly disappointed when they realized that having a motherhouse again was not possible. That affected them very deeply. They felt a strong connection to the land and to the community that has always been rooted in Mosul and in the Nineveh Plain.
As time went on, we worked to help those around us. During the years of displacement, our sisters worked at every camp for internally displaced persons. We led Christian catechism programs and activities. With the help of CNEWA and other organizations, we were able to distribute different items — such as clothing, mattresses, milk and diapers, etc. We felt that it is our responsibility to help our people. We ourselves were displaced, also, which helped us understand the needs of displaced families; we knew what they were going through.
Through it all, we drew strength from prayer, both individually and as a community. Believing God is always with his people, we trust he will never leave them alone, no matter what happens. We never felt abandoned, seeing the hand of God in all the organizations that have helped us care for the displaced families. People of good will were always around, showing God’s loving care. Our sisters appreciated very much this support and encouragement as we carried on our ministry.
After the liberation of our villages and towns, we returned to the town of Tel Eskof, rented a house and turned it to kindergarten. We prepared the children to make their first Communion. We returned to Qaraqosh and opened a school. There, our sisters teach and instruct them in their Christian faith. We are repairing, too, our convents in the towns of Bartella and Bashiqa.
Now, the common concern shared among everyone in the Nineveh Plain is security. After returning to their towns, people do not feel safe. Our people are greatly concerned about how to build a bridge between religious communities after what had happened; they wonder if they will ever be able to trust those who betrayed them and stole their homes. They struggle to be able to forgive.
Also, many families want to return to their homes and rebuild, but discover they have been destroyed beyond repair. What organizations are doing to help in the reconstruction cannot cover everything. Many towns, such as Qaraqosh and Bartella, need infrastructure. The streets need to be repaired. Power is provided only for a few hours a day. Water supply is limited. And depression plagues our people. One needs huge amounts of energy and faith to work with those who hardly believe this will end one day. Yet, we want and need to be with our people. We want to return with them to serve them.
And so we visit families in their homes. We lead youth groups and offer activities and lectures to help them understand themselves and their faith, sharing Bible stories when possible and catechesis for children. We understand these activities are modest — and that they are unable to heal them as a whole — but our efforts may be a balm to sooth their pain.
Life is so hectic in our area; our challenges look overwhelming. Therefore, we encourage people to go beyond their difficulties, and place them in a different context. We try to help them look into things through the eyes of faith. It is easy for people to feel depressed and live as passive victims. So, our aim is to help them live their faith as people who trust God and his providence. We are not the only ones who have lived this reality: The Bible tells us about those who had very similar experiences and yet they knew how to overcome their situation with hearts full of faith in the Lord.
It is hard to know what the future holds for our community. Displacement and immigration left young women unable to form a clear vision about their future. So, fostering vocations has been difficult when life is so unsettled. However, there are a few girls who are considering joining with us in serving the Lord as sisters. We are thinking of organizing a program for them to prepare them and introduce them to religious life.
We sisters have our own struggles, of course. We have asked different speakers to help us cope with the situation, spiritually and psychologically. We are grateful to all those who have risked their lives and have come to show solidarity and offer their knowledge.
Deep down, we believe our main help is the Risen Lord around whom we gather in every Eucharist. This unites us with the Christ and enables us to endure. Sharing with one another our difficulties gives us the opportunity to reflect and support one another. We have lost much, but we still have each other. And that is of great help.
Without our faith, without our life of prayer, we would not be able to continue our mission. Our daily prayers — community and personal — are a source of strength.
I hope this brief letter reflects some of the hardships and challenges we have been facing. But please know how deeply grateful we are to CNEWA for all your support, and for accompanying our people and our religious in every step of our harsh journey.