ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church


Meet the sisters bringing hope to displaced Iraqis

In a prefabricated container on the grounds of the Al Bishara Convent in Ain Kawa, a predominantly Christian neighborhood in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil, Sister Magnificat spreads icons she has created across the table. Around her gather a handful of women religious who have come to learn how to write religious icons from the French sister.

Before the sisters begin their next lesson, Sister Magnificat grasps the hands of those next to her.

“Before we make these icons, we must invite the Holy Spirit to come help us,” she says. “We never sign our own names on the icons we make, but rather we ask the Holy Spirit to come guide our hands as we make them.”

With her postcard-size icons popping up in convents, schools and houses, Sister Magnificat’s work can be found all around Erbil. Nearly a year after ISIS displaced tens of thousands of people — including these stalwart sisters — the work of the Holy Spirit is also in strong evidence.

The Autumn 2014 edition of ONE described the harsh, uncompromising conditions endured by some 120,000 Iraqi Christians after ISIS drove them from their homes in towns and villages across the Nineveh Plain.

Whereas last year, thousands languished in improvised tent dwellings without electricity, sanitary facilities or hope, today those sites look very different. The unfinished building across from St. Joseph’s Church in Ain Kawa, once the scene of despair and misery, now lies empty, its walls newly plastered. The formerly congested grounds of the church can breathe again. The public schools that housed two to three families to a room now ring with the sound of children learning once again. On the surface, it is almost as if all the suffering never took place.

Families have been moved from emergency tent dwellings into rented houses and container housing elsewhere in Erbil — many in the Kasnazan neighborhood at the edge of the city. And although their situation has improved over the past eight months, they are still displaced, largely jobless and uncertain what the future holds.

Throughout this trauma, a backbone of support for the displaced Christians has been the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, some 73 of whom were also exiled from their convents across the plain. Led by Sister Maria Hanna, mother superior, the community initially administered to the displaced from their convent in Ain Kawa. As families were moved from Ain Kawa to Kasnazan, it became clear a second, satellite convent was required.

“We want to be with the people — to serve the people in the moment,” says Sister Maria. “If they move someplace else, we move with them.”

And so, on 15 December, a small convent opened among the Christians relocated to Kasnazan, in a terraced structure identical to those housing refugees. Sisters Sohama Sakar, Rahma Steifo and Victoria Jahola, the three Dominican sisters who run the convent, have created a temporary chapel in the living room consisting of a low coffee table with a crucifix, candles and some of Sister Magnificat’s icons of Our Lady. Before this humble altar, they pray morning and night.

Up the street is a UNICEF-issued tent that has been restyled as a chapel. Now called the “Tent of Hope,” it hosts the Divine Liturgy twice on Sundays, as well as prayer meetings, Bible study, catechism class and a women’s rosary group that meets daily. Sometimes the Sunday crowd swells to 1,100 people and the liturgy must be celebrated outside under the sun so everyone may participate.

The leitmotif evident across all the communities of displaced Christians living in towns across Iraqi Kurdistan is resilience. From the seemingly hopeless ashes of shock and despair of last autumn, green shoots of hope sprout. From Erbil to Dohuk to Suleimaniyah, the Christians, frequently marginalized from public services by the Kurdish authorities, are building their own structures of support and care. The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena have been crucial to the slow but steady emergence of this infrastructure from the chaos of displacement.

Within weeks of their exile, Sister Maria Hanna and her community realized children needed special help in this crucial time.

“Children in the displaced families are the real victims,” she says. “They are really crushed by the situation. Entire families had to suddenly all live together in one room or tent and the children were not allowed to speak, to express fear or frustration. They couldn’t play. They couldn’t shout. Often they had to bear witness to domestic problems caused by the displacement.”

Responding to this need, the Dominican Sisters established a kindergarten and an orphanage in Ain Kawa, filling in for institutions abandoned back home. These efforts have eased the burden on families — especially the children themselves, starving to learn and play.

“One of the boys was so excited to be going to kindergarten that, the night before the first day back, he slept the whole night with his backpack on,” Sister Maria Hanna says. “He did not want anything to come between him and his learning!”

Hearing the news that she’d be going back to kindergarten, Sister Maria says one young girl picked up her family’s statue of the Virgin Mary and danced around, thanking the Blessed Mother again and again.

The sisters have plans to open another kindergarten in Kasnazan, and also hope to found schools to be run by and for the community. This will allow older children to learn in their native Arabic or Aramaic, as opposed to Kurdish, and avoid the issue of limited access to Kurdish schools.

Beyond child care and education, the sisters also strive to improve local health care. Disease and mortality shot up once the Christians were displaced and the need for free, accessible primary care was crucial.

“Even in the new, improved housing, people are living on the unpaved, dirty ground. This is not healthy. This is not human,” says Sister Maria Hanna. “Psychologically, the condition is getting more difficult because it has been too long now that people have been in this displaced condition.”

The Martha Schmouny Clinic started in August, working out of a tent pitched by St. Joseph’s Church in Ain Kawa. Since then it has grown steadily, soon expanding to three container units.

Since November, the clinic has relocated to Ashti, another area on the periphery of Erbil to which Christian families have been relocated. Bringing together 40 volunteer doctors and serving some 400 patients a day, the clinic now offers a gamut of services including dental care, gynecological care, lab testing, mammography and pediatrics in its increased complex of seven containers.

“These people are broke, they are left with nothing,” says Sister Diana Momeka, the Dominican sister who runs the clinic with the Rev. Behnam Benoka, a Syriac Catholic priest. “This is a place of hope. We don’t just give them medicine, we give them hope.”

Similar clinics have also opened in the Kasnazan district of Erbil and in the Kurdish city of Dohuk while a mobile clinic serves a number of villages in the area of Zakho.

While the displaced Christians’ living conditions have improved slightly, they still arrive at the clinic with health issues that attest to their poor living conditions — disproportionately high occurrence of respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, fevers, dehydration and even outbreaks of scabies.

“The situation has not improved so much just because people have moved from tents in Ain Kawa to caravans in Ashti or cramped houses in Kasnazan,” says Sister Diana. “It’s not like moving from a cage to a mansion; it’s moving from one space to another. The families still have to all live in the same room. They still lack basic privacies.”

While they have been busy tending to the needs of their community, the sisters have had to handle their own hardships. They, too, are displaced; they, too, face shelter, food and health problems.

Yet the sisters, brothers, priests and bishops who have accompanied the Christians in their hour of need never seem to speak of their own troubles directly.

“We forget ourselves and our difficulties when we see the hardship of our people,” says Sister Rahma, from the community’s Kasnazan convent.

“We try to get out of ourselves, to go beyond the crisis and not think of ourselves,” says Sister Marie Therese Hanna in Ain Kawa.

But regardless, in the face of the abrupt uprooting and displacement, the sisters felt the same disorientation, worry and despair as the rest.

“Like our people, we were just lost,” says the mother superior, Sister Maria. “We were confused. Things were not certain. Things were changeable. We did not know what to think.”

Half of the 40 sisters living at Al Bishara remain in temporary housing containers on the grounds of the convent because there is not enough room for everyone in the building. These sisters, such as Sister Hanaa Samir, a novice, endure the biting cold of winter and extreme heat of summer, receiving at best short rations of electricity from the convent generator.

“When it rains,” says Sister Hanaa, “water comes through the roof so there are drops here and there. We’d try to fix it, but when we’d fix one spot, the water would come from another spot. I was moving my bed around from one place to the other to avoid the falling water.”

But beyond the material privation, the hardest aspect of the past eight months for these sisters has been the number of strokes affecting the older segment of the community. In just six months, the convent has lost 12 sisters, all to strokes — a mortality rate that, in normal times, might have corresponded to six years.

The sisters attribute this to the shock and trauma of the expulsion by ISIS and the sudden and overwhelming misery of the Christians arriving for safety in Erbil.

“It was mainly because of all this stress and frustration, but also because our elderly sisters were so worried about the people,” says Sister Maria. “I know that two of the sisters who died had been watching news reports of how ISIS were slaughtering people the night they died, poor things.”

Sometimes a death would occur within a day or two of a novice sister’s final vows, normally an occasion of celebration. The whole convent was shaken by the seemingly incessant series of deaths.

“I felt in pain psychologically,” says Sister Marie Therese. “But I found some comfort in the fact that all the sisters and me are on the same march. We are all walking toward the Heavenly House, all on a journey toward the Father, and these deceased sisters just happened to reach there before us. We are following them. Our house is not on this earth but in heaven.”

This ability to rebound, to seek hope where none can be seen and to remain unshaken in their faith is helping the displaced Christian population of Iraq not only to endure, but also to begin to recover.

Despite the suffering, moments of fun and gaiety are heard all over the convent. The days are punctuated by tasks and rituals: prayer, meals, housework. In one corner, some sisters are moving furniture; in another a group of sisters giggle and joke as they clean up after lunch. Upstairs, one of the novices receives a sewing lesson from another sister. She struggles to coordinate her foot on the pedal and her hand guiding the fabric. Laughter abounds.

Next door, Sister Maria passes by a sister who has been tasked with sewing together a ferraiolo, or full-length cape, for one of the priests. They discuss at length how to place some orange fabric that will form a cross on the cape.

Out in the caravans in the convent grounds, Sister Magnificat’s icon-writing class is still underway with much teasing and laughing as sisters grapple with the art form.

Life goes on, in the convent and out of it.

While the Christians displaced and waiting all over Iraqi Kurdistan are still in dire need of improvement to their lives and prospects, the transformative power of hope and endurance is everywhere to be seen: in the newly plastered surfaces of evacuated shelters; in the bobbing schoolbags of children running to kindergarten; in the congregation filing into the Tent of Hope; in the sisters’ efforts to make a beautiful icon.

In their darkest hour, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena — and the larger displaced population — found the strength and the grace to hope, to rebuild, to survive. Many of the sisters look skyward when they talk about where the strength came from. Others credit the Holy Spirit.

“We came as displaced people with nothing, and there was a possibility that we would stay home, cry rivers and just feel sorry for ourselves,” says Sister Marie Therese.

“But we forgot about our own problems and went out to reach people in need. This is what brought to us the energy, the strength and the creativity to persevere.

“We don’t know how it happened, but we thank God it did.”

A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.

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