ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

In the Shadow of War

Dominican sisters provide care and relief in Iraq

As war approached last spring most Iraqis sealed their windows and stored food and water.

The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena also made special housing arrangements and collected necessities, but not for themselves.

As they had done 12 years earlier, the sisters prepared a safety net for the people of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and surrounding villages, many of whom are still suffering from the fallout of the second war between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the United States.

Before the fighting began, the sisters went door-to-door collecting food, which they stored and then distributed during the war to those who came to the convent looking for help. They also distributed food and medicine purchased with help from CNEWA.

The sisters offered refuge to all in village churches, particularly in Kerakush. There, Christians and Muslims slept together as bombs pounded nearby Mosul for several nights in a row, said Sister Shirine Hanoush from the motherhouse in Mosul, where she has served as a sister for 40 years.

“Christian and Muslim families would share the same space. Everyone would pray together,” she said. People came from all over the country, knowing the northern villages were safer than the cities. “This was a very challenging experience for the sisters,” said Sister Shirine, “but it has made us more devoted to our work and faith.”

The sisters had tried to gather a six-month supply of medicine and basic foodstuffs, but three weeks into the war, they had only managed to secure enough for 40 days. Helping cover this shortfall was CNEWA’s operating arm in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission.

According to Ra’ed Bahou, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Jordan and Iraq, getting emergency supplies from Jordan to the sisters in Iraq after the war was not easy.

“Transportation across western Iraq was plagued by gangs and communication was difficult,” Mr. Bahou said, “but we did not lose a single shipment to bandits thanks to a decision to use vans rather than large trucks. Each van carried one ton of aid, in convoys of three and four.”

Dominican sisters in Zerqa, Jordan, actually packed and drove the vans to centers their fellow religious had established in Iraq. The sisters in Jordan administer the Pontifical Mission’s maternity clinic in Zerqa from where they have directed aid shipments to needy Iraqis.

The 52 sisters in Mosul still provide assistance to families too scared to go back to their homes in Baghdad. People also come looking for food, but most of their work these days comes in the form of counseling, especially with children.

“Our youth are without hope. They had great hopes that the Americans would help them get a better standard of living, but life remains the same,” Sister Shirine said. “Many are depressed and need to be listened to very carefully.”

The sisters also run an orphanage and a kindergarten that opened two years ago. As members of a community whose primary mission is to spread the Gospel, the sisters focus on religious instruction and catechism classes, said Sister Shirine.

Others, like Sister Nahla Francis, work outside the convent. Sister Nahla started working as a nurse six months ago at the nearby Al Jamh-Al Zahrawi Hospital in Mosul. She monitors life-support machines, feeds patients and changes bed linens. Many patients are recovering from gunshot wounds and other life-threatening injuries.

She is the only sister in the hospital and often has to explain to Muslim patients what a sister is.

“I saw a lot of different cases here. One patient came who had lost her legs and her family,” said Sister Nahla, who has been a member of the community for six years. “She told me, ‘I want to die because I have nothing to live for.’ ”

In such cases, “I can only pray for the patient,” said Sister Nahla.

Equally trying was the death of many children brought to the hospital during the war, she said. “The community gave me spiritual support and encouragement to continue my work here.”

During the war, many of the younger sisters in Mosul were sent to the relative safety of rural areas. The rest hunkered down in the basement of the motherhouse, as bombs hit the numerous ammunition stores the sisters had never known were nearby. Even though the stores and other military targets were just a five-minute walk from the convent, the building survived unscathed.

“We were living in the basement,” Sister Shirine said. “Sometimes we’d go to the common room to watch television, but when the bombing would start we would hide again.”

Some of the most dangerous moments came after the official end of major U.S. combat operations in May. With the country in disarray, many Iraqi Christians have been threatened by their countrymen, some of whom link Christianity with colonialism and U.S. designs in the region.

One night in August a rocket was fired at the convent, plowing through a room where three novices were sleeping and creating a shower of concrete and glass. The women had to walk over the debris with bare feet to leave the room, but none was hurt, Sister Shirine said.

“I think they were aiming at the cross atop the convent and also the convent itself,” she said. “Some Iraqis associate Christianity with the Western world.”

Although Western missionaries have been active in Iraq for centuries, most Iraqi Christians trace their religious heritage to the earliest years of Christianity. According to tradition, St. Thomas evangelized the area in the first century. The land was known then as Mesopotamia.

Many Iraqi Christians fear increased sectarian tension, especially with some Shiite factions, who have called for the creation of an Islamic state.

Readily recognizable in their habits, the sisters have faced harassment in public areas. On the streets some people shout insults and children climb the convent walls and defame statues of Jesus and other religious symbols. Sister Shirine said the sisters are careful about where they go and usually do not go out after dark.

The situation is different, however, for the sisters in Baghdad, where their work has been welcomed. “The Iraqi people love us and respect us,” said Sister Nahida Yousef, who teaches at the Al Dijlah School, which was once administered by the sisters.

Sister Nahida, the last remaining Dominican at the school, was there when the school was taken over by the government in the late 1970’s.

She still teaches Arabic to primary school students. “I have always really liked working with the kids. My time and work here have been very rewarding,” she said a few minutes before rallying a class of girls to practice a recitation in Arabic and leading them in song.

Her convent in Baghdad has also been busy handing out food, clothes and medicine to the residents of the war-torn capital, she said.

Being surrounded by war and hardship seems part of the sisters’ creed. The order was founded by three women, all named Susan, who led Armenians south from what is now Turkey during the 1915 massacre of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire.

After surviving a trek that killed thousands, the three sisters established a convent in Mosul with the help of a French Dominican sister, Marie Eimée. The order now includes 184 sisters drawn from all of Iraq’s Christian communities.

Sister Bushira Faraj Daoud witnessed the birth of new life as well as a new era in Iraq while she worked delivering babies during the war at the Al Hayat Hospital in Baghdad. The 27-bed hospital, which receives operational support and medicine from CNEWA, was one of the few to stay open throughout the war, receiving all types of patients even though it was designed as a maternity hospital.

“We closed the hospital for just five days when the Americans entered Baghdad and were hunting down Hussein’s fighters, some of whom were hiding in the school behind the hospital,” Sister Bushira said. “We could have gone to the north for safety reasons, but we decided to stay because we believed our work here was needed urgently.”

The sisters are still receiving women who come from all over the country because of the hospital’s reputation for cleanliness, low cost and expert care. New mothers lay wearily in bed while their new, snuggly wrapped charges alternately sleep and wiggle in the nursery down the hall.

All the patients are Muslim, but Sister Bushira said there is never anything but friendship and trust between mothers and the sisters. “We love the Muslim families and they love us,” Sister Bushira said. “We pray to God that this friendship and goodwill will continue.”

With its bright lights, shining floors and fresh paint, the hospital now seems a remote distance from the night during the war when its walls shook and the sisters huddled in the hallways for safety. The Americans bombed an Iraqi Air Force headquarters and suspected hideouts for Hussein’s paramilitary fighters just 50 yards from the facility.

“It was a very bad night. We felt we were finished and weren’t going to see the morning,” Sister Bushira said. “But we stood fast and believed the Virgin Mary was with us and would keep us from being hurt.”

Jill Carroll writes from Baghdad.

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