Sister Nahla Francis
A member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, Sister Nahla Francis, 32, was born in the tiny Iraqi village of Batanayah and trained as a nurse. From 2002 to 2004 she worked in a public hospital in Mosul, treating the wounded of the Iraq war. Sister Nahla is studying nursing in Jordan, where she also began her work in Zerqa’s Mother of Mercy Clinic (see Pages 6-11), an institution of CNEWA administered by her community of Iraqi sisters. After a busy day seeing patients, and keeping order in the small clinic, Sister Nahla took the time to talk to ONE correspondent Nicholas Seeley.
ONE: Can you tell me a little about Batanayah? How many people live there?
Sister Nahla Francis: Actually, I don’t know how many people there are, but it’s a small village. Most of them are Christian. We have a few Muslim families, maybe four or five. We have our own language; we speak Chaldean [a form of Aramaic, spoken by Jesus]. The village has one church. The primary school is separate — girls in one, boys in another — but the high school is mixed.
ONE: What inspired you to do this work?
SNF: You mean, from the first? When I was studying in high school, we had one sister — Sister Sana’, a Dominican. I saw how she was working with us as students, how she was working with the church and parish, and I wanted to join. I asked my family, who refused at the beginning. Eventually, they gave permission and I joined the Dominican sisters in Mosul.
I didn’t discuss it with anyone. I just made my decision, I asked my family and then I joined.
Maybe it was the way they live, how they treat people. Especially Sister Sana’ — I saw God in her face, in her way. Maybe this is what attracted me.
ONE: So it’s a way of interacting with people — a way of acting that, for you, was holy?
SNF: Yes. Even their prayer was special for me.
ONE: When did you begin to understand what you would do as a religious sister?
SNF: When I arrived in Mosul, it was a shock for me. As I told you, my village was a small village. I saw different people, heard a different language — they were speaking Arabic. At that time I didn’t know how to speak it fluently. But I learned. After I finished high school, I decided to go to nursing school.
Being a nurse fit perfectly with being a Dominican sister. Again, it’s in the way they treat people, the way they find Jesus in others — they see something important in their eyes. It’s a love that is hard to find in a public hospital.
ONE: What was it like to work in the Jamhouri Hospital in Mosul?
SNF: The first time I went there, I was so afraid. It can be difficult to encounter such serious wounds and injuries. But, actually, I came to enjoy it. You feel the patient is like a child — you need to take care of him in everything.
ONE: So was there a lot of violence? Did you treat war-related injuries?
SNF: A lot. I was especially surprised to see revenge attacks over events 30 years past.
It was upsetting. We were living in peace. But our desires, and the assurance of the government that we had safety, were not enough. We still did what we had to do in our habits, but eventually, when I went to the hospital I would change my clothes.
ONE: Because you didn’t want people to know you were Christian?
SNF: Because we were afraid, just afraid. We didn’t know what was going to happen to us, especially because of the kind of violence — Muslim-Christian, Sunni-Shiite.
ONE: What is the situation like there, now? Has it gotten better for the Christians in Mosul?
SNF: I don’t think so; it’s getting worse. I don’t see many Christians — from Iraq, I mean — here. It’s just not safe. There are no jobs. Even if you have job, you cannot go and come back to your home, because of the situation.
ONE: So it’s not safe in general?
SNF: For everyone, not just for Christians. Muslims, too, are not safe. When a bomb goes off, the result is the same for all — Muslim, Christian, Sunni, Shiite, whatever.
In 2004, they moved us to the north of Iraq, where things were safer. I went to an area called Tilkef. My mission there was to take care of the elderly sisters — feeding them, bathing them.
ONE: And then after that you went to America?
SNF: Yes, I went to America, but I decided to return. Here, I’m studying for my bachelor’s degree in nursing.
ONE: What’s the most difficult thing about this kind of work?
SNF: When patients ask you to help them in certain things, and you cannot do it. Sometimes they have no money, but they need expensive medicine. We cannot always help them — this is the most difficult thing — or when the doctors tell an expectant mother to take a certain test, and she has no money to do it. It is so painful.
ONE: And what is the best part of a day? What gives you the most satisfaction?
SNF: The best thing? When you see a smile on a patient’s face — when she tells you, “I feel I’m at home here.” You know? So important! Or when women from far away come here, just to receive a shot, or something simple. I will ask them: “Why should you come here? Don’t you have a clinic there?” And they will say: “No, no. Here, I feel relaxed, I feel peaceful.” That is so important for us.
ONE: And you treat people of all different faiths?
SNF: We don’t ask them. Our mission here is for everyone. If you go to a hospital, sometimes they will include “religion” in your file. We don’t have that kind of stuff here — just the name and the age and what we need to know.
ONE: What do you think people in America should know about the situation here?
SNF: I was in America and I know, as a people, they are very kind and sensitive to others. But maybe they need to know we have different cultures. Different thinking, we can say. We are here, living with different faiths, like Muslim, Christian, whatever. But we are here as one family.
ONE: If you could say something to people in America about the situation of refugees, what would you say to them?
SNF: It is a difficult question. I have something in my heart, but I don’t know how to say it, even in Arabic.
[Sister Nahla pauses, then adds:] Let us live in peace, please. Let us live in peace, because we need it.
ONE: In such difficult times, where do you feel the will of God in what is happening around you?
SNF: If God closes one door, he will open another. I know everything is bad around us right now, but sometimes you will recognize it — like when you see a child smiling or when you meet a mother who is living in poverty, but has a great sense humor, or when that mother prays.
I know the situation around us is not easy, but God is always helping us in other ways.