Sally, Sister Laetetia Hanna, Rita, Mariam, Thikra and Sister Muntaha Marzena make up the happy family at Holy Family Orphanage in Ain Kawa, Erbil. (photo: Don Duncan)
To look at them buzzing around the house and getting tasks done, Sally, 20, Rita, 16, Mariam, 13, and Thikra, 10, look like any family of four girls. They tease each other, support each other and accompany their chores with giggles and jokes. Up close, as they wash dishes and fold laundry in the kitchen, this could be any regular domestic scene. But as you pull back and take in the details, it becomes clear this is anything but a regular family.
For starters, instead of the traditional parents, two Dominican Sisters of St. Catherin of Siena, Sister Letitia Hanna and Sister Muntaha Marzena, run the house. What is more, all of the girls have different family names and different appearances.
As residents in the Holy Family Orphanage in Erbil, these girls are family only by circumstance; they are all in the sisters’ care because they have either lost one or both parents, or come from separated families.
The other thing these girls have in common, and something they have in common with thousands of other Christians scattered across Erbil today, is that they are homeless, displaced by ISIS last summer. As a result, the sisters consider these girls doubly-displaced. And so, in this small house in the Christian neighborhood of Ain Kawa, the sisters are trying to recreate a sense of home to replace the ones these girls have lost — twice.
“One of the reasons that we are here — and what we really need — is the love that the sisters give us,’ says Sally, the eldest of the girls.
Her father had passed away and her mother lives far away, by the Turkish border. When Sally was accepted to medical school in Mosul, the family needed help to support their daughter.
When ISIS took Mosul last summer, Sally had to flee and transfer to medical school in Erbil. As a young woman displaced and lacking family support in Erbil, she was particularly vulnerable, so the sisters took her in to the orphanage.
Sally is currently working to complete her second year of medical school. When not in class or studying, she fulfills the role of surrogate mother to the other three, younger girls.
“Sometimes we get frustrated with Thikra because she won’t focus properly on her homework,” says Sister Laetitia, grinning at Thikra, the youngest. “So then Sally swoops in and takes over the tutoring and it works out just fine.”
In this house, the children help and support each other in various ways, all under the nurturing protection of the sisters’ pastoral and parental care.
Prior to the displacement, the sisters ran an orphanage in Qaraqosh, the major Christian town of the Nineveh Plain. But once they had to flee and leave everything behind, all basic social services disappeared and people found themselves in a harsh and unforgiving survival mode, a sort of law of the jungle. This abrupt shift left the girls without a home, exposed and vulnerable.
“Their situation was very difficult,” says Sister Letitia. “One of them was literally living in a garden. Others were living in very tough situations with distant relatives who were not taking care of them properly.”
By November, the sisters, with the help of CNEWA and other organizations, managed to open the Holy Family Orphanage.
Some children live here full time; others are from homes of limited means, staying temporarily to take pressure off the family. Regardless of their circumstances, all agree that the orphanage is a steady refuge in what has been a very stressful and unstable displacement.
“Displacement would have affected these girls very badly,” says Sister Muntaha. “They could have made so many mistakes they would have regretted their whole lives. We think that having them here is very safe for them.”
As Sister Muntaha speaks, Rita nods in agreement. She adds that she is sometimes shocked by other girls in school, many of whom have both parents, but who live in difficult home environments, in temporary camps with sanitary problems and almost complete unemployment. Rita has seen their manners and behavior steadily worsen since the displacement.
“They cheat on exams. They use curse words and are sometimes very aggressive to the teachers,” says Rita of some of the behavior patterns that the sisters see as direct products of displacement trauma.
“It is also because the parents are not taking the usual good care of their children, because they too are in survival mode,” adds Rita. “If some of those girls could only come and live here with us, that’d be perfect for them.”
Doubtless, the need for protection and support for all children is very high across the displaced population. The situation is still dire for all the displaced Christians of northern Iraq. But, little by little and brick by brick, with the steady restoration of support services like the Holy Family Orphanage, a sense of stability and normality is being created for the population, easing their painful wait to one day return home.