Under the guidance of Sister Diana Momeka, the Martha Schmouny Clinic in Erbil has grown from an overwhelmed, improvised clinic to a complex of facilities resembling a basic hospital. (photo: Don Duncan)
The expulsion of Iraqi Christians from their homes across the Nineveh Plain last August turned upside down the worlds of tens of thousands of people.
Dominican Sister Diana Momeka and Syriac Catholic Father Behnam Benoka, both of whom have earned doctorates, found themselves in lines of work they had never imagined — starting and managing crucial health services for the displaced population in its new city of refuge: Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.
Just as the lives of Sister Diana and Father Benoka took a radical turn, so, too, did those of the displaced Christians whom they serve. All had to flee home abruptly, arriving in Erbil with no money, medicine or shelter. Soon, diseases related to the squalor in which they found themselves began to crop up and spread.
“People came with fever, dehydration, diarrhea,” says Sister Diana. “They were sleeping on the ground with no tents in the beginning. After some days they got tents, but there was no clean water, and so no proper bathing. Diseases like scabies started to increase.” It became clear some sort of health service was essential, and thus was the Martha Schmouny Clinic born — first in tents donated by French charity SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, and later transformed into a cluster of three prefabricated containers donated by CNEWA.
As time has passed, and the reality of the Christians’ displacement has become more and more entrenched, the Martha Schmouny Clinic has continued to grow, its capacity and range of services expanding to provide a better safety net for the vulnerable community.
“We often talk about the role of the Holy Spirit in our work,” Sister Diana said as she made her way to the clinic early one recent morning. “We started the clinic like a small grain of yeast and now it has steadily increased like dough.”
In the past seven months, Martha Schmouny — through the dedication of its volunteer staff and the generosity of its donors, which include CNEWA and its funding partners in Europe, especially Misereor, as well as Samaritan’s Purse and the Mennonite Central Committee — has managed to expand from being an overwhelmed, improvised clinic to a solid complex of facilities resembling a basic hospital. In December, the clinic moved from the grounds of St. Joseph’s Church in the Christian district of Ain Kawa to Ashti, a part of town to which displaced Christians were being relocated.
On a recent morning, Sister Diana walked through Martha Schmouny, greeting volunteer workers and patients alike. By around 9, a steady line had taken shape at the registration cabin, a unit that sits in the middle of a courtyard formed by other prefabricated units. From the registration cabin, patients are dispatched to the appropriate health departments, which are housed in the surrounding units. Services at Martha Schmouny Clinic now include general medicine, gynecology, pediatrics, dental care and lab testing.
In one cabin, a woman reclines as a doctor applies gel to her protruding belly in preparation for an ultrasound scan. In another, a young man opens his mouth wide in anticipation of a filling. Children clamor around the pediatrician’s cabin, awaiting their turn.
Once treated and issued with a prescription, patients finally file to a cabin housing the pharmacy to collect their medication. The entire process, from registration to medicine distribution to follow-up is free of charge for the displaced community and the cost is entirely shouldered by the associations supporting the clinic.
All around the clinic are rows and rows of prefabricated housing units. These “new camps” are where the Iraqi Christians were moved from the tents they had lived in during the initial displacement. With each passing day, new families arrive, upgraded from more destitute accommodation elsewhere in Erbil. In the past few weeks, some 600 families arrived, more than doubling the displaced population in Ashti.
The result for the clinic, which serves some 220 people a day with a volunteer staff of 40, is a sharp growth in demand for its services. The current operational budget works out at about $40,000 per month, but this is not enough to keep up with the rapid growth of camps around the clinic.
“Sometimes I panic,” says Sister Diana, “I feel so stressed and I think, ‘How are we going to continue?’ And yet, when I check my emails, I see an organization or a friend has written to me saying, ‘I would like to donate,’ or ‘How can I help?’ This is a miracle.”