Profile of an Iraqi Nun

ZAKAR, Jordan (CNS) — This year marks Sister Habiba Touma’s golden anniversary as a Dominican Sister of St. Catherine of Siena, but there will be no grand celebration anytime soon.

Sister Habiba was returning to her native Iraq to take a leadership post with her motherhouse, which accepts women from all Catholic rites. Given the political instability and Muslim-led insurgency in northern Iraq, she said it was best to keep a low profile.

But before leaving, she spent part of her last morning at the Mother of Mercy Clinic in Zakar giving Catholic journalists a tour of the clinic’s activities, plying them with sweets and strong coffee afterward.

Sister Habiba is one of those people who truly does not look her age. When she shared that she was celebrating her 50th anniversary in religious life, one reporter jokingly suggested that she must have entered the convent at the age of … 9?

Her face already heavily wrinkled, Sister Habiba furrowed her brow further, did some silent counting, and said the guess was wrong. “I was 10 when I joined,” she said.

She’d rather deflect the attention being paid to her to focus on the plight of her patients.

“These people know nothing else” than the refugee camps established after the 1948 war that established Israeli control over the Palestinian territories, confining hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to refugee camps.

“The (Jordanian) government is to push to give them ingress, to give them health,” Sister Habiba said, “but the elders don’t want infrastructure.”

Sister Habiba added: “Sixty percent of Jordanians are of Palestinian origins. You can say they are second-class citizens.”

When she was assigned to Zakar in 2000 to take over the administration of the clinic from another religious order that had founded it in 1982, Sister Habiba had little medical training.

But she found one female doctor to augment the work of a male physician who had been with the clinic since its beginning. She also has arranged for a third doctor to join the staff.

“Every day we can’t take all the cases,” because they do not have enough doctors, she said.

Sister Habiba had a somewhat comfortable life and ministry in Jordan, but she is willing to risk all of that by returning to Iraq.

“I am ready to go,” she said.

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