Two years ago this week, the world was beginning to grasp the full extent of the horror unfolding in Iraq.
On 3 August 2014, the Sinjar Massacre had taken place in northern Iraq, killing thousands of Yazidis as ISIS began to storm the region.
On 6 August, members of ISIS swarmed through large swaths of the Nineveh Plain, and Christians began literally running for their lives. As we reported in the pages of our magazine:
The sixth day of August promises to be a date that will be seared into the Iraqi Christian psyche for quite some time: That is the day Iraqi Christendom finally — and maybe definitively — succumbed to extremists and much of the population was sent fleeing.
The exodus was rapid and frantic, beginning in the evening of 6 August. Families recount how they had 15 minutes to half an hour to grab what they could and leave, ahead of the rapid arrival of ISIS. The roads were choked with families in cars and on foot — Chaldean and Syriac Catholics, Copts and Armenians, but also Yazidis and Shiite Muslims from all over Nineveh — all fleeing the particular brand of ISIS fundamentalism. They headed east, to Iraqi Kurdistan and the protection of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces there. By the next morning, the heartland of Christian Iraq was firmly in the hands of ISIS.
“My father sold his own mother’s gold and took a loan from the government so he could build our house, and then everything was gone in 15 minutes,” says Wissam Abdul Hadi. “He worked for years and lost everything in a few minutes.”
The sense of loss and the incomprehension of the sudden, new reality are common to many of the displaced families. Beyond the shared narrative of expulsion, the personal stories issuing from the camps, church grounds and repurposed schools and social centers housing displaced Christians are varied and many.
On 8 August, the US-led airstrikes began.
As the months that followed stretched into years, CNEWA responded — and through the selfless generosity of our donors, we have been able to provide some sense of security and hope to so many whose lives and destinies seemed hopeless. Some 120,000 Christians were displaced, scattered from towns and villages across the Nineveh Plain and forced to start over in distant cities and refugee camps, often with only the clothes on their backs.
Last summer, journalist Don Duncan described the way life had changed for the displaced — but also noted what dedication, charity and compassion had been able to achieve:
The unfinished building across from St. Joseph’s Church in Ain Kawa, once the scene of despair and misery, now lies empty, its walls newly plastered. The formerly congested grounds of the church can breathe again. The public schools that housed two to three families to a room now ring with the sound of children learning once again. On the surface, it is almost as if all the suffering never took place.
Families have been moved from emergency tent dwellings into rented houses and container housing elsewhere in Erbil — many in the Kasnazan neighborhood at the edge of the city. And although their situation has improved over the past eight months, they are still displaced, largely jobless and uncertain what the future holds.
Throughout this trauma, a backbone of support for the displaced Christians has been the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, some 73 of whom were also exiled from their convents across the plain. Led by Sister Maria Hanna, mother superior, the community initially administered to the displaced from their convent in Ain Kawa. As families were moved from Ain Kawa to Kasnazan, it became clear a second, satellite convent was required.
“We want to be with the people — to serve the people in the moment,” says Sister Maria. “If they move someplace else, we move with them.”
This past spring, CNEWA’s chair, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, made a pastoral visit to the region, and he told an interviewer it left an indelible impression:
What I saw was this blend of terrible sadness, and yet amazing charity and hope. Sadness, because these people who had come from Mosul or the plains of Nineveh — their families go back centuries and centuries, some to the time of St. Thomas the Apostle — had to abandon their homes in a couple of hours’ notice and couldn’t bring anything. They brought their children, obviously, and they brought their elders. The priests and nuns accompanied them on the [10-hour] walk, and they made it safely there. All these people want to do is go back home.
What’s hopeful is that they still have an extraordinarily vivid faith — their resilience is nothing less than profound. What’s moving as well is the remarkable charity and hospitality with which the Christians of Kurdistan have welcomed them.
While this story has dropped off the front pages, the plight of suffering Christians in Iraq cannot be forgotten. The crisis continues. The video report below, from Rome Reports, tells part of the story:
As the Iraqi people work to rebuild their lives, CNEWA continues to accompany them with the sense of mission, and sense of hope, that have defined us for 90 years. The displaced people of Iraq are always in our prayers. We know they are praying, too, for so many of the selfless, largely anonymous men and women — our donors — who have helped to sustain them over the last two years.
Please remember the people of Iraq in a special way during this time. Every gift, and every prayer, makes a difference. Thank you!