Sr Rajaa, Dominican sister in Iraq shares with us her community’s present situation
We want to share our daily struggle with you, hoping that our cry will reach the world. Thanks for your invitation.
The aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been hard for many, particularly for Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities. Iraq’s Christian population declined from about 1.4 million people to only 400,000. The rapid expansion of the Islamic State group in 2014 only worsened their plight, as the group captured historic Christian towns and cities with large Christian populations such as Mosul, and imposed an extreme version of Islamic law.
Many Christians and Yazidis, together with a number of moderate Muslims, fled the ancient city of Mosul as Da’esh (ISIS) swept through the Nineveh Plain in early August 2014. A few days later the predominantly Christian villages of Qaraqosh and Bartola and about 15 villages were emptied of Christians in a matter of hours, as the ISIS forces marched towards these two predominantly Christian communities. With no time to prepare for their tragic exodus, the local people left taking with them only what they could gather in their arms, as they fled in cars or by foot towards the Kurdish region of Iraq.
We are now in the seventh month of displacement. As yet there is nothing promising at all. The Iraqi government has not done anything to regain the Christian towns back from the ISIS. Thanks to the Church of Iraq in Kurdistan, who opened their halls and centres to provide shelters. Yet, the number of refugees was so large that the Kurdish government had to face the stark reality and open their schools to provide additional shelter for refugees.
We hear a lot about world governments and organisations sending financial aid to Iraq, but the refugee gets the least –we do not know or understand why. People lost almost everything.
They do not have enough money in their pockets to survive the day. Christians became accustomed to investing their money in businesses, shops, fields, buildings etc, to build their communities. Leaving their towns meant leaving everything they had been working for all their lives. Yet, amidst losing everything, accepting their lost dignity, is the most difficult loss they may experience. Some have found shelter in tents, others in schools, still others in church halls and gardens. Children are living in unhealthy conditions; families have lost their privacy; women are exposed in these places; men have no jobs in a culture where a man is expected to support his families. Refusing to live without dignity, more and more people think of emigrating.
Whoever owns a car or gold, sells them to buy a plane ticket out of the country. Needless to say, the buyers in Kurdistan are taking advantage and do not take into consideration the devastation these refugees face. Our church leaders are doing their best to solve the issue. They have been meeting with political leaders, with the President of Iraq and Kurdistan, but initiatives and actions of these political leaders are really slow and modest. Actually, all political meetings have led to nothing. Until now, there has been no decision made about the current situation of the displaced minorities. For this reason, trust in the political leaders has diminished, if it exists at all.
Christians in Iraq are known for their faithfulness and peaceful way of living among others. They do not believe in violence or in war as a way to solve problems. Now, they feel that they are victims because other religious and political parties are dividing the country on the account of the innocent.
One of the bishops in Kurdistan told us that due to the violence and the absence of any substantial help from the Iraqi government, approximately1800 Christians are leaving Iraq each month. Some are resettling, at least temporarily, in surrounding countries (Lebanon and Jordan principally), while the others go to Europe, Australia or North America. It is often the more educated who flee. For many, this is the beginning of a life in exile, resigned to the possibility that they may never see their homeland again. Some Christians say that they must leave for the sake of their children. Those who stay are the poorest, although some Christians and moderate Muslims who have the means to leave have chosen to remain, committed to the difficult task of helping to build a new Iraq.
There are approximately 120,000 refugees in Ankawa (a Christian suburb of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan) who are now living in one-room cubicles (called caravans) about the size of a camper-trailer. In many shelters two caravans are joined by a common bathroom, while in other shelters there are only public bathrooms and showers. Many people are sick with colds and other ailments, due to the unusually cold winter this year and the precarious living situations. Some family trailers house 8-12 family members, and in one we were told that 26 people from a single extended family are living in a single caravan, an almost unbearable situation.
The psychological and mental toll on these refugees is worrisome, given that the future is so uncertain. The Yazidi refugees, many of whom are being cared for by Church aid agencies, suffer an added burden, of being considered by many of their neighbours as devil-worshippers. The Church has called on Muslim leaders to be more forthright in denouncing the use of religion as a pretext for violence. While some claim that Islam is a religion of peace, others say that it is a religion born in violence and that it will not stop until all ‘unbelievers’ are converted or destroyed. Moderate Muslims, however, have bravely stood alongside their Christian and Yazidi neighbours, sharing in their struggles and offering aid to the refugees.
We were often told that in Arabic there are two words for hope. ‘Amal’ is the everyday optimism that things will go well. ‘Raja’ is a deeper hope, based on our trust in someone, above all God. Most of these Christians have lost all ‘amal.’ They see no future at all except sad exile in foreign lands. A bishop told us that even the babies in the womb were longing to go. But there are signs of that deeper hope, ‘raja’, even if it is not clear how it may come to fruition. Staying in Iraq is already a sign of hope.
We all wonder, is there any end in sight? We appreciate all efforts that have been made to provide aid to the displaced people. However, please note, that providing food and shelter is not the only essential thing we need. Our case is much bigger. We are speaking about two minorities (Christian and Yezedians), who lost their land, their homes, their belongings, their jobs, their money, some have been separated from their families and loved ones, and all are persecuted because of their religion.
It is hard to believe that this is happening in the 21st century. We wonder what is exactly happening. Is it another plan or agreement to subdivide Iraq? If this is true, by whom and why? Why are the events of dividing the Middle East, which happened in 1915, being repeated now? At that time it was a political issue and innocent people paid for it. It is apparent that there are sinful, cunning people dividing Iraq now. In 1915, we lost seven of our sisters, many Christians died, and more were scattered. Is it just circumstance we face this division again, or is it deliberate?
As for our community, we know that our convent in Tel Kaif is being used as an IS headquarter. Also, we know that they had entered our convent in Karakosh. Those that recently arrived have stated that all the holy pictures, icons, and statutes are being destroyed. Crosses have been taken off the top of churches and they have been replaced with the IS flags. Sr. Maria Hanna, an Iraqi Dominican Sister of St Catherine of Siena has been named one of the Outstanding Catholic Leaders of the Year 2014. This is in recognition of her role in saving many Iraqi Christians and minorities during the darkest days of the ISIS invasion of Iraq.
Despite the crisis, fear, loss, miserable accommodations, daily worries, and the terrible reality of the unknown destiny that awaits us, we still witness the presence of God’s embrace; truly an oasis of joy and sisterhood. Most of our sisters are still working at the camps everyday (8:30-1:00 and 17:00-20:00). They offer their services and solidarity, attend to the social, medical, and spiritual needs of the people and pray with them. Our sisters realise that women and children need special care in times like these, so they pay attention to them in a particular way. Their needs are simply overwhelming. The heroism of aid workers, volunteer doctors, nurses and pharmacists, priests and sisters, many of whom are refugees themselves, is incredibly moving in such circumstances.
There have been some initiatives to deal with housing problems, and as the school year starts, some houses and flats have been offered to the displaced people who had been staying in tents and at various schools. One school where 300 families were placed has been evacuated, and two others now also, one with thirty-five families and another with seventy-five. Still the needs are great, winter is coming soon, and the number of displaced people remains very high.
Everyday, many families leave Iraq, without having a specific place to go, to countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to apply to the UN for immigration. Some have managed to travel directly to France. Of course, among these people are families of our sisters, a fact that causes additional pain as they see the members of their families scattered in different countries throughout the world.
In our convent in Ankawa/Erbil, the containers (temporary housings) are now set up, and on the 28th of September the sisters left the seminary and moved there. They are equipped to provide the sisters with a decent accommodation. Thus, we celebrated our being together for the first time since we left Karakosh on the 6th of August—praying and eating together. It is wonderful to be together, sharing at the end of the day our difficulties, our problems, and also the wonderful initiatives and activities that bring joy to the hearts of all the children and adults we encounter.
Additionally, sisters thought of the orphans and children who have special needs. So, they decided to repair and expand the other convent we have in Ankawa (very close to Al-Bishara convent) to accommodate ten girls. The work is in process, and hopefully girls will move soon to the house where they can live peacefully with two of our sisters taking care of them.
We have hope, this hope shines through in the Christian commitment to go on caring for others even when our own future is so uncertain.
We continue to thank you for your prayers and help. Your support is truly significant to us.
By Sr. Mary Rajaa OP who spoke at Leadership Conference 2015