December 5, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – Three Dominican women returned from a visit to Iraq with a greater awareness of the suffering that the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena of Iraq have endured as a result of their displacement by ISIS and their struggles since returning to their demolished communities on the Nineveh Plain.
The delegation of U.S. Dominicans – Adrian Dominican Sisters Rose Ann Schlitt, OP, and Nancy Jurecki, OP, and Dominican Laity member Gloria Escalona – spent 10 days in Iraq, November 15-24, 2018. They visited many sites, including the displacement camps where the Iraqi Dominican Sisters had lived and the Sisters’ former homes in the Nineveh Plain that had been demolished and abandoned by ISIS.
“The schedule was probably the most intense I have lived in recent years, mainly because [the Sisters] did everything with rapidity and intensity,” Sister Rose Ann said. The experience was also heart-wrenching for the U.S. Dominicans, who had a taste of the suffering that their Dominican Sisters from Iraq had endured – both in exile from their homes and in the ruins of the homes to which they returned. Sisters Luma Afreem Khuder, OP, and Nazik Khalid Matti, OP – who had studied in the United States and Europe, respectively – served as translators and guides.
The delegation first visited the scene of the displacement of the Iraqi Sisters and thousands of Christians and other minority groups who were forced to leave the Nineveh Plains or face death. The displaced community in Kurdistan had lived in whatever they could find, including thousands of pre-fabricated containers that served as housing. “You’d never believe that people could live in such tight quarters,” Sister Nancy said.
Living in exile themselves, the Dominican Sisters served the displaced community as well as possible, establishing schools and health clinics.
During their visit, the former camp was practically empty, Sister Rose Ann said. However, they visited the home of an older couple who opted to stay, afraid that their homeland was not yet secure. “There was no electricity and no water – ever,” Sister Rose Ann said. “A couple, probably friends from the Nineveh Plains, had brought them bottles of drinking water and tried to convince them to return home,” but they didn’t feel safe, she added.
Returning to their homeland also brought suffering and stress, Sister Rose Ann said. Although much of the Nineveh Plain had been liberated about a year ago, the delegation visited a village that had been closed until recently because of its near total destruction. “It was so filled with missiles and land mines that it wasn’t safe,” Sister Rose Ann said. “This was the experience of desolation.”
Iraqi Sisters, visiting this village for the first time, unexpectedly met up with the delegation. “We then witnessed the raw emotion of Sisters seeing their convent demolished for the first time,” Sister Rose Ann recalled. “Their shock was so deep.”
The delegation also toured the destruction wrought on schools and churches. In one school in Qaraqosh, “the metal was totally twisted and burned,” Sister Rose Ann said. “[ISIS] set fire to the walls. These were solid, concrete constructions. I don’t know what chemicals they would have used to set them on fire.”
The delegation also saw the toll that the displacement from their homes and the destruction of those homes took on the local community. During their visit to a kindergarten, one 4-year-old began to scream and hid under his desk when the visitors arrived. The experience in other classrooms was not as dramatic, but “you could see the fear,” Sister Rose Ann said. “Their whole lives had been turned around with the experience of the evacuation period when they were forced to leave. They’re going to take decades to get over this horror.”
Sister Nancy also sees sadness in the Iraqi community because so many families have been divided because of the war. Some family members may have fled to other countries, some have elected to stay in the area to which they had been displaced and others are returning to their former homes, she said. “They’re very family-oriented, and now the families have been ripped apart.”
But throughout their journey, the U.S. Dominican women also saw signs of hope and of resurrection through new ministries springing up and through the resilience of the people. Symbolic of the new life, perhaps, is the rebuilding of an altar that had been smashed by ISIS.
Sister Nancy was impressed by the attendance for the blessing of an orphanage and its altar by a bishop from the Syriac Rite. “Thirty to 40 nuns from all around came to the house to celebrate with the Sisters,” she said. “It was so inspiring to see how excited they were to share in that celebration.”
Another sign of resurrection was the rebuilding of a kindergarten for 551 children in only 40 days. “They cleaned up the place and scoured it,” Sister Nancy said, describing the quick rebuilding of the kindergarten as a “Phoenix arising from the ashes.” Sister Maria Hanna, OP, described it as resurrection. “There’s still so much more that needs to be done,” Sister Nancy added, “but there are islands of hope in terms of what has already be done” to reconstruct the communities.
In spite of the pain of discovering the destruction to their former community, Sister Nancy believes the Sisters are doing remarkably well. “Their life is just peppered with prayer,” she said. “They work hard, they pray hard, and still there’s a real sense of peace in terms of what they’re doing, because they know they’re doing the right thing.”
The community resettling in their former homeland is aware that their security is not guaranteed, Sister Rose Ann said. But a reflection by a local lawyer speaks of the hope of the people: “Sometimes we just have to trust and hope in order to be able to cope. We began and we go ahead. … I’m not convinced that [the expulsion] won’t happen again, but we have to do it. The faith of the people is so strong.”
The visit of the U.S. Dominican women also brought a message of solidarity and support to the Sisters in Iraq. “It was really a message of presence,” Sister Nancy said. “It was a matter of understanding that, as Americans, we know that our country did a lot of damage,” although the Sisters were not involved in that destruction. “We say we have family in Iraq,” Sister Nancy noted. “Now they know that they have family in the United States. … It’s been such a mutual exchange of the cultures coming together, the Iraqi people and the Americans – and to think, it took a war to bring us together!”
The U.S. Dominican delegation was grateful for their opportunity to visit their Sisters in Iraq and to see first-hand the reconstruction taking place. “My life and my spirituality can never be the same after having witnessed what I did,” Sister Nancy said. “It was truly a humbling experience.”
Feature photo (top): U.S. Dominican women who visited Iraq are, from left, Adrian Dominican Sisters Rose Ann Schlitt, OP, and Nancy Jurecki, OP, and Gloria Escalona, a member of the Dominican Laity.
November 2, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – Sisters Rose Ann Schlitt, OP, and Nancy Jurecki, OP, are members of a delegation from the U.S. Dominican family that will visit the Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena of Iraq in mid-November. Gloria Escalona, a member of a 2001 delegation and of the Dominican Laity of the St. Albert the Great Province, will round out the delegation.
The delegation was organized by the Iraq Coordinating Committee of the North American Dominican Justice Promoters, in partnership with the Dominican Sisters Conference, and is scheduled to leave on November 14.
The visit takes place more than four years since the Sisters, along with Christians and other religious minorities, fled from the Nineveh Plain on August 6 with the arrival of ISIS. Members of the Iraqi congregation returned to their hometown about a year ago to face much destruction and the challenges of rebuilding their homes and churches. A visit to Iraq that had been planned about a year ago was postponed because of the instability in Iraqi Kurdistan at the time.
“My hopes center upon our Sisters who have undergone immense trials and humiliations as they were violently uprooted from their homes, towns, and ministries by ISIS,” Sister Rose Ann said. “They lived as internal refugees in the Kurdistan region of the north for four years. Now, some have been able to return and literally try to pick up the pieces of their lives, convents, and ministries. They currently struggle at many different levels in their daily lives.”
Sister Rose Ann hopes to be Sister to them during their visit. “Although I am unable to fully understand the depth of their suffering and loss, I will try to be fully and lovingly present to them and to express our solidarity with them in their present and future challenges,” she said. Not knowing the Arabic language, Sister Rose Ann hopes to be able to communicate “through words and gestures, with the help of translation from some of the Iraqi Sisters” who are fluent in English. She is also conscious of the “mix of emotions our presence will surely stir in some, given our country’s role in the current upheaval they are experiencing.”
Sister Nancy, Chief Mission Officer for Providence Health and Services, share Sister Rose Ann’s concerns about the involvement of the U.S. in the war in Iraq. She volunteered to be part of the original delegation because of her deep, personal connections to the people of Iraq. During Desert Storm, she was influenced by a parishioner’s faithful intercessions during daily Mass for the people of Iraq “whose lives and/or quality of life was being taken from them due to the war,” by her nephew’s service during the second war, and by her personal relationship with a Sister from the congregation of St. Catherine of Iraq, with whom she lived.
Sister Nancy also struggles with her inability to understand fully the depths of the suffering of the Iraqi people, but she hopes to listen to their stories and be present to them. “Now, as much as ever, I desire to hear the stories and share the pain of remnant Christian families who are replanting their lives in the land where the Bible began,” she said. “In a sense, I will be fulfilling a desire and bearing witness to a unity that guns cannot destroy.”
Feature photo: Sisters Nancy Jurecki, OP, left, and Rose Ann Schlitt, right.