June 13, 2019, Adrian, Michigan – The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, in Iraq, have returned to their community on the Nineveh Plain after years of internal displacement in Northern Iraq – and are now ministering to people there. But, as they rebuild their lives they depend on prayers from the Dominican family.
That was the message that Sister Clara Nas, OP, Prioress of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, brought to Sisters in the Adrian Dominican Congregation during a recent presentation in Adrian.
Sister Clara was in Adrian during her first trip to the United States to visit Sister Raghad Saeed, OP, in Adrian for the summer during a break from her doctoral studies in nano- technology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Sister Raghad translated Sister Clara’s talk.
The Sisters – and thousands of other Christians and religious minorities – were forced out of their homes on the Nineveh Plain in 2014 when ISIS arrived. While living in northern Iraq, the Sisters ministered in the refugee community by establishing schools and clinics, and providing spiritual support and presence.
Sister Clara said she met with the General Council of her community many times to plan their return home, after it was liberated from ISIS. “It was difficult to make the decision because of the unstable condition in Nineveh,” she said. Ultimately, they decided to return to Qaraqosh and other cities in the area, where most of the Christians were returning.
“Through all things, we are women of faith and hope, so the Sisters continue to accompany our Christian people in this area, to serve the people spiritually and morally, to live close to them and live with them in solidarity,” Sister Clara said.
They found their homes, convents, and churches destroyed or severely damaged and are rebuilding their lives. “We needed to work, fix, and repair what ISIS destroyed and burned,” Sister Clara said. The rebuilding is taking place with the help of Christian humanitarian organizations and the Dominican family in the United States and Europe.
Because their convent was destroyed, the Sisters moved into a small house in the Kurdistan area and other small convents in the areas where they minister. Among other ministries, the Sisters opened a kindergarten in Erbil and a primary school in Ankara. They continue to minister in Baghdad – both in a hospital and in a school with an enrollment of 560 Christian and Muslim students.
To answer a question about what U.S. citizens should do in light of a possible war with Iran, Sister Clara asked that they write to government officials, encouraging them not to bomb Iran. Iraq would be in the middle of such a war. “We need a simple thing – to live in peace,” Sister Clara said. “Just leave us to live in peace and that is all that we need. We can help each other and we can build again, but we need a safe area – not a war zone.”
Sister Clara also asked the U.S. Dominican family and the people of the United States to pray for them. “Please continue to pray for us because we need that, and we are so grateful for your help, for your support, for your solidarity with us.”
As a tangible sign of their gratitude, Sister Clara presented the Adrian Dominican Sisters with an altar cloth, hand-sewn and embroidered by the Dominican Sisters from Iraq. The altar cloth was placed on the altar in St. Catherine Chapel for the Feast of Pentecost on Sunday, June 9, 2019.
Watch the entire video of Sister Clara’s presentation below.
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.