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October 23, 2017, Springfield, Illinois – Three U.S. Dominican women recently cancelled plans for a mid-October visit to Iraq. They now watch with concern as events unfold in the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk, where on October 16, Iraqi government forces seized oil fields and a military base in response to the Kurdish region’s vote for independence last month.

“We knew the moment the referendum passed that traveling to Iraqi would be difficult, if not impossible,” said Sister Rose Ann Schlitt, OP, a Dominican Sister of Adrian, Michigan, whose congregation has long-standing ties to the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine Siena in Iraq. “Now we watch once again with dismay as we pray and hope this recent military action will not bring more violence and death to the people of Iraq.”

Sister Rose Ann was to travel to Iraq Oct. 11-18 with Dominican Sister Catherine Waters (Caldwell, New Jersey) and Gloria Escalona, a lay Dominican woman from Oakland, California. The decision to postpone the trip was made by the Iraq Coordinating Committee (ICC) after hearing from the Sisters in Iraq that it was not feasible to travel to or within the country at this time. The ICC is a committee of the North American Dominican Justice Promoters.

ICC members have learned from Dominicans in the volatile region that even amid disruption and uncertainty they continue to carry out their ministries and manage to find hope.

Sister Luma Khudher, OP, council member for the Iraq congregation, said the Dominican Sisters in Kirkuk were safe going about their ministry and study. Though community leadership asked them to return to Erbil after Iraqi government forces moved into the area, they decided to remain in the city because traveling through the crowded checkpoints could be dangerous. 

Sisters in other parts of the country also continue their ministries in the aftermath of a three-year displacement and occupation by ISIS. Until this week it was uncertain what would become of the Sisters’ school in the Erbil suburb of Ankawa for children displaced by ISIS. They’ve received word from the Kurdish government that they will be allowed to reopen as long as they do not accept any new students or start a new first grade. 

A handful of sisters have returned to the village of Qaraqosh and are preparing school for the children whose families have returned there. Other sisters intend to return to other villages and resume their ministries as they are able.

The Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk, Dominican Friar Yousif Thomas Mirkis, also communicated with the U.S. Dominicans about his relief that the situation in his city remained calm. “After the Mass, I asked the people in the church to pray, that God help us to avoid any kind of bloodshed,” he said, adding that he feels they avoided what could have been a much worse situation. “Now we have less anxiety and we look forward with hope.”

As a reminder that the effects of ISIS’ incursion into Iraq in 2014 are long-lasting and systemic, he said, “We are trying to do our best to heal the wounds, helping the victims: children, women, old persons, feeding the IDP’s [internally displaced persons]” in Hawija, a village 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk.

“You can say to our Dominican family in the U.S., I count on their prayers,” he wrote in an email to the ICC.

Dominicans in the United States are determined to keep their fellow citizens aware of what is happening to their family in Iraq. “While there will be no physical presence of U.S. Dominicans in Iraq for the time being, we are still committed to our solidarity with our Iraqi sisters and brothers and the people of all faiths they serve,” said Sister Marcelline Koch, OP, (Springfield) North American Co-promoter of Justice for the U.S. Dominicans. 

News about the delegation can be followed at facebook.com/WeHaveFamilyInIraq2017 and on the Dominican Sisters Conference website: http://dominicansistersconference.org.

Those who would like to support the Dominicans in Iraq may donate to the Sisters at the Springfield Dominican donation page, springfieldop.org/donate, and at www.adriandominicans.org. In addition, a donation of $100 on the website http://www.1000cranesforiraq.org/ helps to fund the ministries of the Dominican Sisters at their refugee camp, and entitles the donor to a gift of a colorful 6x6-inch painting of an origami crane, created by Sister Barbara Cervenka, OP. 

The canceled delegation was to have been the fifth sponsored by U.S. Dominicans. There have been other visits to Iraq by individual Dominican women and men from the U.S. in the 18 years since the first delegation in 1999.

The bond between members of the Order of Preachers in the U.S. and Iraq began when Sister Margaret Galiardi, OP (Amityville), heard a report about the impact of draconian UN sanctions imposed on Iraq before the First Gulf War in 1990. “One of the sisters told [then-Master of the Order] Timothy Radcliff, ‘Sanctions make us feel that we have been forgotten even by God,’” Sister Margaret recalled. “It was Christmas, the time to celebrate the ‘the Word-made-flesh’ in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.” Sister Margaret remembers coming to the realization “We have to go there in the flesh and by our presence say ‘God does not forget anyone.’”

Sister Catherine and Gloria were members of a previous delegation to Iraq in 2001. Sister Rose Anne lived with one of the members of the Iraqi sisters during a period of ministry in Rome. 

The Dominican Justice Promoters represent the Sisters, Friars, and laity of the Dominican Family in the U.S. The DSC represents 6,000 Catholic Sisters and their associates across the United States. Funds for the delegation have been contributed by Dominican Sisters, Friars, and Laity throughout the U.S.


Feature photo: Representatives of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Kirkuk distribute aid to displaced families earlier in October in Hawija. The center for internally displaced families is 30 miles southwest of the diocesan center where Dominican Friar Yousif Thomas Mirkis is the archbishop. | Photo credit: Msgr. Yousif Thomas Mirkis, OP, Chaldean Archbishopric of Kirkuk, Iraq.

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September 28, 2017, Ann Arbor, Michigan – Sister Barbara Cervenka, OP, completed an artistic journey of accompaniment September 24 when she finished painting her 1,000th image of an origami crane. 

But the accompaniment of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena of Iraq continues for Sister Barbara and for the Dominican Family. The Iraqi Sisters continue to live as internally displaced refugees with tens of thousands of other residents who fled their homes in the Nineveh Plains in August 2014 after the arrival of ISIS. Donations to Sister Barbara Cervenka’s 1,000 Cranes for Iraq Project help to fund the Iraqi Sisters’ ministry within the refugee community. 

An artist, Sister Barbara made a New Year’s Resolution in January 2015 to paint every day. It was the plight of the Dominican Sisters and the other refugees that gave direction to her resolution. 

“I thought keeping that resolution would be easier if I painted some small things,” Sister Barbara explained.  “One day I picked up an origami crane and painted that. When I did the second, I remembered the [legend of the] thousand cranes. I had been thinking about the situation in Iraq and wondering what I could do for it when the idea came to me.”

The Japanese tradition of folding 1,000 origami cranes for peace and health was popularized after World War II. Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who had been exposed to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima at the age of 2, contracted leukemia 10 years later. She began the process of folding 1,000 cranes for her recovery and for world peace, but lost her battle with cancer. Since then, the tradition of 1,000 cranes has been associated with efforts for world peace.

Sister Barbara’s 1,000 Cranes for Iraq Project gives people their choice of a crane painting for a donation of $100. Since its launch in August 2015, the project has raised more than $40,000 to help the Dominican Sisters with their ministry to the refugees.

The project has shaped Sister Barbara’s daily life since January 15, 2015, when the first crane was painted. Since then, Sister Barbara has gone into the basement of her home after dinner every day to paint a crane. She has also taken the project with her on vacation and during other times of travel. “It’s a discipline, but it’s also a pleasure,” Sister Barbara said.

Her involvement in the project “has made me much more conscious of the situation of people all over the world who have been displaced,” she said. “I’m much more in tune to the news and more aware of the people who have been displaced by hurricanes and other disasters.”

Sister Barbara said the project has also helped to build a community of people who are concerned about the plight of the Iraqi refugees and other suffering people. Sisters Suzanne Schreiber, OP, and Janet Wright, OP – also Adrian Dominican artists – have participated in the project. Sister Suzanne photographed live cranes as well as people with the origami cranes, and Sister Janet has painted living cranes. Their artwork is also available to purchase from the 1,000 Cranes for Iraq Project.

Part of the challenge has been to paint 1,000 distinctive cranes, using the same origami crane model but with different still life settings and lighting each time, Sister Barbara said. “Every day I just go down and paint. There’s certainly a lot of repetition and continuity, but every day I’m a little different,” she said, explaining that that fact leads her paintings to be slightly different from one day to the next. 

Sister Barbara Cervenka, OP, with the 1,000th crane, completed on September 24. She began her 1,000 Cranes for Iraq Project in January 2015 to support the work of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Iraq, who fled their home from ISIS in August 2014.

Sister Barbara is gratified by the number of people who have made donations of $100 to help the refugees. “It’s not because they want a painting of a crane, but because they really are aware, too, of the terrible situation that so many people are facing,” she said. “That’s creating a little community of awareness.” 

But Sister Barbara admits that the almost three-year journey hasn’t always been easy. “The challenge was just the sheer number,” she said. “I never realized how much 1,000 is until I got into the middle and realized how many more cranes I had to paint.” But, with the interest and encouragement of others, she was able to keep up with the discipline. “That’s why I feel it was more like a community project than just mine,” she said. Being part of this effort has been a privilege, she added.

Many of the crane paintings are still available for selection and adoption with a donation to the 1,000 Cranes for Iraq project. Framing is available for an additional $35. The entire collection can be viewed at www.1000cranesforiraq.org/donate.

An exhibit of available cranes will be featured at the Klemm Gallery of Siena Heights University from Monday, October 9, 2017, through Friday, November 3, 2017. Gallery hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4:00 p.m. Sunday. A reception with Sister Barbara at the Klemm Gallery is from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Friday, October 13, 2017. 

In the meantime, Sister Barbara helps to keep up the good habit she developed of painting every day. “I don’t know what I’ll do next, but I’d like to keep painting,” she said. “This has motivated me to go down into the studio every day. I’d like to keep up that momentum.”  




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