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December 29, 2021, Washington, D.C. – Many people would be excited at the opportunity to tour the White House at Christmas time. For Sister Raghad Saeed Saqat, OP, a Sister of the Dominican Congregation of St. Catherine of Siena from Iraq, it was a moving and thought-provoking experience.

Sister Raghad – a doctoral student studying physics at Catholic University of America – was invited to accompany Sister Donna Markham, OP, President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, to a Christmas party at the White House. Because of the pandemic, the party was a tour of special rooms in the White House decorated for Christmas.

“They decorated everything,” Sister Raghad explained. “There were different kinds of trees and beautiful decorations. … It was pretty amazing to see all the decorations of Christmas and all the colors,” with each room honoring something different, from nature to the military. 

Sister Raghad said she was also moved by the parting gift of a White House Christmas ornament. “This is a good sign for the new year,” she said. “It will carry something from the White House to Iraq. It’s an instrument of peace.”

Sisters Raghad and Donna stand outside of the White House
Sisters Raghad Saeed Saqat, OP, left, and Donna Markham, OP, stand in front of the White House before attending the Christmas festivities.

The experience at the White House brought mixed feelings to Sister Raghad. When Sister Donna invited her to accompany her to the White House, she said, she was worried. “I didn’t think they’d accept me as an Iraqi,” but she was cleared after her documents were checked.

At a deeper level, Sister Raghad said, the visit to the White House reminded her of her own country, which had been decimated years ago by the 2003 U.S. invasion. It was in the White House, she noted, that the decision had been made to attack her country.

The relationship between the two countries was also an issue for Sister Raghad when, in 2018, she came to the United States – first to study English and then to begin her doctoral studies in nano physics. She finished her academic studies and passed her comprehensive exam, and is working on research and writing her dissertation.

“The challenge when I came here was how I can be in a country that destroyed my country,” Sister Raghad said. “Sometimes I got to a point where I don’t want to stay here, especially at the beginning. You feel you have to be with your people.”

The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Iraq have faced numerous challenges in recent years. In August 2014, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena were forced to evacuate their convents on the Nineveh Plain with the coming of ISIS. The Sisters – along with tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities – were displaced for years in northern Iraq. In recent years, the Sisters and other local residents returned to their former homes, which in many cases had been destroyed by ISIS.

Sister Raghad said she had originally planned to study at a university in England, but the documents she needed were destroyed by ISIS. “We lost our convent, our books, even our documents – everything – but God was there walking with us, walking in our journey,” she said. “We need faith for sure, and hope that things will be better.”

Since coming to the United States, Sister Raghad has faced her fair share of challenges – as the only Iraqi student and as a doctoral student studying in a second language. “I am the only Iraqi student, and I am a Sister,” she said. “There is a mission here – not just to be studying here, but to show who the Sisters are, especially from a different country.”

Sister Raghad said her fellow students have shown a great interest in her life and in the situation of Iraq. “It’s very interesting how the people want to hear from me, and they are very respectful to hear me tell my story. They are wonderful people and they want to help me. Before I thought about what the U.S. did to Iraq, but the people [here] are amazing, how they try to help.”

Since coming to know people in the United States, Sister Raghad has served as a bridge between the people of the two nations. She tells Americans, “We are not all ISIS. There are really good people in Iraq. Do not look at us as terrorists. We are really kind people, generous people.” 

On the other hand, Sister Raghad tells the people of Iraq that, although America is a powerful country, the people of the United States are kind and want to help. “They don’t want to make people suffer,” she said. “They feel our pain.”

Sister Raghad hopes to continue this ministry of good will when, after she completes her doctorate, she returns to teach at the University of Mosul. “I will be teaching Muslims and all kinds of people at the University of Mosul,” she said. “To be there as a Christian is a big thing, to give the people hope. Especially after ISIS, it means a lot to people to have a Christian there.”

In the meantime, Sister Raghad appreciates the people at Catholic University and the support of the Dominican family in the United States. “They are my family,” she said. “They are my Sisters, my friends for sure. Without them I cannot do this in such a short time. They encourage me. They’re walking with me.”


December 11, 2020, Adrian, MichiganJourney has often been used as a metaphor for travel through life and time as well as through geographic space. In their December 2, 2020 presentation, “Journey to Bethlehem,” Sisters Janice Brown, OP, and Nancyann Turner, OP, compare the journey that Joseph and Mary made from Nazareth to Bethlehem with the journey that people of faith are making this year through Advent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their presentation – part of a series of monthly spirituality presentations by members of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Spirituality Committee – was live streamed and recorded.

“We take the journey down the road to Bethlehem every year when we tell the story of the birth [of Jesus],” Sister Nancyann said. She noted the difficulty of the journey  – especially for a young woman who was about to give birth – involving roads that curved back, hills and mountains, and hazards such as the rough terrain, wild animals, and bandits. 

“We, too, are on a long journey,” Sister Nancyann said. “2020 took us on a journey we’d never foreseen. We had to be more separate and yet grow closer – and we had to learn and relearn that love does cast out fear.”

Sister Janice pointed to the unusual challenges of 2020: from the inability for many people of faith to attend worship services together to the loss of activities that feed the soul, such as visiting museums. “What we know is that Christ is with us in the people, the world that surrounds us,” Sister Janice said. She encouraged her audience to “find ways to heal the divisions of this country, to listen, to be kind, even to those who are very hard to be kind to.” The challenge, she said, is to build the beloved community often referred to by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Both Sisters offered the audience opportunities to pause and reflect on their own journeys to Bethlehem, through Advent, and through the pandemic.

Watch the entire video below.


 

 


 

 

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