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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.