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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.
November 4, 2016, Adrian, Michigan – As news continues of the liberation of some of the villages of the Mosul area of Iraq, two former Prioress Generals of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, of Iraq, visited Adrian to update the Congregation on the ongoing situation to thank the Adrian Dominican Sisters for their prayers and support.
The brief and moving presentation by Sisters Marie Therese Hanna, OP, and Maria Hanna, OP, took place at the end of the November 1 All Saints Liturgy in St. Catherine Chapel at the Adrian Dominican Motherhouse. The Sisters’ remarks were live-streamed and recorded for future viewing.
“I think you know and are following the news about what is happening in Iraq,” Sister Marie Therese told the assembly. In spite of the liberation of the towns and villages, “all is destroyed – the church, the convents, the houses for the families.” She spoke of the Sisters’ and other refugees’ struggles to understand and accept what had happened. “We need courage to continue, and I know you are with us,” she told the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Iraq have been refugees for two years and four months, since ISIS came to the Nineveh Plain in August 2014 and forced the Sisters and ten of thousands of Christians and other minorities to flee. As refugees, the Dominican Sisters spent their energies bringing support and hope to the rest of the refugee community through schools, health clinics, and religious services.
Her central message was one of gratitude for the prayers and support of the Adrian Dominican Sisters and of the U.S. Dominican family. “Thank you … for being in our life to support us and to allow us to continue our mission there.”
Sister Marie Therese noted that, when she and Sister Maria Hanna had first come to Adrian 11 years ago, they felt like strangers. “But when we entered the chapel and shared in prayer, all this has changed,” she added. “We feel we are in our family.”
The two communities of Dominican Sisters have enjoyed close ties during the past 11 years since a group of Dominican Sisters from Iraq came to the United States to live and minister with Adrian Dominican Sisters and to earn advanced degrees to better serve their people in Iraq.
Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, noted how fitting it was “on this Feast of All Saints that we have two of our living saints among us,” representing the other Sisters in their community.
From Iraq, Sister Clara Nas, OP, current Prioress General of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine, sent a letter November 1 to the greater Dominican family, updating them on the status of the Sisters there. Noting the Sisters’ joy at the eventual recapture of their villages and towns on the Nineveh Plain, Sister Clara also noted the destruction of the towns.
“We knew that when we left, our towns would not be the same when we return,” she wrote. “The reality is that ISIS has used our houses to hide tunnel entrances and store weapons. Additionally, they planted bombs in houses, ready to explode as soon as the door opens, and mines are everywhere in the land.”
The Sisters and other refugees are “living in a liminal space,” with some wanting to leave their country and others wanting to return to rebuild their homes. “We are just waiting for the ‘decree of Cyrus’ (that allowed the Jews to return from exile) to be announced again, allowing us to return and build our churches and houses.”
For more information on the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, of Iraq, and on ways to help them in their ministry to their refugee community, visit 1,000 Cranes for Iraq.
Feature photo: Sisters Maria Hanna, OP, left, and Marie Therese Hanna, OP, former Prioresses of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena of Erbil, Iraq, extend greetings and give an update to the assembly during the All Saints Liturgy in St. Catherine Chapel on November 1. Photo by Melinda P. Ziegler