Sister Maria Hanna and Father Guido Gockel, CNEWAs vice president for the Middle East. (photo: Greg Kandra)
With violence in Iraq once again on the rise, CNEWA Connections sat down with two Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena to learn how their congregation has helped ordinary Iraqis cope with the war.
Please tell CNEWA donors about your ministry in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003.
Sister Maria Hanna: When the bombs started falling in Baghdad and people started to flee, we opened our convents to families. We gave people a place to stay. Or we connected them with families who could shelter them for a night. We did not wait for people to come to us. We went to locations where people congregated and asked them if they needed anything that we could provide.
We gathered an organization of young adults who went door to door to beg for food and other things to help families in need. Our sisters baked bread every day so people at least had bread to survive.
When families lost someone to violence or kidnapping, the sisters stayed with them, accompanied them, let them know we were there for them.
Years ago, the government nationalized our Catholic schools. After the regime fell, the government gave the buildings back to us. We let displaced families stay in the schools, too. We made sure people had the necessities to live. Our pantries were always empty, because we always gave everything away.
Early in the crisis, especially in 2003 and 2004, most of Iraqs hospitals closed down. We run Al-Hayat Hospital in Baghdad, and we stayed opened. We stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We stayed open for the people.
From accompanying displaced families and seeing their needs, we saw that children had no place to go, so we opened kindergartens. We rented houses to give children a safe place to play.
We also have our orphanages. One used to be in Baghdad, in a very dangerous zone, so we moved it to a village nearby. It is called the Beatitude House. This year, we are planning to open a new orphanage for boys with the help of the American Embassy. One of our biggest hopes is to build another hospital, too.
Youre also working night and day to bolster the Christian presence in Iraq.
Sister Maria: Most of our work is pastoral — not schools and hospitals. Every year, we prepare about 1,600 boys and girls to receive Communion. Our sisters do this in remote areas where there is no priest. This week and last, 667 children received First Communion in one village, because of our pastoral ministry.
We also do Gospel sharing with families. We gather a few families together and we share the Gospel with one another. Our sisters teach Catechism, too. We also run activities with the Dominican Third Order, lay people. In one town, we have about 180 lay people of different ages who help the local parish with whatever is needed. So, you can tell were everywhere.
Your community lost its mother house to the violence.
Sister Diana Moneka: Yes, it was bombed several times. But God was with us. When they bombed our mother house the first time, the missile fell on a bedroom where four sisters were sleeping. It was 1:30 a.m. They couldnt escape. Pressure from the fire prevented them from opening the door. A sister sleeping down the hall eventually got them out. The sisters were so shocked, but after a while they felt the presence of God. They realized, Were still alive because of God.
How is morale among the sisters?
Sister Maria: They are very down and frustrated. Whenever there is some activity and work, and theyre busy and producing, they are happy. But sometimes, they get very frustrated.
Sister Diana: Were walking with people step by step, every day. Wherever there is a bomb, were with the victims. Caring for traumatized people is a very difficult task, because their trauma wears off on you. Coming back home, if you dont have a big community that supports you, the spiritual and psychological parts are very hard.
Weve lost lots of family. I lost my brother. Five years ago, he was shot. One sister, two of her nephews were kidnapped and disappeared. Another, her nephew disappeared and they have heard nothing about him. Its been almost five years now. Were trying to help people and at the same time dealing with our own trauma.
Sister Maria: In the past six years, we have not had one meeting with all the sisters together. We used to have them at the mother house. This is very difficult for the sisters, because we cant unite together. We want to build a new mother house. We have the property and the blueprints, but we do not have the money.
We cannot take care of our elderly sisters properly. They are scattered everywhere. It is not easy to serve them because we do not have a mother house with the facilities to do it. At the same time, we are not able to accept novices. We do not have any place to house them. We are facing a big problem at this point.
Sister Diana: Another obstacle is that 21 sisters are studying outside of the country, and when we go back home, we have to stay with our families. We cannot stay with our sisters. We are distant from them.
How do you build a community if you dont have a community? Community is number one in our lives, and its so hard to be away from our sisters. Community life is what binds us together in our lives and our ministry and our mission. We need to build the new mother house.
To support the lifesaving work of CNEWA in Iraq, please click here.