Current Issue
September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
3 April 2018
Don Duncan

Masresha Tilahun displays the cross he has been carving by hand in woodworking class in the Addis Alem prison in Ethiopia. (photo: Don Duncan)

Journalist Don Duncan turns a spotlight on a remarkable prison ministry in Ethiopia in the March edition of ONE.

The assignment offered some challenges he didn’t expect, as he reports here.

Even before I made the journey to Ethiopia, I’d been warned that this would be a tricky assignment.

Through the connections of a CNEWA beneficiary, ONE had the rare and fortunate opportunity to gain access to two of Ethiopia’s prisons so as to see and understand the lives, needs and spirituality of an oft-overlooked population: the incarcerated.

I have only ever been in one prison before in my life, a medium-security facility in upstate New York which I visited with a journalism school classmate who was working with me on a crime story.

I had no idea what a prison in Ethiopia would be like but I proceeded with a certain sense of caution and even nervousness. I had been warned to be very careful about what kinds of questions I asked. Incarceration is quite politically charged and a hot issue in Ethiopia. A simple question — one that would go unnoticed in a regular context — could wreck havoc in the context of the prison, either among the prisoners or between the prison administration and the Addis Ababa Archdiocese Prison Chaplaincy, the organization that had helped to get us access to the prison.

Thus, I entered Addis Alem prison not with the thoughts of which questions I would ask the prisoners but rather which questions I would NOT ask them, under any circumstances.

I was to stay away from politics, for sure, but also stay away from any discussion of human rights; any questions that might convey an implied criticism of how the prison is run; and any questions as to the personal histories of the inmates: their homes, family lives, their specific crimes and the length of their sentences.

These restrictions, as sensible and well-meaning as they were, made for a very interesting exercise in interviewing.

I suddenly realized how spoiled I am in my usual interview practice, in the “outside world,” where the freedom of the press means that no question is off-limits. Now, I had to eventually write a colorful and insightful article based on material I was gathering under very restricted conditions. I was shot through by a low-burning anxiety that the story would be a washout, that it would fall flat on its face because of these restrictions.

But to my great surprise, the opposite happened. I’d been briefed that the prison was home to people from places near and far in Ethiopia and that their sentences varied, for crimes of gravity spanning from theft to serial murder. But when I found myself face-to-face with a prisoner, there was no way — because of the restrictions I was working under — that I could know or find out the specifics of his life or crimes. This meant that I could only focus on the here-and-now, his name and age, what his likes and dislikes were, what he was feeling in the present moment and what his spiritual life is like.

As I proceeded to interview inmates on these restricted terms, their humanity shone forth. I realized that, had I known their crimes or sentences, my rapport with them or my thinking about them would be shaded by the gravity of their past actions. Without that knowledge, I encountered everyone in the moment and I could fully perceive and appreciate their beauty and humanity as souls.

When I left the prison after a few hours, I realized how fortunate I was to have had the experience of visiting it. It was a striking manifestation of Jesus’s words in Matthew (5:43-44): “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

It is a beautiful thought — but it is often, in practice, a tall order.

Beyond prison, in the “outside world” that we live in, where there are far fewer restrictions on what we know about each other, how capable are we of perceiving and loving the soul of the sinner in spite of his/her sin?

It is rarely very easy to overcome one’s own biases, prejudices and judgments. And yet, Addis Alem prison caused me to be struck again by how truly indispensable a part of living a good life it is to be able to see beyond the sin, in spite of it, to project love.

Read Don Duncan’s report, ‘For I Was in Prison’ in the current edition of ONE.

11 October 2017
Don Duncan

A young woman at the Father Roberts Institute greets a visitor. (photo: Don Duncan)

During my recent reporting in Lebanon, where I looked at Catholic institutions caring for people with specific challenges in their lives — from deaf children to the mentally ill, to those struggling to end addiction, to those confined to geriatric wards — the question of the role of faith kept coming up.

What became clear very soon to me as I undertook my interviews was that not only is faith a very strong part of many of these people’s lives but, in many cases, the specific challenges they faces has led to a deepening of their faith.

It led me to reflect on the role God plays in everyone’s life, especially during moments of trial. As a child, I learned from the Bible that God never forgets us and that he is with us, by our side, even when we have forgotten him. As I have grown older and my faith has evolved, this notion has been of much comfort to me in my more difficult moments.

However, many of the people I interviewed for this article, face daily hardships to a degree I cannot probably even conceive of.

Some of the adults whom I met at the Psychiatric Hospital of the Cross, in the Beirut suburb of Jal al Dib, suffer from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bi-polarity that have caused them to be removed from their families and communities.

Many of the deaf children I met at the Father Roberts Institute for the Deaf (some 40 minutes up the mountains from Beirut) face social stigma surrounding the hard-of-hearing. What’s more, many of these children are now on the cusp of puberty and they will soon have to grapple not only with the huge identity turmoil that is involved in becoming an adult, they will also have to grasp — and eventually accept — that they will become deaf adults.

At Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Antelias (near Beirut), which caters mostly to geriatric patients, many of them face death with few or no family by their side; a good number of them struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or indeed with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

And yet, they told me with a conviction that seemed unflagging, that God is with them every day, that indeed their hardship makes their faith stronger. Alice Khoury, an aging schizophrenic patient in Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill told me: “I love my God. Without my faith I would no longer be here.” God has helped her survive and overcome the challenges of her life.

In an art workshop at the Psychiatric Hospital of the Cross, art therapist Mona Esta explained how various patients perceive reality and how they replicate that reality on the canvas, based on their specific psychiatric condition. Schizophrenic patients are unable to reproduce depth and perspective, she tells me. Excessive focus on painting a point or dot within a canvas is a classic artistic trait of a patient with psychosis.

It made me think how these patients — who live with such challenging disabilities yet who have such a deep faith — visualize or imagine God, or the Baby Jesus or even various biblical tableaux such as the pregnant Mary being led to Bethlehem on a donkey by Joseph, the walking of Christ on water, or even the Crucifixion. How might these believers see these biblical figures and events? How does God manifest himself in their imaginations and thus in their lives?

I looked about me at the various finished paintings on the workshop wall. Some were recognizable depictions of objects, people, and landscapes. Others slipped more into abstraction, even cubist renditions of physical reality.

And yet there was a beauty in all of them, and a truth. As I looked around, I could see traces of God and his love, in myriad forms and abstractions, all around the room.

Read more about Reaching the Margins in the September 2017 edition of ONE.

2 August 2017
Don Duncan

Shipla Joy helps with homework at the children’s home administered by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Catholic education is having a powerful impact on young lives in India. (photo: Don Duncan)

In the June 2017 edition of ONE, journalist Don Duncan writes about the ways Catholic schools are changing lives in India. He adds some additional reflections below.

Time and again throughout this reporting trip, I’ve been reminded of the importance of education.

Kerala has the highest literacy rate of all the Indian states, at over 90 percent of the adult population. Many factors have contributed to this achievement, including the government school system and NGOs. However the contribution made by the church and its many educational establishments is seen as the indispensible factor in the creation of this highly literate population. All over the state, you see people reading books at bus stops or perusing the day’s newspaper at teahouses.

But this literacy statistic can be deceptive. Education remains a constant, perpetual battlefield. The fight never stops because every new generation that comes along needs to be educated; in order to garner people’s commitment to education, its benefits need to be immediately clear, not only to every student but also to his or her parents too.

Education is a very tough sell in the rural, mostly agricultural, areas of inner Kerala. People living by subsistence farming need their children to help them work the fields to assure the family’s food security and livelihood. It’s difficult to persuade people living such a hand-to-mouth existence to make education a priority. For many of them, education does not have the immediate pay-off that having their children work the fields does. In this sense, for people living day-to-day on the edge of poverty, the benefits and worth of allowing their children to attain a good education is a near total abstraction.

It reminds me a little of my frustrations with democracy and party politics in the four-year electoral cycle. Politicians wishing to be reelected focus almost exclusively on projects and initiatives that can come to fruition in the four years before they stand to be reelected. Anything that takes longer has less or no political capital for them and so, in this kind of political system, broader, deeper and important reforms often get sidelined. Some of these projects, much like the process of educating a child, require a much longer cycle of commitment. The fruits of such a commitment, and the human capital it produces, are significant.

In rural Kerala, children’s homes run by the church are offering the possibility of a full education to children who would otherwise have left school at age 10, if not earlier, and worked their parents’ fields. It is in the cases of children like these that one can see the utter transformation that education can bring.

Children who leave their homes young and are taken in by the religious sisters for the duration of their education often return years later to their villages with skilled professions; they come back as teachers, bankers, doctors, etc. These children-turned-educated adults are the living products of what education can do and they are now serving, in their own respective communities, as extremely compelling arguments for the value of education.

I met three such success stories from various church-run children’s homes across Kerala. But a childhood spent under the care of sisters is not all Deepu Sasidharan, Devika Narayanan, and Shilpa Joy have in common. These young adults are not only shining examples of the positive effect of education; their intimate familiarity with poverty, family dysfunction and child vulnerability, when put through the prism of education, has left them all with a keen sense of social justice and a burning mission to make it part of their respective professional practices.

While the ability of education to improve one’s financial and social standing may be the most apparent and compelling result of education for those who are living in poverty, education of course comes with many other benefits. It can help women empower themselves more and take better care of their children. Education can help men take better care of their wives and children. Education establishes a clear scientific underpinning to one’s sense of health and well-being.

As the number of educated children returning to their villages grows, it is hoped that through leading by example, these numbers will produce a gradual “snowball effect” whereby people, inspired by the example, send their own children to school. If this happens, Kerala’s rural communities are in for some major positive change — not only in terms of poverty reduction but also in terms of gender rights, children’s rights, agricultural practice, money management, local governance, healthcare and, really, every other aspect of life.

Read more about The Secret of Their Success in ONE.

18 May 2017
Don Duncan

Some villagers from Vallakkallu, India, traveled to Marayoor to meet with journalist Don Duncan.
(photo: Don Duncan)

In the current edition of ONE, photojournalist Don Duncan reports on efforts at Breaking the Cycle of alcoholism and abuse in Kerala, and giving children a better future. Here, he offers some additional thoughts on India’s tribal culture.

While doing reporting for ONE in eastern Kerala state (in Idukki province to be exact), I had the privilege to get a closer look at some of India’s “scheduled tribes.”

India’s constitution recognizes some 645 distinct tribes that it regards as disadvantaged or culturally vulnerable and thus it sets out provisions to both help these tribes and to protect their respective cultures. According to the country’s 2011 census, people from these “scheduled tribes” make up 8.6 percent of the population.

Kerala state is home to 35 of those tribes and the tribal people make up 5 percent of its population.

Known in Hindi as Adivasi or “original inhabitants,” the various tribes tend to live in insular communities, many of them geographically remote. They are often suspicious or distrustful of outsider contact and the government maintains certain policies that bolster this insularity in a bid to protect the tribes’ unique cultures from contamination from the wider, dominant Indian culture.

As a foreigner, I was not allowed to visit the tribal village of Vallakkallu, which could be reached by a 15 mile trek cross country from Marayoor, the town I was based in for my reporting. “If you go there, the police could come and stop or maybe even arrest you,” my guide, Sister Melvy of the Sisters of the Destitute, told me. In fact, it is very difficult even for regular Indians to establish meaningful contact with certain tribes, so strong is their suspicion of outsiders or sense of insularity.

The Indian government takes the cultural protection of its aboriginal tribes very seriously. That impulse in and of itself is certainly commendable. But, as I got deeper into my reporting — which explored child welfare issues such as lack of education, bad parenting and child labor — I wondered if the government’s well-intentioned policy of protection vis-à-vis India’s scheduled tribes did not also have certain negative, unintended consequences.

While the tribal policy of the government does protect the cultural integrity of the tribes (as well as offering them material support), that same protection policy seems to also serve as a sort of obstacle to those charities/NGO’s wishing to help tribes improve their lot. A case in point is education. The Muthuvan tribe, which lives in Vallakkallu village, puts value and emphasis on working the land and doesn’t see the point of schooling. Attendance in the state primary school in the village is shabby and the only person who seems pro-schooling in any real way is the village’s sole teacher.

I think this opposition between the value of working the land and the value of education is one that is familiar to many. In the West, we started, at a certain point in the past, to evolve from a land-based value system to one that put more value in ideas and learning: the “knowledge economy,” as we call it now.

But each society evolves at its own pace and I think it is correct to respect the individual pace and nature of other societies’ respective evolutions.

But can a people evolve naturally when they are “protected” and ghettoized on reservations? If left to their own devices, the tribes of India would most probably interact to some degree with others, adopt what they see as useful, and essentially evolve at a pace and in a way that suits them best. But with the way things are now, while the government does much to preserve the tribes’ fragile and unique cultures, it also risks fossilizing these people, holding them in suspension, while the rest of India continues to develop.

12 January 2017
Don Duncan

The canal running through Izbet Chokor, called Al Bahr by locals, acts as a lifeline to the village.
(photo: Don Duncan)

In the current edition of ONE, journalist Don Duncan writes about the ways Christians and Muslims are Finding Common Ground in one Egyptian village. He offers some addition reflections on his visit below.

I was living in Lebanon when the series of national revolutions known as the “Arab Spring” broke out. At the time, I was covering the region as a freelance journalist. While I had been to Tunisia shortly after that inaugural revolution of the Arab Spring had kicked off, once the news started to hit that Egypt was following suit, everyone knew that this was big, big news.

Many in the region view Egypt as the “beating heart” of the Middle East. It is a large country — in terms of population and of historical significance — and it acts as a sort of fulcrum between various parts of the Arab world: between the Levantine countries; the Arabian Gulf area and Iraq on one side and the Maghreb and the other Arabic-speaking African states on the other, such as Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Mauritania, Somalia and Sudan.

Sitting in my living room in Beirut, with my flat mate Dia, we watched agog, as pictures of thousands of people streaming onto Tahrir Square in Cairo flickered across our TV screen. Within a few days, I myself was in Egypt covering the events as they unfolded. But it wasn’t until months later, when the dust started to settle, that the new dynamic and primary currents in post-revolution Egypt began to come into focus.

In early 2012, a year after the beginning of the Egyptian revolution stated, I returned to Cairo to make a video documentary for the website of The Wall Street Journal about these new currents in Egypt. Among the various changes apparent in post-revolution Egypt, some of the big changes we covered in this documentary included the sudden rise and expanding power of the previously repressed Muslim Brotherhood organization. In parallel, another current was the growth in persecution against Egypt’s Christians, who represent some 9 percent of the country’s population of 80 million. The vast majority of that number is Coptic Orthodox, but it also includes minorities within the Egyptian Christian arena: Coptic Catholics, as well as various Protestant churches.

Across the broader Middle East region — since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the other Arab Spring revolutions post-2011 — the same narrative has played out: dictatorial regimes have fallen, giving rise to the emergence of hitherto repressed Islamist movements, leading to increased persecution of Christians. Apart from the Egyptian example, this has occurred most notably in Iraq and Syria.

However, on arriving at Izbet Chokor, I found a completely different picture to the one that had been so often presented by the media. Izbet Chokor, the village on the outskirts of Al Fayoum city, some 60 miles southwest of Cairo, is the place I traveled to in order to report my most recent story for ONE magazine. There, I found a village with a mixed population of Christians and Muslims who live in peaceful co-existence and love. This was due, in large part, to the Service Center, run by the Coptic Catholic church there, which offers educational, healthcare and social services to all the residents, regardless of religion.

It was a big surprise to me to learn that the major center of religious tension in Izbet Chokor was not between Christians and Muslims but rather one that was intra-Christian in nature — between Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic.

According to many people I spoke with, some of them members of the church, the rivalry and tensions between the majority Coptic Orthodox and minority Coptic Catholics in Egypt are fierce, mostly manifesting itself in the form of verbal attacks, intimidation, and bullying.

This is a religious face-off I have never heard of in the current context in the Middle East. I wondered why. Is it because it is of less geopolitical value than the Muslim vs. Christian narrative? Is it because it is happening within a minority? Is it because Christians prefer not to air their “dirty laundry?”

Regardless of the reason(s), this discovery showed me that inter-religious fear and animosity can exist anywhere where ignorance is allowed to breed. It is not about some clash of civilizations or age-old incompatibilities, as the media subtext regarding Muslims and Christians seems to suggest. It is about ignorance and manipulation by politicians or the media, often both.

So, in this time of heightened tensions, misunderstanding and suspicion between the West and the Muslim world, I feel it is incumbent on us as Christians and human beings to do our utmost to re-inject humanity and nuance into the divisive, fear-inducing and dehumanizing media discourse we are subjected to by our politicians and media.

Read more in the Winter 2016 edition of ONE. Meantime, get another glimpse of the Service Center in the video below.

Tags: Egypt Muslim

5 October 2016
Don Duncan

Sami El-Yousef, left, surveys damage to a home in Gaza where a Christian woman was killed during the 2014 war. (photo: CNEWA)

In the Autumn 2016 edition of ONE, journalist Don Duncan profiles Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, as part of our special look at the Catholic Eastern churches. Here, He offers some further reflections on what it means to be a Christian in Gaza.

I remember hearing a story from another journalist I knew when I was living in Beirut about a Christian woman in Gaza who had been dragged from her car by people loyal to Hamas who berated her for not wearing the headscarf in public.

There were several things that were shocking about the story: the fact that, in Gaza under Hamas, Palestinian and Muslim were now conflated with no room for other identities; the fact that women in Gaza were now being policed and confronted for their non-adherence to a conservative version of Islam; and the fact that when the woman in question protested yelling “I am Christian,” this made no dent on the men accosting her.

When I got to Jerusalem to do an interview for ONE with Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, I met up with an old photographer friend. She had just left Gaza where she had been on assignment. It had been her first time there and she was quite affected by it. She has lived in the West Bank for periods in the past but that did not fully prepare her for Gaza. The hardship of life there, the lack of security and the inhumanity of the siege imposed on the strip by Israel got to her, but so too did the heavy-handed, centralized conservatism of Hamas. Being in Gaza as a woman, she said, reminded her of being in Saudi Arabia, where she had been many times on assignment.

When I finally met with Mr. El-Yousef in his office in the Old City of Jerusalem, Gaza featured prominently during the interview.

He gave me a much more nuanced insight into the unique position of Christians in Gaza, who now number only 1,200 out of the population of two million. Their welfare and the conditions of their day-to-day lives are very much dependent on Hamas but even more so on the geopolitics in the immediate region — especially the political tones in Egypt and Israel, with which the strip shares its borders.

As in many other countries in the Middle East, the Christian population in Gaza punches above its weight when it comes to its contributions to the non-governmental health and education sectors. But this doesn’t seem to matter so much, Mr. El-Yousef told me, when political tides turn in the region. For example, when the Egyptian Revolution happened and the Muslim Brotherhood finally came into power across the border, Hamas in Gaza found itself with a powerful natural ally and was soon at the height of its power. This was bad for Christians in Gaza who suddenly found more restrictions on their ability to live by their faith. Christmas symbols such as the Christmas tree were ordered to be taken down. Steps were taken to segregate schools by sex. Christian students at the Islamic University of Gaza were obliged to take courses in Islamic law, etc.

Then, when Hamas is at a low — as happened when Israel launched the military “Operation Protective Edge” on Gaza in 2014 — the pressure on Gazan Christians is released. Unfortunately, it is during times of conflict and crisis that Christian hospitals, clinics and schools can shine the most in how they offer non-discriminatory help of all those affected.

Since that last war in Gaza, says Sami el-Yousef, there has been a change in the attitude of the Hamas leadership towards the Christian presence in Gaza: something of a turnaround. Christmas trees were once again permitted behind churches. The project to segregate schools by gender stalled and Hamas representatives actually showed up at churches to wish them a happy Christmas.

The above pattern disturbs me and it is a pattern I have seen facing Christians in Iraq, in Lebanon, Egypt and now in Palestine. When trouble looms and there is a crisis, unity and solidarity prevails and Christians and the value they bring to society are welcomed and utilized. But when things are relatively stable, old distrust and bigotry seem to emerge. It’s a sad cycle and it appears to me to be repeating itself without variation.

I wonder then, why does violence and war have to be such a key ingredient to the embrace and valuing of Christians in the Middle East? Are there any alternatives? By what means could a “majority rules, minority rights” system be encouraged or developed?

Read more about Sami El-Yousef and the Church of Jerusalem in Where It All Began in the latest edition of ONE.

Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Palestine War Holy Land Christians

27 January 2016
Don Duncan

Mardin’s co-mayor, Februniye Akyol, represents the new face of Christian political representation in southeast Turkey. (photo: Don Duncan)

In the Winter edition of ONE, journalist Don Duncan profiles Syriac Christians “Coming Home” to Turkey. Below, he offers some additional reflections on the political situation in the region.

Thoughts of politics kept coming to my mind when I was reporting this story about the current state of Christian life in the Tur Abdin region of southeast Turkey.

Through the numerous interviews I conducted with members of the community for the article, I realized that, although the community in Tur Abdin today is small, at just 3,500, it nonetheless represents a variety of stances with regards to political participation and its uses.

By and large, there seems to be two main schools of thought in the community.

The first school seeks to keep a low profile, attempting to gain more freedoms without much political agitation. These people, an old guard of sorts, tend to look back, recall past atrocities, and reminisce about the time when Christians ruled Tur Abdin.

The second school, which is a kind of new guard in the community, is one that is a little bolder. It believes that that rights are not granted but rather taken, through overt political engagement with the system and through political agitation.

It is in this second school of political thought where one finds the new faces of Christian political representation, like Mardin’s co-mayor Februniye Akyol. These new faces are attaining representation under the broader political current of the Kurdish movement for democratic change, itself a product of the 1999 ceasefire between the illegal militant Kurdish group, the PKK, and the Turkish state.

Regardless of their different approaches to progress, the reality is that both political schools in Tur Abdin’s Christian community currently face the fact that they are numerically insignificant — both in southeast Turkey and in the country as a whole.

Unlike the days prior to the 1915 genocide, when Christians’ numbers meant they could formulate and apply political will directly within the regional and national context, today their small number means they must always work via a more powerful proxy.

The evolution of Kurdish politics (from armed insurrection to pro-minority political engagement) over recent years has produced a window of opportunity through which Christians can push for and attain more rights as a minority.

However, the Christians and their hope lie on unstable ground and they have no control over factors that can change the playing field.

That ground is being shaken even now. The ceasefire between the Turkish state and the PKK crumbled last July and hostilities between the two players have flared. This may well cause the Kurdish political ethos to swing back from democratic participation to the stance of armed conflict it had prior to the 1999 ceasefire.

If this happens, the political window of opportunity that the Tur Abdin Christians have recently found and exploited will snap shut and they will find themselves in political obscurity once again.

But for now, the low-key, pacifist and non-confrontational approach of the old guard in the Tur Abdin Christian community will not be without worth — making slow and silent progress in attaining new rights and privileges for its community.

Read more about Christians returning to Turkey in “Coming Home” in the Winter 2015 edition of ONE. And to get a sense of life in their homeland, and how they are adapting, check out the video below.

27 August 2015
Don Duncan

Sally, Sister Laetetia Hanna, Rita, Mariam, Thikra and Sister Muntaha Marzena make up the happy family at Holy Family Orphanage in Ain Kawa, Erbil. (photo: Don Duncan)

In the Summer 2015 edition of ONE, Don Duncan describes revisiting Iraq a year after the invasion of ISIS. One of the places he visited is a local orphanage:

I must admit that I had certain preconceptions and received images that crossed my mind as I passed over the threshold of the Holy Family Orphanage in Ain Kawa, Erbil, a recently-opened home for children in need run by the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena to cater to the needs of Christians displaced by ISIS last August.

In the village I grew up in in the Irish midlands, there was a house known as “the orphanage” where kids from various backgrounds were taken care of by a mixture of nuns and state-employed social workers.

The children in this home were of various ages and so were in various classes of the village’s primary and high schools. They were cloaked in a sort of childhood mystery. Who are they really? Who are their real parents? Do they really feel like brothers and sisters? What is it like to have so many “parents?” There was also a sort of sadness, I remember, that we projected on them: a supposition that to be brought up by anyone but your biological parents can be nothing but a tragedy.

So this was the sort of vague, unprocessed baggage that brought with me as I crossed the threshold of the orphanage in Ain Kawa But from that moment, I was constantly surprised and enlightened. The Erbil orphanage reminded me not of the orphanage in my long-ago childhood village but rather it reminded me of my own childhood home and upbringing. Again and again.

The children in the orphanage: Sally (20), Rita (16), Mariam (13) and Thikra (10) had an age-spread not unlike my own family’s. And while my family consists of six siblings and theirs of four, I could immediately relate to the dynamics among the children: it is recognizable to anyone from a big family: alliances exist between various siblings, chores are shared out and one helps or hinders the other, there is a chain of surrogate care from the youngest to the eldest where gaps in over-stretched parental care are compensated for in an organic and spontaneous way.

That said, while I was struck by all the similarities between my childhood and those of the girls at the Holy Family Orphanage in Ain Kawa, it became clear during my interviews that there were some deep, indelible facts in their lives that make it such that I could never know their experience fully. Only one of the four girls is a “true orphan,” in that both of her parents have passed away. All the rest of the girls still have one parent alive, for example or are from broken homes or from families who are incapable of minding them and so were placed in the care of the nuns. That is to say that these girls once knew what it was to have biological family and to belong to a family bound by blood and not by various family misfortunes. The parallels, I eventually realized, only go so far.

The displacement of the Christians of the Nineveh Plain by ISIS in August 2014 constituted a second displacement for these girls: the first being the one from their biological families. That said, the displaced girls of this orphanage have come to find themselves in perhaps the best possible circumstance of refuge. While other families are reduced to sharing rooms with other families, while domestic problems flourish across the displaced community, while children exhibit behaviors concurrent with symptoms of trauma, the girls of the Holy Family Orphanage in Ain Kawa have found themselves consistently swaddled in the love and comfort of the two nuns who take direct care of them and of the larger family of some 40 Dominican Sisters in the convent just at the end of their street.

Read more in “Grace” from the Summer 2015 edition of ONE. And check out this profile of the Holy Family Orphanage in the same issue.

To support the Dominican Sisters and their work with displaced families in Iraq, please visit our giving page.

6 August 2015
Don Duncan

Iraqi refugees gather outside their temporary dwellings in Erbil. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)

It was one year ago today that ISIS launched its greatest offensive through northern Iraq, displacing tens of thousands of Christians. Don Duncan writes about that displacement and a recent visit to Erbil in the Summer 2015 edition of ONE. He offers some personal impressions below.

On this, my second trip to Iraqi Kurdistan to cover the situation of displaced Christians there, I was struck by the dynamics of displacement and the ceaseless nature of human resilience.

During my first trip, last September, the Christians who had fled the sudden onslaught of ISIS through their villages and territory just weeks prior were all heaving in a sort of mass trauma. The harsh reality of homelessness and displacement was beginning to settle in in painful waves. All this was happening as people found themselves and their families sleeping in churchyards without shelter, and later in basements of unfinished buildings, separated only by sheets of tarpaulin.

Disease was rife. Anguish was rife. Panic was rife.

The usual pillars of society — church, school, hospital and childcare — had all vanished and providers of care such as nuns, priests, teachers, and medics were all scrambling to simply stanch the crisis enough so as to find more sustainable solutions for the overwrought population.

What I have found on my return this second time to Erbil is a soul-warming display of resilience. All the sites of hellish living conditions I saw in September lie empty. Most families are now either housed in rented houses or in emergency housing trailers, much like the ones used by FEMA in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck. While living conditions are less than ideal, the edge of panic and woe seems to have lifted somewhat. The population, less in shock than before, is able to go about making their lives better. Nowhere is this clearer than in the infrastructure of care that has developed around the population over the past year.

Whereas a very basic level of emergency healthcare had been established by September last, in the form of three CNEWA-donated pre-fab cabins, huge gaps lay in provision of basic services for a population badly in need.

Now, in big measure because of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena, the complex of schooling, healthcare, childcare and orphanage infrastructure that existed around these Christians at home, prior to their expulsion by ISIS, his being progressively restored. Temporary schools and clinics have been built and set running. An orphanage and kindergartens have been established. The community is beginning to display some of the daily rhythms of normality again: kids going off to school, mom cleaning the house or preparing dinner for when they come home.

These are the vital signs of survival, it seemed to me, of a community in peril. A community that is able to rebuild itself from the ashes is, in essence, a community that will endure and persist and this fact has brought a strong sense of hope to the displaced Christians that was simply not present last September, when so many of the people I interviewed saw the events unfurling as the last chapters in the story of Christians in Iraq.

I should stress that while the situation has improved and that this improvement is strength-giving, the overall situation is still far from ideal. The male population is still chronically under-employed, domestic tensions continue to flare in households, living conditions are still cramped and diseases are still rampant. While a vital measure of dignity has been restored, the displaced Christians are still in chronic need of yet more dignity in their living situations.

Now, it seems, the displaced Christians are getting hope and strength from the specter of the resurrection of the infrastructure of community. Many are emboldened to carry on, to move on if they have to. Or, they hope, to move back to their own towns one day and start the reconstruction of their lost homes and communities there.

A year into this crisis, the need remains great. To support those struggling to rebuild their lives in Iraq, visit our giving page. And please remember to keep these people in your prayers.

10 October 2014
Don Duncan

Displaced Christian refugee Ghanem Yadago rests in the room he now occupies in a church social hall in Erbil, Iraq (photo: Don Duncan)

Editor’s note: Photojournalist Don Duncan just returned from Erbil, Iraq, where he is reporting on refugees there for ONE magazine. Among those he met: the Yadago family. He profiles them below. We will have much more in the Autumn edition of the magazine, coming soon.

While Ghanem Yadago, his wife Waheeda and his two sons Wissam and Fadi were fleeing their home in northern Iraq under ISIS gunfire, Ghanem found he had a steady calm and was able to support and encourage hiswife to continue the passage out of danger. This is in part because Ghanem could not see the danger and chaos that his family could see around them as they fled: He is blind.

He lost his sight due to shrapnel in a battle during the Iran-Iraq war and since then he has been completely dependent on his wife and children. Their displacement from their hometown of Tel Usquf in the plain of Niniveh in northern Iraq occurred on 5 August. While the experience of displacement has turned the entire family’s life upside-down, Ghanem was hit especially hard.

“Back in our home, I could manage by myself because I knew the house intimately,” he says. “I didn’t need anyone to help me go to the bathroom, to shave, to get around. However, on moving to the tent [in the yard of St. Joseph’s Church, Erbil], it was very difficult for me. It was a new place for me, unfamiliar. I had to ask people’s help for everything.”

After a number of weeks living in the tent, Ghanem and his family were offered living space in a new facility for the sick and elderly that was set up by the Assyrian Church in Ananas Hall, normally a social function room in Erbil that has been re-purposed as a refuge for the sick and disabled. The hall has dozens of living quarters attended to by medical personnel. CNEWA donated wheelchairs, along with three showers adapted to the disabled.

Ghanem moved, but his family remained in the camp to benefit from the food and medical aid they needed there. For now, the family lives apart from him. Waheeda, his wife, makes the trip from the camp to Ananas Hall three times a day and stays with Ghanem there at night.

“I came here to the camp this morning, because I had slept at the hall last night,” Waheeda explains in her tent in Martha Schmouny camp. “I then cooked and fed my sons and then I went to check on Ghanem. I then came back to help my sons and later, I will return to the hall to spend the night with Ghanem.”

“I get physically tired from coming and going so much, and I myself have developed health problems,” she adds with a sigh.

Waheeda draws some paper slips from her bag: ECG scans she has had done in Erbil since her arrival. Her doctor believes she has developed heart problems from the shock and trauma of displacement. Worried about a possible heart attack, the doctor has put her on heart medication.

With the ECG scans, several flattened medicine packets fall from her bag: they are medicine for both her heart and Ghanem’s. He also has a pre-existing heart condition, one that is acute and needs to be managed.

“In the beginning, when we arrived, we used to buy all of the medicine he needed until some organizations came and decided to help us and to provide medicines to us,” Waheeda explains, “but not all the medicines are provided so we still have to buy some and some of the medicines are so expensive, we can’t afford to buy them.”

While the family is temporarily separated again and Waheeda does her back-and-forth journeys between the camp and Ananas Hall, Ghanem busies himself with getting the new family living space ready for his family to move into.

The walls have been made from carpeting nailed to wooden frames and the hall is divided into numerous sections, each of which will serve as a living space for each sick or old person and their family. In his family’s assigned living space, Ghanem has arranged two beds and has stacked foam mattresses. On the carpeted “wall” hang a few towels. There is a folded pile of clothes on the floor.

Sitting on one of the beds, Ghanem takes out a mobile phone and carefully fingers in each digit of his wife’s number. He checks in on her this way, throughout the day, but, he says, he does feel bad about the extra pressure his disability has put on her during their displacement.

“It is difficult for my wife,” he says. “She is the one who has to get the food supplements, the ice, and everything that might be distributed. She has to take care of all that I would normally do, herself.”

Ghanem’s wife, Waheeda, washes pots and pans from an outdoor tap to prepare dinner for her family at a refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq (photo: Don Duncan)

Back at Martha Schmouny camp in Erbil, Waheeda and her eldest son, Wissam, are preparing for dinner. She washes some pots and pans under a tap not far from the tent and he heads off to the camp’s food distribution area to see what he can find. With Ghanem’s heart condition, the family has had to pass up on much of the food that has been cooked and distributed to the displaced Christians of the camp by charities and NGOs.

“Ghanem has a special diet. He can’t eat meat, only chicken. He can’t eat fat,” Waheeda explains. “So, often, we cannot eat what is provided for us.”

The family’s youngest, Fadi, 15, is one of the many Christian teenagers whose studies have been put on hold by the ISIS violence and their subsequent displacement from Tel Usquf.

The Yadagos also have three daughters but they are all married and living abroad, one in Australia and two in the US.

While many displaced families are now beginning to seriously consider emigration as the only real solution moving forward, the Yadago family is keen on staying put.

“Given the fact that Ghanem is sick and I have a son who is 15 and is still at school, we are not so interested in going back to Tel Usquf and staying there,” Waheeda says. “We might return for a while but we have realized that we would prefer to stay in Erbil. We’d like to stay close to doctors so that if anything happens to Ghanem, we can find doctors easily and quickly.”

A sister leads Ghanem, who is blind, down a hall toward his room in the facility for the sick and disabled in Erbil, Iraq. (photo: Don Duncan)

Please keep the Yadagos and families like them in your prayers. And to help families like them, please visit our Iraq giving page. Thank you!

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