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In the Shadow of War

Dominican sisters defy fear and bombs in serving needy Iraqis

text by Jill Carroll
photographs by Philip Toscano-Heighton


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As war approached last spring most Iraqis sealed their windows and stored food and water.

The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena also made special housing arrangements and collected necessities, but not for themselves.

As they had done 12 years earlier, the sisters prepared a safety net for the people of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and surrounding villages, many of whom are still suffering from the fallout of the second war between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the United States.

Before the fighting began, the sisters went door-to-door collecting food, which they stored and then distributed during the war to those who came to the convent looking for help. They also distributed food and medicine purchased with help from CNEWA.

The sisters offered refuge to all in village churches, particularly in Kerakush. There, Christians and Muslims slept together as bombs pounded nearby Mosul for several nights in a row, said Sister Shirine Hanoush from the motherhouse in Mosul, where she has served as a sister for 40 years.

“Christian and Muslim families would share the same space. Everyone would pray together,” she said. People came from all over the country, knowing the northern villages were safer than the cities. “This was a very challenging experience for the sisters,” said Sister Shirine, “but it has made us more devoted to our work and faith.”

The sisters had tried to gather a six-month supply of medicine and basic foodstuffs, but three weeks into the war, they had only managed to secure enough for 40 days. Helping cover this shortfall was CNEWA’s operating arm in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission.

According to Ra’ed Bahou, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Jordan and Iraq, getting emergency supplies from Jordan to the sisters in Iraq after the war was not easy.

“Transportation across western Iraq was plagued by gangs and communication was difficult,” Mr. Bahou said, “but we did not lose a single shipment to bandits thanks to a decision to use vans rather than large trucks. Each van carried one ton of aid, in convoys of three and four.”

Dominican sisters in Zerqa, Jordan, actually packed and drove the vans to centers their fellow religious had established in Iraq. The sisters in Jordan administer the Pontifical Mission’s maternity clinic in Zerqa from where they have directed aid shipments to needy Iraqis.

The 52 sisters in Mosul still provide assistance to families too scared to go back to their homes in Baghdad. People also come looking for food, but most of their work these days comes in the form of counseling, especially with children.

“Our youth are without hope. They had great hopes that the Americans would help them get a better standard of living, but life remains the same,” Sister Shirine said. “Many are depressed and need to be listened to very carefully.”

The sisters also run an orphanage and a kindergarten that opened two years ago. As members of a community whose primary mission is to spread the Gospel, the sisters focus on religious instruction and catechism classes, said Sister Shirine.

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