‘It is so hard to think of
tomorrow in Iraq’
An Interview with Dominican Sister Luma Khudher, OP
Sister Luma Khudher, OP, a member of the Dominican Sister of St. Catherine of Sienna’s leadership team in Iraq, taught this summer at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. During a visit to the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Ill., she sat down with Sister Beth Murphy, OP, the congregation’s communications director, to talk about what is facing the 150,000 people displaced by the incursion of ISIS into the villages of Nineveh Plain on August 6, 2014.
While the situation has stabilized somewhat in Ankawa, Erbil and Dohuk, where most of the Iraqi Dominican Sisters live, Iraq remains in crisis, with more than three million Iraqis displaced throughout the country. As military operations to liberate Mosul from ISIS continue, Iraqi families are on the move at the rate of 2,000-7,000 people per day as of early June, according to UN reports. In the midst of this instability there are still many unknowns for the Dominican Sisters and the people they serve. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.
You’ve been traveling for a couple of weeks, but what was the status of things in Iraq when you were last there?
We have been feeling unstable in our decisions of what to do next. Since they started liberating the towns [on Nineveh Plain] in October last year people were very hopeful they would go back to their homes and pick up where they left off. That will not be the case, of course, because so many people’s homes were destroyed, burned, or damaged in some way. Plus, they’ve been completely looted. People are still not sure what to do next. Those who were thinking of going back [to their homes] are taking a step back now. Of course, you have those people who saw that the destruction is overwhelming and they prefer to leave the country and not fix their homes.
There is talk that the government schools will open in some of the Christian villages in October, but we will have to wait and see. That is not a certainty yet.
Are there many who are making that decision to seek a new life outside Iraq?
I won’t say many, because we really don’t have exact numbers now, but there are numbers of people that are leaving, yes.
It might be helpful to have a little bit of background. Qaraqoush is the largest of the villages on Nineveh Plain. How many people were living there before the exodus?
They are now dispersed throughout Iraqi Kurdistan. What has been the state of their lives over the last several years?
Qaraqoush is only one of the Christian towns where people have been displaced. There were 23 towns altogether that were displaced, eight of them Christian towns. When people left their towns they went to Ankawa, which is also a small Christian town. It was about 25,000 people and all of a sudden overnight it received thousands of Christians. It became 150,000 people overnight. There was no place for all of these people to stay. People were on the streets, in the churches, parks, everywhere. No where to go. Gradually they were organized in camps. It was summertime and the schools were opened so that people could live in the schools and classrooms. We depended a lot on the help of the church and the help of humanitarian organizations. For over a year, we were just doing that. As a community, we tried to help in every way we could. Giving people milk and diapers, mattresses’, pillows, blankets, things like that. But then a year later people got settled. Those who were in camps organized themselves and they are still receiving help from different places. Others rented homes and they are still living in the homes or apartments they rented. Gradually we were able to open schools. The official language in Kurdistan is Kurdish. Most families from the Christian towns don’t know Kurdish because Arabic is the main language. So, the first year we were in Kurdistan only a small number of students were able to attend the Arabic schools in Kurdistan. We opened a school in fall 2015, first grade to sixth grade, then we added 7th grade last year. And we have close to 600 students. And we opened last year another school in Dohuk. That school is mixed—Christians, Muslims and Yezidis—but the one we opened in Erbil is just Christian because the number of Christians that were displaced there was huge.
You are also running clinics?
Yes, we have a sister that is working in the clinic but we are not running it ourselves. We help with that. Through us some humanitarian organizations sent medicine and things like that.
Almost three years into the displacement things are becoming more settled for people. Some people are in apartments some people are in caravans, very few if any are still in tents, is that correct?
Hardly anyone displaced in 2014 is in a tent anymore, however, there are many people now fleeing the situation in Mosul who are living in tent camps outside Erbil.
What does that mean in terms of peoples’ sense of their future, what does that mean for them?
It is so hard to think of tomorrow in Iraq. You can’t think of tomorrow. Everything depends on the political situation in the country. Those who really want to continue living in Iraqi, especially—we’ll talk from a Christian perspective—they will know more when the whole city of Mosul is liberated. Because until now, they say on the news that only part of [Mosul] is left unliberated, but the fighting is still going on. Even we [sisters] have not been able to go back to Mosul to see our convents yet because it is not safe. So I think when things will settle in Mosul, people will be more hopeful to go and start again or work, or see a future there. But for now, it is hard to see a future in Iraq.
Why is the liberation of Mosul so important for the people who are displace and living in Ankawa or Erbil?
The whole Christian community in Iraq was living around Mosul. Mosul is the center of Nineveh Plain because of the universities and jobs so settling Mosul means settling the whole of Nineveh Plain. Everything now depends on the situation in Mosul.
That is true for the families that are displaced and for the sisters. What kind of decisions will you need to be making over the next few months?
We are moving with the church. For example, one of the Christian towns, Teleskof—close to Dohuk—has been liberated and is under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government so it is pretty safe. We have families that returned there; therefore, the church has also decided to return. The church is helping out with rebuilding the houses. We also fixed our convent and hopefully in the coming few days we will have sisters living there. So, that’s a first step. Now the church in Qaraqoush started moving back, too, and fixing homes. Hopefully the church will return to Qaraqoush and when that happens we will also go back. Probably finding a place where we can live until we fix our convent. For us it is important, very important, to be with our people. We were with our people before displacement, we were serving our people in displacement, and we will be with our people when they return. It needs a lot of courage, a lot of faith to start again from zero because there are, of course, a lot of things that are destroyed. But I think…I think people will eventually go back, at least some of them, and rebuild the place.
What are the greatest needs?
The number of houses affected is big. There are 2,248 houses burned and 116 totally destroyed. That is only Qaraqosh. We talk about Qaraqoush because it is the main Christian town in Iraq. But then we have other towns that have been totally destroyed, like Batnaya, a small Christian town. It is totally destroyed. We had a convent there; destroyed. The kindergarten—we could hardly even find where it was—so, the same thing—really destroyed. The amount of time it will take for rebuilding will be a year, at least, if not more.
Where is the financing coming from?
There are different humanitarian organizations that are trying to help. One of them is Aid to the Church in Need. There are others, of course, but we are working mainly with Aid to the Church in need because they were the first to offer to help and they had a plan. Now the bishops in Iraq have assigned different priests to do the work. We have, for the cities of Qaraqosh, Basheeqa, and Bartilla, a priest who is responsible for coordinating the work for the Syriac Church, then for the Chaldean Church there is another priest that is also coordinating the work.
How are they tackling that? What is the plan for the initial rebuilding?
The initial plan is that they will start with homes, then fix churches and convents. It seems that everyone is happy with that. That is the first step. They divided the town into parts. They will operate on fifty houses at a time. They choose the area where people are more likely to go back, a safe area. Then the second step will be, after finishing these houses that are only partially destroyed, they will start with the houses that are totally burned. The plan is they will fix the houses of those who want to return to their hometowns first. Let’s say if a family had left Iraq completely and they want their home to be fixed, it will be fixed, but there will be another family who lives in that home for free until their turn comes and their own home will be rebuilt. I think they have a good plan of how to manage the work. It is a lot of work but they started well.
You’ve said that organizations like Aid to the Church in need are providing the funds. Is there any money at all from the Iraqi Central Government or the Kurdish Regional Government?
The Kurdish government no; the Iraqi government we are hoping to get something but so far there is nothing. I think they will be obligated to offer some money to rebuild but we need to think of the rest of the communities also. It is not only the towns that have been destroyed. Mosul has been badly destroyed by the airstrikes and the war that has been going on there for months now. How much the government will give to all of these places will probably depend on the amount of the destruction. We don’t know yet; we have not heard. It is not only Nineveh Plain. Mosul and other towns—Anbar, Fallujah, Ramadi—all these towns have been affected by ISIS.
What has been the emotional impact of this on the community, on all the sisters? This is not easy. How is everyone doing right now?
I think because the sisters decided from the first day of displacement to work with people, that gave them hope and they were able to give hope to other people that life continues, that we can’t just stop when ISIS is telling us to stop. We just have to continue with our mission. My opinion, the sisters did a marvelous job in the last three years helping out. They helped in different ways. We were ourselves displaced, like the rest of the people. We chose to be with the people. Some sisters were cooking for people, others were trying to get them organized in camps or tents. Some thought of opening kindergartens for children where the children could spend part of the day, things like that. We have been trying to help as much as possible. We have been knocking on doors asking people, religious communities, writing letters, asking people for help and so many had positive answers. We are very grateful to everyone who offered help or sent a donation, or offered to pray for us.
How to help:
- Donate directly to the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Sienna through the secure online portals of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield or the Adrian Dominicans.
- To support the rebuilding effort on Nineveh Plain make a donation through Aid to the Church in Need.
- Very large donations for the rebuilding effort may be made by direct deposit to an account set up by the Syriac Catholic Church. For that information contact Sister Beth Murphy, OP at 217-787-0481.