We recently had the International Formation Team meeting in Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil, in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Little sister Lamia, who is part of the team, is Iraqi and she suggested that we meet in her country, instead of meeting in Rome as we usually do. We were immediately enthusiastic about her proposal because it offered a chance to get to know her country, of which we had heard so much and which none of the others knew.
At our stopover in Istanbul airport, we saw many people dressed in white. They were pilgrims leaving for Mecca. We got a foretaste of the diversity we would encounter.
At Erbil airport, Carmela, Marianna and I bought entry visas issued by the Kurdistan autonomous government. They didn’t allow us to go to Mosul or Baghdad. For Sr Marie-Odette, a Rwandan, we had to apply for a visa through the Church.
We met to work together on ongoing formation and to prepare our contribution to the General Chapter.
Moments of work alternated with visits in the region. We also had an important meeting with the little sisters of Mosul who came to meet us. It was a great joy to see them again, to be together and to share with each other.
Through their testimonies, I understood better the way Christians have had to move several times in the last few years because of war, abandoning their homes and their land.
A little history: the events of June 2014 led the Little Sisters to leave Mosul, along with others who were fleeing. They first went to Bashiqa. This city, in the Nineveh plain, is a place inhabited mainly by Yezidis, who live peacefully with Assyrian Orthodox and Catholic Christians. Then they had to leave this town as well and join the little sisters in Ankawa.
At first, the people of Ankawa and the Little Sisters welcomed refugees in their homes and on their land. Solidarity and compassion came naturally. Later, tents were set up. Then, slowly, camps were organised with caravans for about 1,000 families. The Little Sisters lived there for about two and a half years.
Gradually, the refugee camp was closed and houses were built. The little sisters wanted to return to Mosul. They drew nearer stage by stage, first staying in Bartella, about 20 kilometres from Mosul.
Father Emmanuel Raid, the parish priest, brought the caravan-chapel from the refugee camp to the rebuilt church in Mosul. He undertook its reconstruction with the help of young Muslims. This is the sign of a new stage. Muslims have also suffered a lot and many did not agree with the invasion and the practices of Isis. Now people are thinking: Islam can’t be like this… This is a good time to open up to dialogue.
The little sisters returned to Mosul empty-handed and the Lord had prepared many people they did not even know to help them. The neighbourhood where they used to live is completely destroyed and they could hardly recognise their house. When they went to see it, a man shouted: “Come and see, the blue is back!” There are some Christian families in the town who meet on Sundays after the Eucharist to have coffee together.
One little sister works in a state clinic in Bartella, which is now a mixed village. People can be treated for a small fee.
The other little sister works in a centre for those suffering from autism and mental handicaps. There is an increase in autism. Some people think it is due to trauma etc.
The little sisters try to be attentive to the small daily signs that bring life and hope. They returned to Mosul with a great desire to cultivate trust and reconciliation. They can share much with Father Emmanuel, who is also well known to the authorities and with whom there is a deep understanding. He told Pope Francis during the latter’s visit to Iraq: “I am the only priest in Mosul with 70 Christian families but 2,000,000 Muslims call me ‘Father’!”.
The impression I got from listening to our exchanges was one of great complexity. There are different affiliations: Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Yazidi, Assyrian Christians, Chaldeans, Orthodox and Catholics, and more… The languages too: Arabic, Kurdish, Aramaic… These differences are a richness and a challenge.
In Ankawa, there is a garden where anyone who wishes can walk or go jogging. It is a place where one can unload the many daily tensions. Roses adorn the paths, offering their beauty to the eyes of passers by. I also took advantage of this and often found myself with women who, while walking, were praying the rosary. I joined them in praying for this country and its people, for the need for peace, stability and security that is felt with every step.
Having our meeting in this country was a great gift. We were in a land ploughed by suffering and fertilized by the endurance of those who put their hope and their lives in the hands of God.
It was an intense two weeks, which gave me the joy of reconnecting with the Eastern churches and the richness of their liturgy, with the “music” of the Aramaic and Arabic language along with the warmth and attention of an Oriental welcome. I am deeply grateful for the presence of the Fraternity and of all the people who are courageously starting to rebuild their lives and who are perseveringly seeking peace and harmony.