By: Paul Dobbyn
AS Iraq’s first Catholic school in 40 years takes tentative steps into the future it will draw on the expertise of two religious sisters trained in educational administration at Brisbane’s Australian Catholic University.
Daughters of Jesus’ Sacred Heart Sisters Samar Mikha and Azhar Koka are returning to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, in the war-torn country’s north after spending 18 months in Brisbane.
They will be giving support to the Margardakh parish school in the suburb of Ankawa.
Since it opened three months ago, it has attracted nearly 600 students.
In conjunction with the Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, they aim to give input to the city’s first Catholic university where construction is underway.
The sisters from the tiny, endangered religious order belonging to the Catholic Chaldean rite arrived in Brisbane with little English, but left the archdiocese last Wednesday with a command of the language, each having also gained a Masters in Educational Administration.
Sisters Mikha and Koka said they were also leaving with an energising vision of the benefits of education to Iraq as it struggled to heal wounds from nearly a decade of conflict.
Both sisters said they aimed to help develop a high level of Catholic education at the new school.
“Many people are coming to understand that the problems in Iraq are not just to do with terrorism,” Sr Koka said.
“This is because any person who has a good education will also have a good way for their life and support their community and live in peace together.
“Education can give people a vision for the future.”
Sr Mikha, summing up her experiences in Brisbane said her studies had been a reminder of the “great value of education”.
“The great thing we can do is to tell Iraqi families, especially Christians, we can do something great in Iraq especially in education,” she said.
The Iraqi sisters’ success has been due to their own extraordinarily dedicated work and a partnership between Bracken Ridge parish priest Fr Gerry Hefferan, CRAQld (Catholic Religious Australia Queensland), the Holy Spirit Sisters and the Missionary Franciscan Sisters community at Kedron.
Fr Hefferan’s visit to Iraq in 2009 set the study plan in motion. He was seeking ways to support the rapidly dwindling Catholic community there.
At this time, Sisters Mikha and Koka had left their convent in Baghdad and were studying degrees in theology at Erbil’s Pontifical Babel College.
They were among many Chaldean Catholics fleeing to the relative safety of Iraq’s north.
Work had already started on Margardakh school, the first Catholic school since the Iraq Government closed all religious schools in 1972.
Fr Hefferan saw the value of providing further education to Catholics there, noting “education, health and social welfare are major areas where the Muslim communities recognise Christian expertise”.
Back in Australia, he had discussions with the Holy Spirit Sisters in Brisbane who were looking at ways to support the people of Iraq.
Eventually in conjunction with CRAQld, the idea of scholarships to support the sisters’ studies came about.
Accommodation for the sisters was provided by the Missionary Franciscan Sisters at Kedron.
The Sacred Heart Sisters attended Mass every Sunday with the Melkite community at St Clement’s Church, South Bank.
Before they left Brisbane, the sisters had a series of farewells at the ACU, the Franciscan Sisters convent and at St Clement’s.
They also attended Mass at Bracken Ridge on the evening of November 10 where they sang the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic.
The community prayed for the sisters and sang a blessing over them. A cross was presented for them to place in the new university in Iraq when it is completed.
Along with an enthusiasm for their new mission back in their home country there was some sadness for the sisters at having to farewell the many friends made in Brisbane.
Sisters Koka and Mikha, however, said they would carry many good memories in their hearts.
“Our hearts and minds have been opened by having to mix with different people and situations,” Sr Koka said.
“It has helped our personalities and spirituality to grow.”
Meanwhile, the archdiocese’s connection to Erbil will continue with a visit from Archbishop Warda expected next year.
A third and final Holy Spirit Sisters/CRAQld scholarship will also provide a young Iraqi woman with the chance to complete a Masters Degree in Health Administration at the ACU next year.