In Iraq, displaced Christians prepare for future that remains unknown

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By Paul Jeffrey
IRBIL, Iraq (CNS) — As heavy fighting continues across the Ninevah Plain, some Christians displaced by the Islamic State group have given up the dream of returning home and joined the stream of refugees leaving the war-torn country. Others remain here in Iraqi Kurdistan, clinging to the hope that they can someday go back to their villages.

“When we fled our convent in Qaraqosh in 2014, we thought we’d be gone just a few days, then we could go home. But now it’s been almost two years, and the future is uncertain. Some of the displaced want to return home as soon as they can. Others have had enough, and they want to leave for good,” said Sister Maria Hanna, superior of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena.

The Dominican sisters opened a school for displaced children in Ankawa last August with 500 students. By April, Sister Hanna said, the enrollment had dropped to 445. The others have left the country with their parents for Jordan, Lebanon or other countries. And the numbers continue to drop.

“We’re preparing the children for the future, but we don’t know what that future will be,” she said.

Determined to continue their accompaniment of the displaced, the order has three sisters living among refugees in Sweden and is considering work in Germany, France, and the U.S. state of Michigan.

What the church cannot do, Sister Hanna said, is tell people what to do.

“The church can’t make decisions for people. If we say stay, we have few resources to help, and people will have problems. If we say to leave, they’ll also have problems. There are no good choices. And the most poor have even fewer options,” she said.

An Iraqi priest who manages a camp for the displaced in Ankawa says it is wrong to think everyone is fleeing for Europe.

“There’s a myth that everyone wants to go to Europe, or that everyone is leaving, but I disagree,” said Rogationist Father Jalal Yako, who was among the last to flee Qaraqosh. He said he heard the cries of the Islamic State combatants as they entered the Christian town.

“There are already people who want to come back home, because Europe is not a paradise, and neither is the United States,” said Father Yako, who lived in Italy for 18 years. “I know what it’s like to live there as a stranger, and it’s not easy. We may all be strangers on the earth, but it’s better when you’re in your home.”

Father Yako said Christians are not alone in their suffering.

“The Muslims and Yezidis have also been affected by this disaster. It’s not just persecution of Christians, but also of Shiites and Yezidis. It’s been even worse for the Yezidis,” he said.

Displaced young people here are not of one mind about their future.

Rand Khaled, 21, is confident she’ll go home to Qaraqosh, which she fled in 2014. “I have friends who’ve gone to the USA and Australia. All of my uncles and aunts have left the country. We keep in touch on Facebook, and they’re always asking me why we aren’t leaving,” she said.

“But why should we leave? I want to live in my country, become a teacher in the university there. I want to stay at home and make my dreams come true. We need only safety to return. We have lots of hope, but little security. And so we wait,” she said. While she waits, Khaled studies accounting.

One of her classmates sees the future differently.

“We all want to leave here as soon as we can. In Europe it’s safe. There is freedom, and no ISIS, no bombs in the streets,” said Alsajed Asaad, a 21-year old Muslim student who fled Tikrit when the Islamic State captured the city in 2014.

“I don’t want to return to Tikrit, even if ISIS goes away. My uncle is in Finland, and I have friends who have gone to Germany, Sweden and Turkey. They say life is good there, that they are respected, that there is peace and safety. Of course I want to leave here,” he said.

Khaled and Asaad study at Hamdaniya University in Ankawa. It’s a newly independent version of what was formerly the Qaraqosh campus of Mosul University. To help with the onslaught of displaced students, the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Irbil provided land and classrooms so that 1,400 students can take classes in Arabic. Most other universities in the Kurdistan region teach in Kurdish.

Even before Islamic State filled his diocese with tens of thousands of displaced families, Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil had dreamed of opening a Catholic university in Iraqi Kurdistan, and in 2012 he and other church leaders laid the cornerstone for the campus they planned. With the humanitarian crisis produced by Islamic State, the project took on new urgency.

The Catholic University launched its first classes in December in a sprawling new facility in Ankawa. Teaching is in English and follows an international curriculum. Archbishop Warda said it will help displaced Christians and others to better prepare for their future, whether that’s back home or in exile elsewhere.

“Just as we’ve helped with shelter and food and health care, it’s our mission to provide education. And once the displaced get a solid education, that will ensure a better future wherever they end up,” he said. “Most people who leave here leave because of the future, not the past. We only ask that they think twice before they leave. The new university gives them an alternative to think about. It gives them a choice.”

In addition to normal classes in accounting, computer science, business administration and similar subjects, the Catholic University offers a special class on English and computers for 30 girls from the crowded displaced camps. And every Friday, more than 200 displaced Catholics study spirituality and pastoral care.

The school is a “symbol of hope,” said Archbishop Warda.

“We in the church are good at education,” he said. “Our schools are respected and trusted by everyone. God has given us people who trust us, so we’re going to bring the whole tradition and culture of Catholic education to this troubled region of world. It’s a way of showing there is no other way than Christ. And it’s a way of equipping people for the future, no matter how uncertain that may seem.”