Iraqi Christians who stay are pillars of the local community

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Worshippers pray during Mass in 2017 at St. George Chaldean Catholic church in Teleskof, Iraq, which was damaged by Islamic State militants. (Credit: Marko Djurica/Reuters via CNS.)

ERBIL, Iraq – Though many young Christians in Iraq arguably seem to be caught in an endless repeat of the chorus of the 1982 hit by The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” those who have unquestionably committed to sticking it out have become pillars for the local community, taking on leadership roles that aim not only to survive in the present situation, but to improve and thrive in it.

In many ways, personalities like Sister Rosemary of the Daughters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Erbil, Alin Rassam and Rami Rafael represent the best and the brightest of Iraq’s Christian youth, and they are a shining example of just how much potential is ready to be deployed with the right projects and a strong work ethic.
Making improvements where it’s possible

To her own awareness, Rosemary, 35, is the only consecrated religious in Iraq who graduated medical school and is now working as a doctor in a government-run hospital. Currently pursuing further studies to be a pediatrician, she says she wants to improve the quality of healthcare in Iraq and work to build bridges between members of different cultural and religious communities.

Speaking to Crux from her convent in Ankawa, the Christian suburb of the Kurdish-controlled Erbil, Rosemary said she is proud to be a doctor, having graduated from medical school in 2009. While outside of Iraq many priests or religious study to become doctors, “here, I think I’m alone.”

The mission, she said, “is beautiful, because in a government hospital you see people from different [cultures and] religions: Muslim, Kurdish and Arabic people; it’s not just for Christians, and that makes us witnesses to accept anyone, even if they are different religions and different cultures than me.”

“I think it is a gift,” she said, explaining that she has had several conversations with people about her faith and the differences between Christianity and Islam, but never once has she felt threatened.

Muslim women, she said, also feel more comfortable with her because of the veil she wears as part of her religious habit.

“They think I am similar to them with the hijab,” she said, referring to the headscarf worn by Muslim women. “So, it is comfortable for them to have doctors [who are] covered,” even if the veil is different.

“This is my identity, this is me giving everything for God, it’s not like a hijab…but that’s okay, because it means I can be closer to them,” she said.

Rosemary said she decided to pursue pediatric studies after working in camps for the displaced after Christians, Yazidis and many moderate Muslims who fled ISIS’s takeover of the Nineveh Plains in 2014.

When hundreds of thousands of people fled their villages the night of Aug. 6, 2014, around 700 families made their way to Shaqlawa, a small village about an hour north of Erbil. A camp was eventually set up for the families, and Rosemary, who was working as a general physician at the time, went to the village on a regular basis to provide healthcare services to the displaced.

“We saw that some children needed help, the elderly needed their chronic medication every day, so we needed to solve their problems,” she said, adding that “it’s not like teaching, when we postpone it until there is more time, this is an emergency need.”

Emergency situations such as the crisis in 2014 are opportunities to learn, but they also highlight areas where improvement is needed, she said, explaining that Iraq generally has a poor healthcare system. So to further her own professional development and raise the quality of children’s care in the country, she decided to pursue pediatric studies.

“We have poor quality here in terms of medical service,” she said. If one were to visit any hospital in the Kurdish region, “you would see, there is a defect in the number of physicians, there is a defect in medical supplements [and] even in nursing staff, the new generation is not efficient enough to do their jobs.”

The reason for this, she said, is due to both a low-quality education in the medical field, and also a lack of simple necessities, such as basic medications and oxygen.

“There are many, many miserable situations in our hospitals,” she said, noting how she currently works in a neo-natal unit, and oftentimes many premature babies die within a few days because they don’t have enough oxygen to supply. On occasion during night shifts, the oxygen will shut down for the entire hospital, leaving even adult and elderly patients without.

Pursuing further training and studies, she said, is also a matter of being prepared for the future in the case of another emergency. “Our country is not stable, all of the time we think that there will be war or something, so we have to be ready,” she said, and as someone who has committed her life to serving God and others, she said she has “to think about what people need and the future.”

Noting how Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda is in the process of building a new hospital that will serve all religions and which will feature ongoing formation for new graduates and exchange programs allowing doctors and nurses to travel abroad, Rosemary said he wants to work for the hospital when it opens and hopes that it will enhance the education medical students receive.

However, she insisted that she would still stay on at the government hospital, because “it’s like a witness to them. We are different culture and different religions, but we can live together without any problems, so it’s like a gift for me to work in here and then to go work in our hospital.”

RELATED: For Iraqi Christians, bypassing the system is usually the key
Service and professionalism as a way forward

Rassam and Rafael, both 25 and both members of a local fellowship community founded by Warda in 2011, have extensive experience running programs for refugees and those who were displaced by ISIS in 2014. Going forward, they say they want to use their specific skills to serve and to build up the local community.

Rassam, who has lived in Erbil since 1998 and who graduated from the University of Kurdistan with a bachelor’s degree in computer hardware engineering, was one of the people tasked with creating a database of the thousands displaced fleeing ISIS who showed up on the church’s doorstep Aug. 6, 2014.

“It was a terrible situation, and everybody is coming, and nobody has any plan, nobody prepared anything for this, it was very sudden,” he said, explaining that he worked with a team who went around daily to collect names and distribute food.

It took them about six months to create a full database of everyone who had come to Erbil from the Nineveh Plains, he said, noting that this database was then shared with large organizations, apart from the United Nations, and local companies who wanted to offer either general, or specific help.

For example, some organizations wanted to offer specific support for pregnant women and children, so Rassam and his team, when they would receive these requests, would share the data they had collected on CDs or USB drives, so organizations would know the number of people in need, and how much support to offer.

“This was not their duty, but the situation was a big mess, so they were trying to show some sort of support,” Rassam said, but noted that “it was not enough, because we had 13,000 families here, just Christian families, it was a huge number.”

He also helped lead a housing project launched in 2015 to provide money so families could rent houses from locals instead of living in the caravans that had been set up for the refugees and displaced living in camps. Though the caravans provided by aid agencies had bathrooms inside, in other camps which did not have the caravans, some 1,000 people would be forced to share a bathroom, increasing the risk of disease.

Because of this, Rassam said, organizations such as Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus decided to launch the housing project. Both organizations are key contributors to the “Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project,” organized and led by local churches on the ground and aimed at rebuilding Christian villages destroyed by ISIS on the Nineveh Plains.

(The Knights of Columbus are a principal partner of Crux.)

However, the program closed in 2017 when the Iraqi government declared that Mosul was safe and that ISIS had been defeated, meaning Christians could return to their villages. Since August of 2017, Rassam has taken a step back from his volunteer work, but now has a job with the consulate of Hungary, whose government has also been a key player in rebuilding efforts, particularly in the village of Teleskoff.

Speaking of his work with the displaced, Rassam said “you wouldn’t like it. Not because of the IDPs, but because of what you would feel about them…In a day you leave everything behind with no planning, and you come here…IDPs were sleeping here, in the garden, in the church, here inside the building of the church, there was no place to sleep…nobody would ever wish anyone to have to [go through this].”

“I would be worse if I were in their situation,” he said.

Yet while Rassam was dealing with the technical side, Rafael, who studied to be a dentist, jumped at the opportunity to volunteer at a makeshift medical clinic that was set up when the displaced arrived to Erbil in 2014.

Originally set up in a room inside the offices of the archdiocese since so many people took refuge there in the beginning, the clinic started off as a small space used as a pharmacy, diagnostics room and treatment facility.

However, in October 2014 Malteser International, an NGO run by the Order of Malta, offered to build a more functional clinic, which was set up in just a few months and was composed of 10 caravans with a staff of volunteer doctors and nurses, some of whom were themselves displaced.

“All services are free, no matter what the consolations, tests or drugs, even cancer and those that cost $5-600, after studying the cases,” Rafael said, explaining that funding to keep the clinic running came not only from Malterser International, but also from the Hungarian government, who coughed up some $500,000 to keep the center running for the past eight months.

Currently, the clinic offers help to some 2,428 people with chronic illnesses who are given a card for a monthly prescription, as well as some 70-100 daily walk-ins.

The center serves mainly displaced Christians who are still in Erbil, as well as a small number of locals who live in extreme poverty. It was closed in March when funding ran out, however, their contract with the Hungarian government has been renewed, and services offering medication to patients with chronic illnesses was reopened earlier this month.

Rafael, although a student at the time, was tapped to head the clinic in 2016. He said they want to keep the clinic open for another six to eight months to serve the displaced who are still in Erbil but noted that it is getting harder to find volunteers due to time constraints from other professional duties.

“We are more limited than before, because we don’t have the manpower. It’s not just about having funds, it’s about having the funds and people who want to help,” he said, noting how he himself has a day job as a human resources representative for Samaritan’s Purse in addition to managing the clinic.

Rafael does not anticipate the clinic being open past the next few months, since most of the displaced are returning to their villages.

Each month, he said, he goes to villages on the Nineveh Plains with Samaritan’s Purse, “and there are more people and more houses being rebuilt.”

Though many are still in Erbil, these people are either the ones whose houses were completely burned, or they have enough money to continue renting while waiting for the situation at home to stabilize.

“But the number of people who are returning is growing,” Rafael said, “because there is no point in staying here. It is either, you go to your home or you leave the country.”

Both Rassam and Rafael, who are committed to staying in Iraq, hope to use their professional talents to continue serving where they are needed in order to help build the community up.

“Everyone should be happy to serve if they can,” Rassam said, explaining why he wanted to volunteer.

The people suffered greatly, he said, and as a Christian, he believes “the Church should take care of their community. We were very happy to help Christians, and we also helped other religions.”

“For me, anyone who can help, it would be a happy decision. It’s not that complicated, and it doesn’t need that many details,” he said, and voiced hope that he can continue to serve while in his new position at the consulate of Hungary.

Rafael said that his own desire to give back comes from growing up in the Church, where he was taught “to serve rather than being served.”

“It’s always better to serve than looking for someone to serve me, and if I have something to share, whatever skills I have – maybe I’m not very smart, but I have things that can help people, so I have to share it,” he said.

“Everyone has their own skills, and in one way or another you can find a way to use these skills, to use what you love to do, what you are good at, to help others,” he said, adding that “as a true Christian, you have simply to serve and not to be served.”

Iraqi Christians who stay are pillars of the local community