Iraqi woman sent to Australia by Erbil bishop recalls emotional response to papal visit

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By Emilie Ng Hope: Hanar Keka is an Iraqi woman sent by the Archbishop of Erbil to study in Australia as part of a plan to rebuild Iraq. She watched the historic visit of Pope Francis from her home in Brisbane.
HANAR Keka can’t remember a time when the word Iraq didn’t conjure up images of war, terrorists, vast deserts, or even men and women in the traditional long gowns.

“But now there’s an image of the Pope,” Ms Keka said.

The 31 year old is more than grateful for the visual transformation.

Ms Keka hasn’t been in Iraq, her home country, since Christmas in 2018.

She was sent by Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, in northern Iraq, to study in Brisbane as part of his plan to rebuild Iraq, particularly in the areas of education and health.

Any image of Iraq has helped eased her homesickness, but now they are replaced by images of the first Pope to visit Iraq in the history of the Catholic Church.

“It was a positive thing,” Ms Keka said.

“With the media, it has been many, many years, maybe more than 20 years, that there is nothing positive about Iraq – it’s just a war, genocide, troubles.  

“This is the first time the world is watching something else about Iraq, and lots of people are realising, alright, there are Christians there. 

“There are no words for this.”

Pope Francis arrives in a golf cart to visit the destroyed Al-Tahera Syriac Catholic Church in Mosul on March 7. Photo: CNS
Ms Keka had hoped to be in Iraq to witness the Pope’s visit, and particularly to be at the first Mass in Iraq offered by a pope, but God had other plans.

“I had to stay awake until 4am here,” Ms Keka said.  

“And then I had to work on the second day.  

“There was an energy, I did not sleep all night but there was an energy on the second day.”

In the lead up to Pope Francis’ entrance into Franso Hariri Stadium, where the papal Mass was being held, the livestream cameras followed the popemobile through the neighbourhood.

When the cameras strolled past a crowded street in Ankawa, Ms Keka couldn’t believe who she saw on the television.

It was her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in person since Christmas in 2018.

“And I couldn’t hold my tears, I cried,” Ms Keka said. 

“I was like oh my gosh, I’m watching my mum live.

“It has been two years that I haven’t been home.  

“I don’t know how I’m doing it but, I believe that we are not alone. 

“Someone is taking care of me.”

While the Pope is now well and truly out of Iraq, Ms Keka said his powerful call for unity – not just for Christians, but the entire country – leaves a promising future for Iraq.

“There is hope, and I just hope that everything will move in this positive way,” Ms Keka said.

“We don’t know what is going to be the (next) step yet, it is promising.  

“I think there was a big message here, which is it’s possible to make it happen, and I think it’s more like individuals, not community decisions, I would say it’s more like citizen decisions.  

“Yes, it is up to the leaders, but it is union, the spirit of unity.”

More commentary on the Pope’s historic visit to Iraq will be published in The Catholic Leader’s April newspaper.

Iraqi woman sent to Australia by Erbil bishop recalls emotional response to papal visit