Staying Catholic, Volunteering in Baghdad’s Chaos

I’ve been the last seven days in Baghdad, lodging in a Chaldean Catholic convent in a Shiite neighborhood across from the green zone. The two nuns here – protected round the clock by guards of their own choosing who are paid by the Iraqi government – leave their small compound only to go to the market or to Mass. The 20 orphan girls under their care were taken to the relative safety of northern Iraq late last year. My colleague and I didn’t get much sleep in the convent, some combination of the low-flying helicopters all night long and the non-stop generator.

Baghdad is a city of concertina wire and concrete barricades and checkpoints and recriminations and fear you can feel. There is nothing normal about this place, and everyone here knows it.

Except some of its people.

I went to a party last Wednesday at a ramshackle home for abandoned elderly people established by the Syrian Catholic Church, called Beit Anya. As far as I could tell, there was no special reason for the party, other than that a group of volunteers mobilized by Caritas Iraq wanted to do something different for the 48 old ladies – Sunni, Shiite and Christian – who sleep six to a room.

I was serenaded with an old Egyptian love song by a woman who thought she was the Beiruti singing sensation Fairouz , and tried to help another lady remember where it was in the US that she did her undergraduate studies 50 years ago. We narrowed it down to Indiana, or Manhattan.

“If I wasn’t volunteering with Caritas, I would leave this country. To Sweden, the US, Canada, Chile, Australia – I have relatives everywhere. But this is my place, and this is my world,” said one volunteer.

Volunteering seems to be a family affair here – men dancing with old ladies in wheelchairs, their wives hearing secrets about life in Baghdad way back when, their children handing out sweets.

I came here expecting, from all I have heard and read, to find a battered Catholic community, all packed and ready to emigrate. Instead, I found a whole lot of Iraqi Catholics who, in the fear and chaos that is Baghdad still today, insist not only on staying in Baghdad but, more than that, are determined to live fully as Iraqi Catholics.

Mark Schnellbaecher, Regional Director for Catholic Relief Services in Europe and the Middle East, writes from Iraq