On 6 August 2014, the city of Qaraqosh fell into the hands of IS. The city, located on the Nineveh Plains, about 25 km outside of Mosul, was once considered the largest Christian city in the country. Christians living in this region of Iraq were forced to flee from their homes. IS caused many deaths, destroyed property and displaced thousands of people.

Qaraqosh was liberated by the Iraqi army in 2016. Once the city had been freed, families began to return. Now, seven years after the invasion, remarkable progress has been made in rebuilding the city. And the Church has been closely involved in this development. An expressive example can be found in the work of the Sisters of the Congregation of Saint Catherine of Siena, an order that has been very active in this region since 1890. The sisters were among the first to return after the liberation of the city, and they did not hesitate to start working on there building of the community. The return and presence of the religious sisters encouraged many Christians to come back to their homes and revive the Christian community on the Nineveh plains.

Sister Clara Nas, the prioress of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena, had barely returned to Qaraqosh in 2016 when she had the idea of building a new secondary school. When she told others about her dream, people would not take it seriously because families had just survived the horrors and the suffering caused by the IS. People were beginning to return to a city that had completely been destroyed. Many considered the project of building a new secondary school outside the realm of the possible.

Sister Clara, however, refused to give up her vision. “Our goal was to offer young people a place of reconciliation and healing after being displaced by IS and living for so many years as refugees,” she explained. In 2018, she sought the necessary support to undertake the project of building a new secondary school.  Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and the Federal Chancellery of the Republic of Austria promised to help.

ACN Communications Trip Middle East, 17 – 25 May 2016
Al Bishara School of the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Sienna in Erbil, Iraq

Families in Qaraqosh received the news that a new secondary school was going to be built with great jubilation because one of the main concerns of those who had returned or were planning to return was the education of their children. The current education system in the region is of very low quality. There are so many pupils that the schools work in two shifts, teaching one group in the morning and the second in the afternoon. Another problem is a lack of school supplies. To make matters worse, there is a shortage of teachers. The government does not offer enough teaching positions to meet the region’s needs, besides not paying competitive salaries, with which teachers could earn a living.

However, there is another reason for the project to be received with such great enthusiasm. The religious sisters are known and highly appreciated by the locals for their many years of experience in education. Prior to the invasion of IS, they ran the Al-Thaira primary school. They continued to carry out their mission of education as refugees in Erbil and taught the displaced children in temporary schools set up in containers. The primary school in Qaraqosh was reopened in 2017 and now has 427 pupils.

IRAQ / NATIONAL 18/00361 Construction of secondary school in Qarqush (Qaraqosh)

The secondary school is expected to open its doors on 1 October for 625 pupils between the ages of 13 and 18. “As Dominican sisters, we are convinced that education illuminates the mind and opens the hearts to the truth. That is why we initiated the project for a new secondary school – in a village where young people urgently need a healthy educational environment,” Sister Clara explained.

The new three-storey school building will help the community in many ways. First of all, it strengthens the educational system in the region and frees pupils from the burden of having to attend school in two shifts. Furthermore, there is a plan to build a sports field, which will be open to all young people in the community – even those who are not enrolled at the school.

In addition, the building project offers new employment opportunities within the community because locals were hired for the construction work. About 200 engineers and construction workers are involved in the building of the new school. Once completed, it will offer jobs for teachers and other school personnel.

The religious sisters will have a chaplain at the new school, as they did at their primary school. They know that it is a valuablesource of spiritual support for their pupils. The young people canmake use of the school chapel, which is open to all. They can also participate in a wide range of religious activities, such as catechism classes and prepare for their First Holy Communion.

“We are deeply grateful for your solidarity. We very much appreciate your moral and financial support, which is helping us to remain in our country,” Sister Clara said to ACN.

ACN is involved in many projectsin the Nineveh Plains to rebuildBaghdida (Qaraqosh) and provide the assistance Christian families need to return to their homes after the invasion of IS. Among other things, the pastoral charity has approved grants for the education of the children living in the region as well as for rebuilding six kindergartens and an orphanage.