This August 6th will mark the one-year anniversary of the most tragic day in the lives of a number of Dominican sisters currently serving in Iraq, who suffered and faced on one day challenges that many will not face in a lifetime. These sisters remained resolute in their faith and mission despite the bloodshed, heartbreak and tragedy that they witnessed on that fateful day and in the months following.
Hearing bombs in the distance was not an uncommon occurrence for these sisters and their communities given the conflict that was happening nearby between Iraqi-Kurdish forces and IS. “In the morning we heard the bombs,” Sister Lyca explained. “We thought it was normal because there was a clash between the two parties.” What was not normal, however, was what happened next. “At ten o’clock in the morning there were bombs that fell in village,” Sister Lyca said. “Three people died: two children and a young girl. It was terrible news.” Diana, another sister, explained that the young girl who had been killed was recently engaged.
Many began to flee the village after the bombing, but the sisters stayed, feeling they had to provide support to the people and hoping that this instance would be like previous ones, where the threat only lasted a few short days. They also felt safe due to the protection of Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces, who had sworn to protect them. “We put all of our trust in Peshmerga because they promised to protect us. Up until the last minute we were so certain that they would defend us,” Sister Diana said. “But when we saw them taking their uniforms off, we knew that the time of danger had finally arrived.” Abandoned by their protectors and completely defenseless, the sisters decided to leave their convent in Qaraqosh and march with the other thousands of refugees with only half an hour to pack their things. “We were panicked when they told us ISIS had gotten into the roads, so many people left with even their nightgowns on.”
“The distance between Erbil and Qaraqosh is one hour. We made it in 10 hours because there was a huge traffic jam,” Sister Lyca said. The sisters marched alongside tens of thousands of other refugees fleeing the impending attack from IS. “From 11:30 at night to the next morning we marched without any food or water,” Sister Diana said. “We’re talking about August when the heat is unbearable: 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) with no water.” Alongside the heat exhaustion and dehydration the sisters and others dealt with were a number of horrible sights that left powerful impressions on the sisters. “When we got into the streets we saw thousands and thousands of people marching, cars and people walking,” Sister Diana said. “Cars meant for five people held eight to ten. We heard children shouting and crying, very afraid.”
One sight in particular burned itself into the memories of the sisters. “When we passed a checkpoint, there was an ambulance behind us,” Sister Lyca said. “We heard that there were five Islamists in the car, and the army began to fire on the car and on other cars. We saw people walking, running, and taking their children. Mothers took their children and threw them into our car to save their lives. It was a time that I cannot forget. It was terrible.”
The refugee camps in Erbil were a tragic sight to the sisters as well. “When we got here, it was even more horrible to see people scattered everywhere like sheep without a shepherd,” Sister Diana said. “Some of these people left mansions. They had so much. So much, and in just a few hours they became homeless. We began to realize that our displacement might not take days, but it could take years and years.”
Unwilling to leave the people in this state, the Church stepped forward to provide aid. Churches were opened on the second day for refugees to stay in. Sisters began teaching the children and providing what education they could, some even taking on classes of hundreds of students like Sister Ban did.
Yet despite these selfless efforts, the Church and the refugees struggle on a spiritual level. “We lost our dignity here. We have been humiliated in so many ways,” Sister Diana said. “We are living day-by-day, but the fact is that deep down, this is not the way that human beings should live. We’re living, but it’s like living in a cage. We don’t have the power or strength to stretch our wings where we want.” Though they have worked hard to provide education for children, they fear it is not enough. “Our kids come to school for two or three hours a day. It’s nothing. Our college students are deprived from school. As Christians, we love education. What ISIS is doing to us is killing a new generation, because if this generation does not get educated, neither will the next one.” On top of this, hospitals lack the facilities to deal with all their patients, and there are concerns that the aid coming in may not be enough to last. “To the government and even the United Nations, we’re just numbers. We’re not considered as human beings,” Sister Diana said.
The sisters remain hopeful, however, and keep their faith in God. “We have brought all these things into our prayers,” Sister Huda said. “This is my faith. God is with us. God saved us when we came here. We want to thank all the people who think of us and who are helping us.