While the U.S. State Department has issued a warning against travel in Iraq for American citizens, Dominican Sister Durstyne Farnan felt compelled to take on the danger and travel to the country in 2005, in order to demonstrate solidarity with the Iraqi Dominican nuns fleeing religious persecution.
Farnan, along with Sister Arlene Flaherty, spoke at Saint Mary's on Thursday night on how encounters with displaced Iraqi people have enabled them to see light in the midst of darkness. "These young sisters in the congregation had only known war since [they were] about toddler's age," Farnan said.
"They were also unable to complete their education because the university was open one day and closed the next." The decision to flee the violent reality of war and terrorism is complicated, though, by the Iraqis' fierce loyalties to their hometowns, Farnan said. "That is where they grew up, that is where their faith is from, and that is where their family and friends are," Farnan said.
"There's something about those roots that is so deep. Nothing, not even conflict, will never take away their love, their desire, their hope to return home." Flaherty said over 120,000 Christians have been forced to abandon their homes in northern Iraq, adapting to lifestyles of poverty with which they are unfamiliar.
"They're upper middle-class people, who lived in enormous houses," Flaherty said. "We may have an erroneous understanding of who they are, as if they're poor people ... as a result, we're talking about people who had never lived on the street corner before, so they had no idea what it was like."
According to Flaherty, Iraqis encounter difficulty obtaining the refugee status that would grant them basic requirements outlined by the United Nations, due to the fact that countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria only regard them as temporary guests.
"Because they're denied refugee status, Iraqis who are fleeing war are unable to apply for work, unable to access education, social services and healthcare," Flaherty said. "Children continue to be denied their rights, as their access to education and healthcare is sporadic at best."
Flaherty said the expanding presence of ISIS gives Christians and religious minorities no option but to flee their towns, seeking shelter in parks, schools, churches, cemeteries and mosques. "They have three choices: stay and convert to Islam, pay an enormous tax or choose to be beheaded," Flaherty said.
"They're living in limbo, trying to etch out a survival from one day to the next." According to Flaherty, the United States imposed sanctions on Iraq that were designed to oppose the government of Saddam Hussein. Consequently, the Iraqi people were deprived of basic necessities, and many died from diseases since there were no antibiotics available, she said. "The people really couldn't get what they needed," Flaherty said.
"About 5,000 Iraqi children were dying every month from these sanctions." Flaherty said ISIS aims to promote attitudes of despair and desolation among innocent Iraqis, but she knows joy and mercy also exist. "Certainly, Iraq's story has all the markings of a tragedy, and that's the only way many people will ever read it," Flaherty said.
"We want you to see through our experience the resilience, the capacity, the talent, the irrepressible hope that continues to keep Iraq alive." Farnan said she is blessed with the friendships of her Dominican sisters and other displaced Iraqis, for they teach her the importance of maintaining hope in all circumstances. "This is a story of treasure, not only of tragedy," Farnan said. "Yes indeed, we have family in Iraq."
By Martha Reilly