Dominican-Iraqi sister Habiba Bihnam Toma spoke Wednesday about the time she spent helping refugees after bombings in northern Iraq in 2014.
Toma said she and her fellow sisters did not want to leave Qaraqosh, Iraq until everyone in the village had fled, but upon hearing news that ISIS was on its way, they were forced to retreat.
“A friend called me and tearfully pleaded that the sisters leave quickly,” Toma, who began learning English in the fall, said.
“ISIS had already entered…and we were in grave danger.” ISIS demanded the remaining survivors convert to Islam, pay monthly fees or be killed.
Between this and the explosions, 25,000 Iraqis were forced to leave their homes, many with little more than the clothes on their backs. “(The) only (things) we brought with us (were) our prayer books,” Toma said.
“It was a shock to leave the walls of our convent and see the streets full of cars and people, all doing as we were doing, leaving our (homes) out of fear for our lives.”
Alongside their neighbors, the Dominican sisters traveled 48 miles east to Ankawa, Iraq.
“The main road was (so) filled with cars and people walking that we could not continue,” Toma said. “We abandoned the road for (an) unused path.”
A soldier guarding the border of Ankawa’s providence, Kurdistan, kept the Dominican sisters from entering by car.
“I told him all of (the) sisters can’t walk,” Toma said. “They are elderly.” They had barely reached Ankawa when ISIS invaded. “We heard the sound of gunshots,” Toma said.
“We were afraid. (We) cried, prayed and moved slowly among the thousands of people crouching to the ground to avoid the bullets and yelling, ‘Where are you, O God? Why have you abandoned us?’”
Toma said survivors lived on the streets and in churches.
Many sought shelter in incomplete buildings that did not have windows or roofs. The only heat they had to prepare food with was from the sun.
Many were crying. They were sleep-deprived, hungry and thirsty. Like the Dominican sisters, the priests and bishops who had also fled and suffered the same fate refused to leave the refugees’ sides.
“Finally, all of the sisters arrived at the convent,” Toma said.
“(We) numbered 75 living in a building meant to hold 20.” The sisters and priests split into 15 teams of two to travel across Ankawa and assist at various camps, with some living in a school abandoned for the summer.
“All day we visited (the refugees), listened to their suffering, encouraged them to be patient, wait in hope and strength of their faith,” Toma said.
The sisters gathered adults to pray and kept the children busy at play. They accepted donations of food, clothing, water and money.
“Each family had limited living space, several sharing one classroom, others crowding under the stairs or living in tents,” Toma said.
“The men and young people slept outside under the stars.” Eventually, school was back in session, and the refugees were forced out to the tents.
Toma recalled that the rain brought snakes and scorpions, but eventually the church managed to rent houses for the displaced families.
“Some of the young adults (had) given up their college in order to work and provide for their families,” Toma said.
“Because all of our (younger) students were without school, we noticed an increase in violent behavior among them.”
As a result, the sisters opened four makeshift kindergartens and two elementary schools.
“Everyone was suffering because ISIS destroyed not only our homes and schools but our churches and monasteries and all the landmarks of our 2,000-year-old Christian culture,” Toma said.
“We feel that we can only return to our village when there is peace and when the international community can (ensure) our safety and protection.”
by Mallory Kutnick