God • World • Human Family • Church
Iraq: After the Exodus, Grace Inside India’s Red Corridor Supporting Armenia’s Elderly The Life of a Factory Worker Priest
Grace Meet the sisters bringing hope to displaced Iraqis by Don Duncan
22 30 34 4 40 42
Middle East Society Are the threads unraveling? from the editors
A Day in the Life of a Husband, Father, Factory Worker, Priest by Joyce Duriga with photographs by Karen Callaway A Letter From Armenia by Flora Sargsyan Serving in the Red Sisters help the poor in India’s “Red Corridor” by Jose Kavi with photographs by Jose Jacob
DEPARTMENTS Connections to CNEWA’s world People Sister Sophie Boueri, D.C. by Amal Morcos Focus on the world of CNEWA by John E. Kozar
t The Rev. Sharbel Bcheiry celebrates the Divine Liturgy in his Chicago-area parish.
OUR WEBSITE onemagazinehome.org OUR BLOG cnewablog.org
OFFICIAL PUBLICATION CATHOLIC NEAR EAST WELFARE ASSOCIATION
Volume 41 NUMBER 2
Looking for the best? There’s only ONE
36 Front: Sister Habiba prays in a tent church erected for displaced people in northern Iraq. Back: Young refugees greet CNEWA President Msgr. John E. Kozar on his pastoral visit to Iraq. Photo Credits Front and back covers, pages 3 (lower left), 5, 9, 13 (inset), 43, John E. Kozar/CNEWA; pages 2, 23-29, Karen Callaway; pages 3 (upper left), 10-13, 15-21, Don Duncan; pages 3 (upper right and far right), 30-31, Nazik Armenakyan; pages 3 (lower right), 34-35, 37-39, Jose Jacob; page 4, L’Osservatore Romano; page 7, CNS/Rodi Said, Reuters; pages 32-33, Michael La Civita; page 40, CNS/Paul Haring. ONE is published quarterly. ISSN: 1552-2016 Publisher Msgr. John E. Kozar
30 Editorial Staff Paul Grillo Deacon Greg Kandra Michael J.L. La Civita Elias Mallon, S.A., Ph.D. J.D. Conor Mauro Timothy McCarthy CNEWA Founded by the Holy Father, CNEWA shares the love of Christ with the churches and peoples of the East. CNEWA works for, through and with the Eastern Catholic churches to identify needs and implement reasonable solutions. CNEWA connects you to your brothers and sisters in need. Together, we build up the church, affirm human dignity, alleviate poverty, encourage dialogue — and inspire hope. Officers Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Chair and Treasurer Msgr. John E. Kozar, Secretary Editorial Office 1011 First Avenue, New York, NY 10022-4195 1-212-826-1480 www.cnewa.org ©2015 Catholic Near East Welfare Association. All rights reserved. Member of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada.
Honored with First Place for General Excellence at the 2015 Catholic Press Association awards Give the gift of a subscription today In the United States: 1-800-442-6392 I www.cnewa.org In Canada: 1-866-322-4441 I www.cnewa.ca
to CNEWA’s world
ROACO Meets in Rome In June, CNEWA’s Msgr. John Kozar chaired the biannual meeting of dozens of Catholic aid agencies called together by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches. A chief concern was the continued hardship of Christians in Iraq and Syria. Addressing the gathering, Pope Francis said, “The lands of the Middle East, marred by years of conflict, are also marked by the footprints of those who seek refuge and soaked with the blood of many men and women, including numerous Christians persecuted for their faith.”
Spreading the Word In late May, CNEWA’s President Msgr. John E. Kozar met with friends and benefactors from the greater New York region at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, New York, and reported on his recent pastoral visit to Iraq and Egypt. Some 60 people gathered to hear his moving account of meeting refugees and aid workers — including the religious sisters he describes as the “foot soldiers” of the church. Again and again, he said, he encountered resilience and hope. “They wanted us to know one thing,” he said quietly. “They wanted us to know they love the Holy Father. And they wanted to thank him for his prayers. They wanted us to know they were believers.” And he recounted meeting a little girl who told the visitors, “they have taken our homes, but they will never take our faith.”
The talk left those in attendance uplifted and inspired — and raised funds to support CNEWA’s mission in the Middle East. Read more at our blog: www.cnewablog. org/web/wordgift. And if you are interested in having CNEWA come to visit your parish or school, contact our Development Director Norma Intriago at nintriago@ cnewa.org. Relief Rushed to Middle East CNEWA rushed $849,200 in June to aid Christians in the Middle East: “The funds address a broad spectrum of needs across a broad area of the region,” said Msgr. Kozar, “and reflect the vast scale of the challenges facing Middle East Christians.” Aid supports initiatives as diverse as post-trauma counseling, medical care, formation of sisters and priests, and renovation of church institutions. As always, programs are administered by CNEWA’s personnel in the region, who partner with the local churches
and their priests, sisters and lay professionals. These funds represent the second portion of CNEWA’s allocation from the collection taken up last autumn in most U.S. Catholic dioceses and eparchies. ONE Wins ONE magazine took top honors at the annual Catholic Press Association Awards in June, including First Place for General Excellence for mission magazines. The judges praised the magazine’s “first rate journalism,” with “consistently strong reporting and research,” adding, “the editors raise the bar for every publication. … Obviously, they do it right.” The prizes were handed out at the association’s annual Catholic Media Conference, this year held in Buffalo, New York. For a full list of awards, visit our blog: www.cnewablog.org/ web/cpa2015
OUR WEBSITE onemagazinehome.org OUR BLOG cnewablog.org Remembering François In May, the CNEWA family lost a dear friend and colleague. François Moniz died at the age of 56 after a courageous battle with cancer. François was instrumental in the creation of the national office in Ottawa, and deeply committed to the mission of CNEWA. In the words of Carl Hétu, CNEWA Canada’s national director, “We will remember him for his kindness, generosity and friendly smile. We give thanks to God for the blessing that François was in our lives.” Our prayers are with François’ wife Edith and their two children. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. Capuchin Center in Ethiopia CNEWA’s regional director for Ethiopia, Argaw Fantu, shared recent developments at the Capuchin Retreat and Training Center in Addis Ababa. Under the direction of the Capuchin Rev. Daniel Assefa, the center seeks to support the pastoral and theological needs of the Ethiopian Catholic Church — and, through the generosity of CNEWA’s donors, has been able to offer classes, workshops and Scripture study to nearly 70 lay faithful over the last year, including catechists and university students. Since 2012, thousands more have used the facility for retreats and conferences. In a country where Catholics are a tiny minority, the center has been an invaluable asset not only for the church, but for the entire country. As CNEWA’s program officer Tarekegn Umuro wrote, the center is “a source of not only good citizens, but also of vocations.”
YEAR of SISTERS
ast November, Pope Francis launched a “Year of Consecrated Life,” calling special attention to those vowed members of religious orders, institutions and congregations. At CNEWA, we are focusing in a special way on those we consider the “foot soldiers” of the faith, religious sisters. In so many ways, they have been our partners in every corner of CNEWA’s world — serving to uplift the poor, bring comfort to the suffering and offer the face of Christ to those most in need. Throughout this summer edition of ONE, you will meet heroic women bringing hope and a healing touch in Lebanon, Iraq and India. As we mark our own “Year of Sisters” at CNEWA, we believe these exceptional women embody the beautiful words of Pope Francis, who, in instituting this year, urged all who have embraced consecrated life: “Have the courage to be present in the midst of conflict and tension as a credible sign of the presence of the Spirit, who inspires in human hearts a passion for all to be one.”
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There is more to discover about CNEWA’s world online: • New novices take vows in Kerala, India • CNEWA supports efforts to “go green” in Israel and Palestine • Exclusive video interview with Msgr. Kozar on his recent visit to Iraq and Egypt
THESE AND MUCH MORE CAN BE FOUND AT CNEWA.ORG
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F RO M T H E E D I T O R S :
M I DDLE EA ST SOCI ETY
Are the Threads Unraveling?
f the many prized articles produced in the Middle East, among the most precious and renowned are carpets. “Persian carpets” or “Oriental rugs” are not only useful, but offer artisans opportunities to create objects rich in brilliant color and complex patterns. In a way, that sums up the complicated life of Middle Eastern society: a beautiful and intricate creation, with many interwoven strands of culture and belief. It is a creation CNEWA prizes — and seeks to preserve. As an agency of the Holy See, CNEWA has worked in the Middle East for more than 80 years, supporting initiatives of the churches that not only strengthen the Christian community, but also the non-Christian majority, especially in the areas of health care and education. By supporting generations of priests and counselors, doctors and nurses, midwives and sisters, therapists and teachers, a tightly woven society would, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, lead to “positive secularism” and thriving Middle Eastern societies “concerned for the fundamental rights of the human person ... whatever his or her origins, religious convictions and political preferences.”
In recent years, however, the great carpet of Middle Eastern society has begun to unravel. There are many reasons for this, and it is at times difficult to separate cause from effect. But it is useful to look at how history led us to this point — and what may lie ahead.
or thousands of years, caravans moved through the Middle East, exchanging not only the goods of the great civilizations of Greece, Rome, India and China, but peoples, ideas and beliefs. The Middle East was no mere passive recipient; the region gave birth to three religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — whose members believe in the one God. As these Middle Eastern religions spread throughout the entire world, they transformed and adapted to the many cultures with which they came in contact. Shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 632, Islam as a religious and political system grew rapidly. From its roots in Arabia, it spread through the Middle East and North Africa to as far west as Spain and as far east as China. Although Islam did win many of its converts through armed conquest, large numbers of people in the conquered lands, especially
those defined as “People of the Book” — i.e., Jews and Christians, and later, Mandaeans and Zoroastrians — retained the faith of their ancestors and did so in relative peace. The Muslim conquest did not bring homogeneity to the civilizations of the Middle East. If anything, it made them more diverse. Middle Eastern cities such as Alexandria, Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus exhibited complex racial, cultural and religious forms. Jews and Christians of all varieties flourished. Alawis, Druze, Mandaeans, Shabaks, Yazidis and Zoroastrians could be found in Syria and Mesopotamia. An array of Syriac Christians described the Plain of Nineveh, near the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, as home. These nonMuslims were not isolated from the Islamic civilization of the Middle East, nor were Muslims impervious to non-Muslim culture. Islam took over many of the cultural aspects of the Christian Middle East and added a uniquely Islamic flavor to them. The Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad (750-1258) engaged Jews and Christians in respectful debates. Syriac Christian manuscripts that preserved ancient Greek learning, such as geometry, medicine and philosophy, were translated into Arabic and later were reintroduced
to the Western world by Muslims in Sicily. Christians held high offices, particularly in the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922), where Christians frequently held the position of vizier or the title of pasha. And during the Arab Renaissance of the 19th century, Christians played a disproportionate role in the areas of literature, nationalism and political thought. Despite the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, a form of immobility settled upon Middle East societies by the turn of the 21st century. But the so-called Arab Spring, together with the rise of increasingly violent Muslim extremist movements, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, have ripped
apart the intricate patterns of Middle East societies, seemingly destroying overnight what was woven across two millennia. Cities such as Aleppo, Baghdad and Mosul, and areas like the Plain of Nineveh, all of which once had considerable communities of Christians, Jews and other minority groups, are bereft of these once colorful and fascinating cultures.
ll of us who work for, through and with the peoples of the Middle East cannot help but watch what is happening there today with concern, and even sorrow. The
connecting threads of this vitally important place are being worn down by hatred and fear, poverty and terror. Civil society is unraveling. The loss of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East will not only be a tragedy to the minorities immediately affected. It may also imperil the vitality and health of the Middle East and its Islamic civilization. In the pages that follow, you will find stories of some of those who are working with CNEWA to try and prevent that from happening — and who are, in ways large and small, helping weave a new future for the land we call “Holy.”
Care for Marginalized
MEET THE SISTERS BRINGING HOPE TO DISPLACED IRAQIS BY DON DUNCAN
n a prefabricated container on the grounds of the Al Bishara Convent in Ain Kawa, a predominantly Christian neighborhood in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil, Sister Magnificat spreads icons she has created across the table. Around her gather a handful of women religious who have come to learn how to write religious icons from the French sister. Before the sisters begin their next lesson, Sister Magnificat grasps the hands of those next to her. “Before we make these icons, we must invite the Holy Spirit to come help us,” she says. “We never sign our own names on the icons we make, but rather we ask the Holy Spirit to come guide our hands as we make them.” With her postcard-size icons popping up in convents, schools and houses, Sister Magnificat’s work can be found all around Erbil. Nearly a year after ISIS displaced
tens of thousands of people — including these stalwart sisters — the work of the Holy Spirit is also in strong evidence.
The Autumn 2014 edition of ONE (above) described the harsh, uncompromising conditions endured by some 120,000 Iraqi Christians after ISIS drove them
from their homes in towns and villages across the Nineveh Plain. Whereas last year, thousands languished in improvised tent dwellings without electricity, sanitary facilities or hope, today those sites look very different. The unfinished building across from St. Joseph’s Church in Ain Kawa, once the scene of despair and misery, now lies empty, its walls newly plastered. The formerly congested grounds of the church can breathe again. The public schools that housed two to three families to a room now ring with the sound of children learning once again. On the surface, it is almost as if all the suffering never took place. Families have been moved from emergency tent dwellings into rented houses and container housing elsewhere in Erbil — many in the Kasnazan neighborhood at the edge of the city. And although their situation has improved over the past eight months, they are still
Displaced Iraqis celebrate the liturgy in a tent church in Kasnazan, in northern Iraq.
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displaced, largely jobless and uncertain what the future holds. Throughout this trauma, a backbone of support for the displaced Christians has been the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, some 73 of whom were also exiled from their convents across the plain. Led by Sister Maria Hanna, mother superior, the community initially administered to the displaced from their convent in Ain Kawa. As families were moved from Ain Kawa to Kasnazan, it became clear a second, satellite convent was required.
“We want to be with the people — to serve the people in the moment,” says Sister Maria. “If they move someplace else, we move with them.” And so, on 15 December, a small convent opened among the Christians relocated to Kasnazan, in a terraced structure identical to those housing refugees. Sisters Sohama Sakar, Rahma Steifo and Victoria Jahola, the three Dominican sisters who run the convent, have created a temporary chapel in the living room consisting of a low
coffee table with a crucifix, candles and some of Sister Magnificat’s icons of Our Lady. Before this humble altar, they pray morning and night. Up the street is a UNICEF-issued tent that has been restyled as a chapel. Now called the “Tent of Hope,” it hosts the Divine Liturgy twice on Sundays, as well as prayer meetings, Bible study, catechism class and a women’s rosary group that meets daily. Sometimes the Sunday crowd swells to 1,100 people and the liturgy must be
celebrated outside under the sun so everyone may participate. The leitmotif evident across all the communities of displaced Christians living in towns across Iraqi Kurdistan is resilience. From the seemingly hopeless ashes of shock and despair of last autumn, green shoots of hope sprout. From Erbil to Dohuk to Suleimaniyah, the Christians, frequently marginalized from public services by the Kurdish authorities, are building their own structures of support and care. The
Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena have been crucial to the slow but steady emergence of this infrastructure from the chaos of displacement.
ithin weeks of their exile, Sister Maria Hanna and her community realized children needed special help in this crucial time. “Children in the displaced families are the real victims,” she says. “They are really crushed by the situation. Entire families had
z Sister Maria Hanna inspects the work of another sister at the Al Bishara convent in Ain Kawa. p Sister Diana Momeka oversees the dispensary at the Martha Schmouny Clinic in Erbil.
to suddenly all live together in one room or tent and the children were not allowed to speak, to express fear or frustration. They couldn’t play. They couldn’t shout. Often they had to bear witness to
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Show the Christians of Iraq they are not alone To learn more: www.cnewa.org
domestic problems caused by the displacement.” Responding to this need, the Dominican Sisters established a kindergarten and an orphanage in Ain Kawa, filling in for institutions abandoned back home. These efforts have eased the burden on families — especially the children themselves, starving to learn and play. “One of the boys was so excited to be going to kindergarten that, the night before the first day back, he slept the whole night with his backpack on,” Sister Maria Hanna says. “He did not want anything to come between him and his learning!” Hearing the news that she’d be going back to kindergarten, Sister Maria says one young girl picked up her family’s statue of the Virgin Mary and danced around, thanking the Blessed Mother again and again. The sisters have plans to open another kindergarten in Kasnazan, and also hope to found schools to be run by and for the community. This will allow older children to learn in their native Arabic or Aramaic, as opposed to Kurdish, and avoid the issue of limited access to Kurdish schools. Beyond child care and education, the sisters also strive to improve
local health care. Disease and mortality shot up once the Christians were displaced and the need for free, accessible primary care was crucial. “Even in the new, improved housing, people are living on the unpaved, dirty ground. This is not healthy. This is not human,” says Sister Maria Hanna. “Psychologically, the condition is getting more difficult because it has been too long now that people have been in this displaced condition.” The Martha Schmouny Clinic started in August, working out of a tent pitched by St. Joseph’s Church in Ain Kawa. Since then it has grown steadily, soon expanding to three container units. Since November, the clinic has relocated to Ashti, another area on the periphery of Erbil to which Christian families have been relocated. Bringing together 40 volunteer doctors and serving some 400 patients a day, the clinic now offers a gamut of services including dental care, gynecological care, lab testing, mammography and pediatrics in its increased complex of seven containers. “These people are broke, they are left with nothing,” says Sister Diana Momeka, the Dominican sister who runs the clinic with the
Rev. Behnam Benoka, a Syriac Catholic priest. “This is a place of hope. We don’t just give them medicine, we give them hope.” Similar clinics have also opened in the Kasnazan district of Erbil and in the Kurdish city of Dohuk while a mobile clinic serves a number of villages in the area of Zakho. While the displaced Christians’ living conditions have improved slightly, they still arrive at the clinic with health issues that attest to their poor living conditions — disproportionately high occurrence of respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, fevers, dehydration and even outbreaks of scabies. “The situation has not improved so much just because people have moved from tents in Ain Kawa to caravans in Ashti or cramped houses in Kasnazan,” says Sister Diana. “It’s not like moving from a cage to a mansion; it’s moving from one space to another. The families still have to all live in the same room. They still lack basic privacies.”
hile they have been busy tending to the needs of their community, the sisters have had to handle their own hardships. They, too, are displaced; they, too, face shelter, food and health problems. Yet the sisters, brothers, priests and bishops who have accompanied the Christians in their hour of need never seem to speak of their own troubles directly. “We forget ourselves and our difficulties when we see the hardship of our people,” says Sister Rahma, from the community’s Kasnazan convent. u Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena are always on the move. z Iraqi refugees gather outside their temporary dwellings in Erbil.
“WE FORGET OURSELVES AND OUR DIFFICULTIES WHEN WE SEE THE HARDSHIP OF OUR PEOPLE.”
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For decades, CNEWA has worked closely with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, supporting their apostolates in health care and education in Iraq and Jordan, as well as providing assistance for the formation of novices and care for those now living in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan. Thanks to the generosity of our benefactors in North America and Europe, CNEWA has reached out to the sisters since the beginning of their exile, rushing emergency relief for those in danger — especially expectant mothers and children. In addition, we have equipped the sisters with the tools they need to provide critical medical and spiritual care for tens of thousands of homeless families. This includes funds to start and sustain the clinics highlighted in this article, as well as food, water, shelter, diapers, blankets and more. CNEWA had been a tremendous support to the sisters and our work, Sister Diana Momeka said during a visit to CNEWA’s administrative headquarters in June. “Through your help, you have helped us give dignity to people. “This is how you care for the body of Christ that has been hurting.” To join us in lending support to those who need it most, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).
“We try to get out of ourselves, to go beyond the crisis and not think of ourselves,” says Sister Marie Therese Hanna in Ain Kawa. But regardless, in the face of the abrupt uprooting and displacement, the sisters felt the same disorientation, worry and despair as the rest. “Like our people, we were just lost,” says the mother superior, Sister Maria. “We were confused. Things were not certain. Things were changeable. We did not know what to think.” Half of the 40 sisters living at Al Bishara remain in temporary housing containers on the grounds of the convent because there is not enough room for everyone in the building. These sisters, such as Sister Hanaa Samir, a novice, endure the biting cold of winter and extreme heat of summer, receiving at best short rations of electricity from the convent generator. “When it rains,” says Sister Hanaa, “water comes through the roof so there are drops here and there. We’d try to fix it, but when we’d fix one spot, the water would come from another spot. I was moving my bed around from one place to the other to avoid the falling water.” But beyond the material privation, the hardest aspect of the past eight months for these sisters has been the number of strokes affecting the older segment of the community. In just six months, the convent has lost 12 sisters, all to strokes — a mortality rate that, in normal times, might have corresponded to six years. The sisters attribute this to the shock and trauma of the expulsion by ISIS and the sudden and overwhelming misery of the Christians arriving for safety in Erbil. “It was mainly because of all this stress and frustration, but also because our elderly sisters were so worried about the people,” says
Sister Maria. “I know that two of the sisters who died had been watching news reports of how ISIS were slaughtering people the night they died, poor things.” Sometimes a death would occur within a day or two of a novice sister’s final vows, normally an occasion of celebration. The whole convent was shaken by the seemingly incessant series of deaths. “I felt in pain psychologically,” says Sister Marie Therese. “But I found some comfort in the fact that all the sisters and me are on the same march. We are all walking toward the Heavenly House, all on a journey toward the Father, and these deceased sisters just happened to reach there before us. We are following them. Our house is not on this earth but in heaven.” This ability to rebound, to seek hope where none can be seen and to remain unshaken in their faith is helping the displaced Christian population of Iraq not only to endure, but also to begin to recover. Despite the suffering, moments of fun and gaiety are heard all over the convent. The days are punctuated by tasks and rituals: prayer, meals, housework. In one corner, some sisters are moving furniture; in another a group of sisters giggle and joke as they clean up after lunch. Upstairs, one of the novices receives a sewing lesson from another sister. She struggles to coordinate her foot on the pedal and her hand guiding the fabric. Laughter abounds. Next door, Sister Maria passes by a sister who has been tasked with sewing together a ferraiolo, or fulllength cape, for one of the priests. They discuss at length how to place some orange fabric that will form a cross on the cape. Out in the caravans in the convent grounds, Sister Magnificat’s iconwriting class is still underway with
much teasing and laughing as sisters grapple with the art form. Life goes on, in the convent and out of it. While the Christians displaced and waiting all over Iraqi Kurdistan are still in dire need of improvement to their lives and prospects, the transformative power of hope and endurance is everywhere to be seen: in the newly plastered surfaces of evacuated shelters; in the bobbing schoolbags of children running to kindergarten; in the congregation filing into the Tent of Hope; in the sisters’ efforts to make a beautiful icon. In their darkest hour, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena — and the larger displaced population — found the strength and the grace to hope, to rebuild, to survive. Many of the sisters look
skyward when they talk about where the strength came from. Others credit the Holy Spirit. “We came as displaced people with nothing, and there was a possibility that we would stay home, cry rivers and just feel sorry for ourselves,” says Sister Marie Therese. “But we forgot about our own problems and went out to reach people in need. This is what brought to us the energy, the strength and the creativity to persevere. “We don’t know how it happened, but we thank God it did.” A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.
Sisters Victoria Jahola and Nazik Matty visit the Tent of Hope, an improvised church in Kasnazan.
DON DUNCAN WRITES MORE ABOUT THE DOMINICAN SISTERS IN IRAQ ON OUR BLOG, ONE-TO-ONE:
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cnewablog.org/web/ dominicansisters AND READ ABOUT HIS VISIT TO AN ORPHANAGE IN IRAQ:
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Stories of GRACE:
SISTER DIANA MOMEKA AND MARTHA SCHMOUNY CLINIC
he expulsion of Iraqi Christians from their homes across the Nineveh Plain last August turned upside down the worlds of tens of thousands of people. Dominican Sister Diana Momeka and Syriac Catholic Father Behnam Benoka, both of whom have earned doctorates, found themselves in lines of work they had never imagined — starting and managing crucial health services for the displaced population in its new city of refuge: Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Just as the lives of Sister Diana and Father Benoka took a radical turn, so, too, did those of the displaced Christians whom they serve. All had to flee home abruptly, arriving in Erbil with no money, medicine or shelter. Soon, diseases related to the squalor in which they found themselves began to crop up and spread. “People came with fever, dehydration, diarrhea,” says Sister Diana. “They were sleeping on the ground with no tents in the beginning. After some days they got tents, but there was no clean water, and so no proper bathing. Diseases like scabies started to increase.”
It became clear some sort of health service was essential, and thus was the Martha Schmouny Clinic born — first in tents donated by French charity SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, and later transformed into a cluster of three prefabricated containers donated by CNEWA. As time has passed, and the reality of the Christians’ displacement has become more and more entrenched, the Martha Schmouny Clinic has continued to grow, its capacity and range of services expanding to provide a better safety net for the vulnerable community. “We often talk about the role of the Holy Spirit in our work,” Sister Diana said as she made her way to the clinic early one recent morning. “We started the clinic like a small grain of yeast and now it has steadily increased like dough.” In the past seven months, Martha Schmouny — through the dedication of its volunteer staff and the generosity of its donors, which include CNEWA and its funding partners in Europe, especially Misereor, as well as Samaritan’s Purse and the Mennonite Central Committee — has managed to expand from being an overwhelmed, improvised clinic to a solid complex of
facilities resembling a basic hospital. In December, the clinic moved from the grounds of St. Joseph’s Church in the Christian district of Ain Kawa to Ashti, a part of town to which displaced Christians were being relocated. On a recent morning, Sister Diana walked through Martha Schmouny, greeting volunteer workers and patients alike. By around 9, a steady line had taken shape at the registration cabin, a unit that sits in the middle of a courtyard formed by other prefabricated units. From the registration cabin, patients are dispatched to the appropriate health departments, which are housed in the surrounding units. Services at Martha Schmouny Clinic now include general medicine, gynecology, pediatrics, dental care and lab testing. In one cabin, a woman reclines as a doctor applies gel to her protruding belly in preparation for an ultrasound scan. In another, a young man opens his mouth wide in anticipation of a filling. Children clamor around the pediatrician’s cabin, awaiting their turn. Once treated and issued with a prescription, patients finally file to a cabin housing the pharmacy to collect their medication. The entire process, from registration to medicine distribution to follow-up is free of charge for the displaced community and the cost is entirely shouldered by the associations supporting the clinic. All around the clinic are rows and rows of prefabricated
housing units. These “new camps” are where the Iraqi Christians were moved from the tents they had lived in during the initial displacement. With each passing day, new families arrive, upgraded from more destitute accommodation elsewhere in Erbil. In the past few weeks, some 600 families arrived, more than doubling the displaced population in Ashti. The result for the clinic, which serves some 220 people a day with a volunteer staff of 40, is a sharp growth in demand for its services. The current operational budget works out at about $40,000 per month, but this is not enough to keep up with the rapid growth of camps around the clinic. “Sometimes I panic,” says Sister Diana, “I feel so stressed and I think, ‘How are we going to continue?’ And yet, when I check my emails, I see an organization or a friend has written to me saying, ‘I would like to donate,’ or ‘How can I help?’ This is a miracle.”
READ ABOUT SISTER DIANA’S VISIT TO CNEWA’S OFFICES IN NEW YORK ON OUR BLOG, ONE-TO-ONE:
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CHILD CARE IN EXILE
t 8:30 a.m., a new facility for the children of displaced Iraqi families is abuzz with the sound of young voices.
From one classroom, a teacher wishes the children a good morning in lilting Arabic. “Sabah al kheir” comes the singsong greeting. “Sabah al nour,” the children reply, wishing a good morning in return. In all five classrooms of the kindergarten, the day begins with the “first circle,” where teachers welcome the children and lead them in prayer and song. Prayers often include requests God return them to their former houses and villages, or that clothes and food be sent to those displaced Christians still living in precarious shelter. From another classroom, one can hear melodies of nursery rhymes, recited in both Arabic and English. A slow, accented rendition of “One Potato, Two Potato” floats through the air at one point. In the middle of this joyous cacophony, Sister Ban Saeed is busy at a desk in the administrative office — a room with a curtain dividing it in two. The other half serves as the staff kitchen.
A Dominican Sister of St. Catherine of Siena who trained as a Montessori teacher in Adrian, Michigan, and followed that with a master’s degree in early childhood education, Sister Ban is the engine behind the new kindergarten that this community of Iraqi Christians has so sorely needed since ISIS expelled them from their homes in August 2014. “The kindergarten is a big help to families here,” she says of the school that opened on 17 March. “We are getting children out of their homes for a few hours a day. Since the displacement, most homes in fact contain two or three families, so it has been a very difficult situation. This kindergarten helps bring happiness to the children and to the parents as well.” As with many other services, kindergarten was something most Christians had access to in their hometowns and villages across the Nineveh Plain. But since their abrupt expulsion, that entire infrastructure has disappeared. In the initial months of the crisis, the need for essentials such as shelter and health care was the central focus; now, secondary services such as education and child care are slowly beginning to return to the picture, doing much to ease the suffering and anxiety of the displaced families.
“The school has a calming effect on the children,” says Sister Ban. “Even the parents are saying their children feel safe and happy, and they are learning lots of things.” In a classroom upstairs, the children learn about professions. In each room, two volunteer teachers lead class; in this case, the two alternately hold up flashcards and ask the children to name the job depicted on each card. There are 140 children in total in the school, all between the ages of 4 and 6, overseen by a staff of 12, including Sister Ban, in a repurposed house. CNEWA, the Canadian charity SALT, and other funders help cover the cost of rent and supplies. Presently, the school is looking to expand to accommodate a waiting list of some 50 children. Subjects taught include Arabic, English, geography, mathematics and art. But one key subject, especially now, is peace education — another subject Sister Ban studied in the United States. “We need to focus now on peace and how to create and sustain it through education,” says Sister Ban. “It’s really important because we are seeing that the children now have conflicts among themselves. Some use foul language and much of this behavior is due to the trauma of displacement. We are teaching them how to use grace and courtesy and how to be nice to one another.” z Children relax during a break at the kindergarten run by the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena in Ain Kawa, Erbil. u A young student runs to greet his father after class.
The morning flies by. Class runs from 8 to noon, by which time the grounds are flooded with parents coming to pick up their young. Children play on the swings as their parents exchange a word with the sisters or teachers. Once the parents are ready to go, the children bound out the gates, their bags bouncing on their backs. As with other aspects of the displaced Christians’ lot in this new setting, things have improved since the early, desperate days of displacement. Still, the constant message is that while things are slightly better than before, the needs are still great. “I really need money so as to be able to pay the teachers, who are working on a completely voluntary basis,” says Sister Ban. “These are also wives and mothers and they have to eventually start bringing home a salary. We can’t continue living on a voluntary basis.”
Stories of GRACE:
HOLY FAMILY ORPHANAGE
o look at them buzzing around the house and getting tasks done, Sally, 20, Rita, 16, Mariam, 13, and Thikra, 10, look like any family of four girls. They tease each other, support each other and accompany their chores with giggles and jokes. Up close, as they wash dishes and fold laundry in the kitchen, this could be any regular domestic scene. But as you pull back and take in the details, it becomes clear this is anything but a regular family.
a result, the sisters consider these girls doublydisplaced. And so, in this small house in the Christian neighborhood of Ain Kawa, the sisters are trying to recreate a sense of home to replace the ones these girls have lost — twice.
For starters, instead of the traditional parents, two Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, Sister Letitia Hanna and Sister Muntaha Marzena, run the house. What is more, all of the girls have different family names and appearances.
Her father had passed away and her mother lives far away, by the Turkish border. When Sally was accepted to medical school in Mosul, the family needed help to support their daughter.
“One of the reasons that we are here — and what we really need — is the love that the sisters give us,” says Sally, the eldest of the girls.
As residents in the Holy Family Orphanage in Erbil, these girls are family only by circumstance; they are all in the sisters’ care because they have either lost one or both parents, or come from separated families.
When ISIS took Mosul last summer, Sally had to flee and transfer to a different school in Erbil. As a young woman displaced and lacking family support in Erbil, she was particularly vulnerable, so the sisters took her in to the orphanage.
The other thing these girls have in common, and something they have in common with thousands of other Christians scattered across Erbil today, is that they are homeless, displaced by ISIS last summer. As
Sally is currently working to complete her second year of medical school. When not in class or studying, she fulfills the role of surrogate mother to the other three, younger girls.
were living in very tough situations with distant relatives who were not taking care of them properly.” By November, the sisters, with the help of CNEWA and other organizations, managed to open the Holy Family Orphanage. Some children live here full time; others are from homes of limited means, staying temporarily to take pressure off the family. Regardless of their circumstances, all agree that the orphanage is a steady refuge in what has been a very stressful and unstable displacement. “Displacement would have affected these girls very badly,” says Sister Muntaha. “They could have made so many mistakes they would have regretted their whole lives. We think that having them here is very safe for them.”
Sally, Sister Letitia Hanna, Rita, Mariam, Thikra and Sister Muntaha Marzena make up the happy family at Holy Family Orphanage in Ain Kawa, Erbil.
“Sometimes we get frustrated with Thikra because she won’t focus properly on her homework,” says Sister Letitia, grinning at Thikra, the youngest. “So then Sally swoops in and takes over the tutoring and it works out just fine.” In this house, the children help and support each other in various ways, all under the nurturing protection of the sisters’ pastoral and parental care. Prior to the displacement, the sisters ran an orphanage in Qaraqosh, the major Christian town of the Nineveh Plain. But once they had to flee and leave everything behind, all basic social services disappeared and people found themselves in a harsh and unforgiving survival mode, a sort of law of the jungle. This abrupt shift left the girls without a home, exposed and vulnerable. “Their situation was very difficult,” says Sister Letitia. “One of them was literally living in a garden. Others
As Sister Muntaha speaks, Rita nods in agreement. She adds that she is sometimes shocked by other girls in school, many of whom have both parents, but who live in difficult home environments, in temporary camps with sanitary problems and almost complete unemployment. Rita has seen their manners and behavior steadily worsen since the displacement. “They cheat on exams. They use curse words and are sometimes very aggressive to the teachers,” says Rita of some of the behavior patterns that the sisters see as direct products of displacement trauma. “It is also because the parents are not taking the usual good care of their children, because they too are in survival mode,” adds Rita. “If some of those girls could only come and live here with us, that’d be perfect for them.” Doubtless, the need for protection and support for all children is very high across the displaced population. The situation is still dire for all the displaced Christians of northern Iraq. But, little by little and brick by brick, with the steady restoration of support services like the Holy Family Orphanage, a sense of stability and normality is being created for the population, easing their painful wait to one day return home.
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Accompanying the Church
A day in the life of a
Husband, Father, Factory Worker, Priest by Joyce Duriga with photographs by Karen Callaway
s the city of Chicago prepares for bed, the Rev. Sharbel Iskandar Bcheiry prepares to head to work, not the work of a priest — visiting the sick or administering the sacraments — but that of a laborer in a factory, earning money to feed and shelter his family. A priest of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Father Bcheiry, says some North American parishes can support their priest and his family. But, the 42-year-old priest says, “We have a small parish. We don’t have enough financial support.” Having earned a doctorate in church history, he had originally hoped to find work at a local university. “It’s not a choice to go to work in a factory. I have to do it. If not, there is no survival — not for the community, and not for us,” he adds, gesturing to his family. So this husband and father of two travels an hour each day to work
the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift at one of the world’s largest suppliers of forging die steels, plastic mold steels, die casting tool steels and custom open-die forgings. He started out as a welderfabricator working the day shift and is now a machinist. But he has not abandoned his academic pursuits; he continues to study and publish books and articles. Indeed, factory work even provides him with a distinctive view of theology. “It’s the practical theology,” Father Bcheiry says. “How to deal with the daily life. Punch in. Punch out. You have bosses, this one or the other yell at you. There is no privilege.” To spend a day with Father Bcheiry is to witness a life that might surprise those who imagine priests divide all their time between praying and preaching. For Father Bcheiry, that is just the beginning.
was born in Lebanon,” Father Bcheiry says. The second of five children, the priest says his father greatly influenced his faith journey. “I lived in a family close to the church,” he explains. “My father, since he was 18 or 19, woke up every day at 4 a.m. to pray before going to work.” Even from a young age, he knew he wanted to be a priest. “At 13, I went to Syria, to a monastery that belonged to the patriarchate,” he says. Five years later, he returned to Lebanon and studied theology at the University of the Holy Spirit in Kaslik, a Catholic institute founded by the Lebanese Maronite Order. As part of the preparation for priesthood, he finished his graduate studies in Rome, where he earned his doctorate at the Pontifical Oriental Institute. He was ordained in Chicago on 24 November 2006 by Mor Cyril
Father Sharbel Bcheiry plays with his sons Gabriel, 5, and Emmanuel, 3, at his home in suburban Chicago.
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Aphrem Karim, then the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of the eastern United States, who last year was enthroned as Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II in Damascus. Following tradition, the young priest took a religious name, choosing as his patron St. Sharbel, the Maronite monk canonized in the Catholic Church in 1977. Father Bcheiry’s priestly ordination took place just a few weeks after he wedded Nazo Adde. “We met in New York. Nazo was born here in Chicago. Her father
was the parish priest of Chicago for 18 years,” he says. Her uncle is also a priest of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the United States. The couple has two sons: Gabriel, 5, and Emmanuel, 3. The family speaks Aramaic and English around the house. As Father Bcheiry answers questions, sounds of his children playing in the background resonate throughout the house. His wife cooks dinner and chimes in on his interview from the kitchen. They are a team.
“I couldn’t succeed without her,” Father Bcheiry says. When not busy as a husband, father, pastor or factory worker, he spends whatever time remains as a student. “It’s in my blood. I like to study,” says the priest, who is working on another doctorate. His second will focus on Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East. “To be honest with you, my obsession is for the academic life.” Once a week he visits the libraries at the Lutheran School of Theology
z Father Bcheiry organizes a parish social gathering after a memorial liturgy for Syrians massacred during the Armenian genocide. p A parishioner receives communion at St. Afrem Syriac Orthodox Church in northwestern Chicago.
of the University of Chicago to research his dissertation. “It’s his other baby,” says Nazo. The fruits of this dedication are clear: Father Bcheiry speaks Arabic, Aramaic, English, French, Italian
and Syriac. He has authored six books along with 15 articles in peer-reviewed journals. He teaches Arabic part time at the Lutheran School of Theology, and is working on a project for the United Arab Emirates studying the history of their country as documented in the libraries of Italy. When he accepted his assignment in Chicago, he wanted to work in academia, but God had his own plans, Father Bcheiry says. “For me this would be the beginning. I would be priest, serve
my community and my family, secure myself financially,” he says. “I did it for my babies.”
ather Bcheiry serves as pastor of St. Afrem Syriac Orthodox parish in Northlake, in northwestern Chicago. The community lacks its own church, instead renting a Melkite Greek Catholic church shared by several Christian communities each Sunday. The parish is small, numbering about 120 people, most of whom are recent immigrants from Syria.
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“For a priest, working in a factory affects his theology. This is real life.”
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Light the way for tomorrow’s priests in the Middle East and beyond To learn more: www.cnewa.org
“In 2009, a new parish was formed under the supervision of the same archeparchy to serve the newcomers, the new immigrants coming from Syria,” Father Bcheiry says. When the archbishop gave him the choice, he volunteered to serve this community. During the Christmas and Easter seasons, Father Bcheiry makes home visits to parishioners around Chicago and the suburbs. He also routinely visits the sick. Sometimes these visits cause him to go without sleep before he returns to his shift at the factory. But it is worth it, he says. “It’s more than church; it’s a church family.” Father Bcheiry’s congregation knows firsthand the situation of Christians in the Middle East, especially in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. He and his parishioners have family and friends back in their mother countries who relate
the current conditions without the usual filters. “It is a critical situation, especially in Syria and Iraq,” he says. Many of St. Afrem’s parishioners came to the United States to escape the violence in Syria. “They are happy they have arrived here, but they are stressed because some of their family is still there,” he says. In Iraq, the priest says, the Christian community has virtually disappeared. “There is hope in Kurdistan that they will reorganize themselves,” he adds. “In Syria, the situation is very bad,” he says, explaining that concerns are not just about war but also its aftermath. “This is a story of another 20, 30 years. Even if Syria will have peace, real peace, they will need another 15-20 years to recover.” Even when Syria was one of the most stable countries in the region,
thousands of Syrian Christians left the country each year. Imagine the current situation lasting another 20 years, Father Bcheiry adds. “We are becoming a weaker and weaker Christian community in the Middle East. “We are witnessing, for real, a chapter of a dying Christianity in the Middle East.” During the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in early May, St. Afrem remembered the Christians massacred in the Ottoman Turkish Empire exactly 100 years ago. “This is our real tragedy because it’s well known as Armenian. And Armenians were the majority who died, but also hundreds of thousands of Syrians died,” Father Bcheiry says of the Middle East’s Syriac Christian community known as Aramaean, Assyrian, Chaldean or Syrian. According to records compiled by the patriarchate, one-third of the
The Bcheiry family prays before a meal at home.
Syriac Orthodox Church in the Middle East perished in 1915, the “Year of the Sword.” Those who survived were deported or fled, many seeking refuge in Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Mosul. Many of these families later settled in North America’s burgeoning industrial cities. “Syrians, they were just peaceful people living in peaceful villages,” he says, adding that they did not have a political agenda beyond living their daily lives. “We were not even against the Ottomans. We were just cut from the world and nobody mentioned it.”
ather Bcheiry does not tell his colleagues at the factory that he is a priest. “In the end, I am going there for work,” he says. However, he cannot help but do a little quiet ministry. For example, if he discovers someone is a
Christian, he says, he chats casually about the faith, asking questions and listening intently. Occasionally, coworkers discover his vocation. “They will say, ‘We know you are priest. You wrote a book. Why are you working in a factory?’ ” he says, laughing. “I’m coming from the world of theories,” he says. “We celebrate the Eucharist but we see it under the form of bread and wine. Our life is around faith, things we don’t see. In fabricating, we are dealing with things that you touch in your hand.” And this line of work is changing him, and helping him to develop his “practical theology.” “For a priest, working in a factory affects his theology; you appreciate so much the practical things.” “To make a living, it’s not an easy thing,” he continues. “This is real life, working in a factory not by choice. I believe God chose this in
order to teach me exactly what priesthood is,” he says. “It’s a cross I have to bear.” An eternal student, he has taken this lesson well. “It is beautiful,” he says, “but it is not easy.” Joyce Duriga is editor of Catholic New World, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago. READ MORE ABOUT THE LIFE OF FATHER BCHEIRY ON OUR BLOG, ONE-TO-ONE:
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cnewablog.org/web/ marriedpriest MEET THE PRIEST’S WIFE IN A PROFILE: onemagazinehome.org/ web/videofamily
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Care of Marginalized
A letter from
Armenia by Flora Sargsyan
ife seems so short, but it remains full — full of pleasant and memorable events, and also painful and harrowing experiences. I lived a happy childhood, for my parents had done their best to make it interesting for us, their children. They began their married life after World War II and lived through hard times to make ends meet. Both my parents were true believers. I remember them praying before going to bed. When my grandfather — a former village priest — visited us, my parents always asked him to pray before dinner. I listened to him, but I did not understand the real essence of those prayers or the singing; I hadn’t heard them anywhere else, and no one ever told me about them. We lived in a state that denied religion; we were supposed to be atheists. Nothing on religion was taught at schools or universities.
p Flora Sargsyan, project manager for Caritas Armenia, works to assist Armenia’s elderly. t Aemenuhi Khachatrian, 73, has lived alone for more than six years in Yerevan.
But one thing remained in me: I had the sacred feeling of God’s being, and the understanding that one should believe in God. I remember visiting the local, half-ruined Kobayr Church, built in the 12th century. Here, we prayed and lighted beeswax candles my mother had made. I am truly thankful to my parents, and especially my grandpa, who used to tell a lot of stories and tales that were real lessons for me — lessons on being kind, doing everything with love and compassion, performing acts of good will for others. Pope Benedict said in our lives we are called to practice God’s
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CNEWA is deeply concerned for poor and marginalized people throughout Eastern Europe, and works with religious and lay agencies to provide support where it is most needed. The association has partnered with Flora Sargsyan and Caritas Armenia to serve Armenia’s elderly population, rescuing senior citizens from hunger, cold and isolation, and helping to build community and inspire hope. To lend your support, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).
charity, since every person is called upon to develop and fulfill God’s design. In this way, every life is a vocation. Thus, I am convinced that all the things I had experienced in my childhood and youth had their expression in my later life and work — my experiences helped me to become who I am today. For 27 years, I taught English at a secondary school in Gyumri, at the Shirak Regional Center. Teaching children from their early age, from the first grade up to high school, allowed me to observe and understand from another
perspective the changes that take place as we grow older. With my language skills, I joined the NGO Training/Resource Center in Gyumri, working as a technical assistant and later as a center coordinator for about ten years. There, I learned to develop, run and manage an organization. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Armenia established Caritas in the northern city of Gyumri, which became one of the most active organizations supporting humanitarian activities in the poorest regions of the country. Quickly, Caritas Armenia added
development projects as well, and joined the Caritas family of organizations worldwide. It was my pleasure to join Caritas Armenia and to work with the elderly. Despite years of work experience, Armenia’s elderly find themselves in hard socioeconomic situations in this post-Soviet period — deprived of jobs and a steady income while trying to live on miserable, inadequate pensions. Unfortunately, their situation has worsened with the massive migration of young people seeking jobs outside the country, leaving their aged parents alone and helpless.
You can ease the struggles of Armenia’s elderly poor To learn more: www.cnewa.org
Senior citizens gather at a day care center run by Flora Sargsyan in Gyumri.
The elderly encounter a lot of hardships; some can’t take care of their health needs, or even handle the routines of daily life. It is a challenge for them just to survive in their late age. They need support — physical, material, psychological and spiritual. The initiatives we implement are intended to improve their quality of life. We work to help those who are physically and mentally frail to be integrated into society and to be treated with respect and care. We provide an array of supportive services conducted by social workers, medical nurses, caregivers and volunteers.
Each time I visit the people we serve, I feel I need to offer them encouragement. Most are alone and have lost hope. They are anxious for our visits; they long to engage with others, to speak and to be heard. The elderly need proper hygiene, clean homes, hot meals; they also need medical care and attention. This is what our programs help provide. A caregiver or nurse might help bathe the patient or offer to cook or clean — even dress their hair. Our caregivers are vital to the elderly because they soothe their pain — both physical and
emotional. They help ease the sufferings of their souls. Sometimes Caritas’s service providers are the only visitors for those living alone, so their companionship is of great psychological and moral support. We serve with love and compassion, for we want to see our elderly as full members of society. After all, they are the creators of our past — and our present. We are thankful to them for the legacy they have left for future generations. We want them to have healthy and peaceful lives.
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Care for Marginalized
Serving in the Red Sisters help the poor in India’s conflict-stricken “Red Corridor” by Jose Kavi with photographs by Jose Jacob
Deen Bandhu Samaj Sisters hold group discussions to empower women in villages across Bastar, India.
ister Julie Mathew shudders as she recalls her brush with death on a cold winter night nine years ago. Stationed at a school for tribal girls in the remote central Indian village of Gangaloor, Sister Julie and her charges were roused from their sleep around 2 a.m. A mob had gathered near the gate of the compound, demanding she open it. Suspecting the mob included members of a Maoist rebel group eager to attack an adjoining police outpost, she refused. Undeterred, the Naxalites — as they are known — used a bamboo pole to climb a tree to carry out their attack. Gunfire and explosions sounded. Sister Julie, who was then in her early 30’s, instructed the girls, about 50 students between the ages of 5 and 18, to lie flat on the floor. Shards of glass rained upon them as the crossfire shattered the windows. “Our hearts were beating fast with fear. I was sure we all would be killed,” she says. We only had one option, she continues: prayer. After some time, they heard a loud explosion, followed by silence. Sister Julie — a member of a SyroMalabar Catholic community of sisters known as the Deen Bandhu Samaj (Hindi for “Friend of the Poor Society”) — later learned the assault ended suddenly after one of the attackers tripped carrying a deadly bomb. These violent episodes have been common in this part of central India for the past three decades.
lush area of hills, valleys and forests, the Bastar region in the state of Chhattisgarh encompasses seven districts covering more than 15,000 square miles. More than a third of the population is considered Adivasi, an umbrella term for India’s many native tribes and ethnic groups, which for centuries have been marginalized, exploited and impoverished.
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For decades, CNEWA has worked closely with the churches of India. CNEWA has provided the
Snehagiri Missionary Sisters with funds for mother and child care,
covering expenses for equipment, lab tests and medicines. The
association’s generous donors
have also helped the Deen Bandu Samaj Sisters supply hospice and palliative care, and aided the
Eparchy of Jagdalpur in caring for thousands of disadvantaged
children, many with special needs. To lend your support for the
church in India’s remotest areas: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).
In 1972, the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, a congregation of priests of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, established their first mission among the poor of the region. That same year, Pope Paul VI created an ecclesiastical jurisdiction known in the Eastern churches as an exarchate and entrusted its leadership to the congregation. Five years later, he erected the Eparchy (a diocese in the Eastern churches) of Jagdalpur, one of the first eparchies of the SyroMalabar Church located outside the church’s historical territory in the southwestern state of Kerala. Carmelite Father Thomas Kollikolavil directs the eparchy’s
social service wing. He says the Naxalites — named for Naxalbari, the West Bengal village where the Maoist-inspired movement began in 1967 — entered the region in 1980, positioning themselves as saviors of Adivasi villagers, devastated after years of abuse and subjugation by landlords and government officials. Most Naxalite leaders were educated urban youth disillusioned with the unjust social system, says Sister Julie, who has been taken deep into the nearby forest for questioning by the rebels. As the Naxalites established their hold over Bastar, it became an important part of India’s Red Corridor, a contiguous area spanning eastern India rife with illiteracy, poverty, exploitation and overpopulation. In 2009, the Red Corridor covered nearly 180 districts across ten states, in which the Naxalites ran a parallel government. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described this as the most serious internal threat to the country’s national security. By 2011, military and paramilitary operations reduced the corridor to 83 districts. Yet, the Naxalite grip on Bastar has only tightened. In 2006, one of the most controversial anti-Naxalite militias, Salwa Judum (“peace march” or “purification hunt”) rose to prominence. Supplied with arms by the government, the organization mobilized local youth, sometimes forcibly, and trained them for combat — in some cases evacuating entire villages and resettling the inhabitants in camps. Human rights groups allege Salwa Judum torched more than 640 Adivasi villages. Human Rights Watch has reported at least 100,000 people were displaced, many fleeing to the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh to escape the violence. In 2011, amid numerous allegations of arson, murder and rape, the Supreme Court of India declared the government’s support
of Salwa Judum unconstitutional and the organization itself illegal, ordering it to disband. Even after this, a squad of Naxalite women slew Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma in a May 2013 attack that killed 27 people. In this volatile region, more than 400 sisters and 90 priests serve some 3 million people, 60 percent of whom are Adivasi. Rooted in the Gospel and in Catholic social teaching — which focuses on the dignity of every human being, the imperative to advocate and correct social injustices, and the church’s preferential option for the poor — the eparchy has begun programs to teach traditional farmers modern agricultural techniques; founded schools and youth clubs; started hundreds of help groups, most geared toward the needs of women; and established parish communities to nourish souls with the word and the sacraments. At the forefront of many of these apostolic activities are the Deen Bandhu Samaj and Snehagiri Missionary Sisters.
he Snehagiri Missionary Sisters were founded in 1969 in Kerala to serve the elderly and destitute (Snehagiri is Malayalam for “Mountain of Love,” referring to Calvary). Currently, 32 sisters work in seven centers in the eparchy, including Chavara Ashram, a boys’ boarding school in the Kanker district, a conflict-stricken area of the eparchy. In keeping with their charism, the sisters also administer homes caring for elderly men and women. Asha Nivas (“Home of Hope”), two miles outside of Jagdalpur, cares for destitute women, some of whom are mentally challenged. Men are housed at Asha Bhavan (“House of Hope”), half a mile away. Sister Prabha, who administers the two facilities, says parish priests direct people to her. The
congregation of sisters, she adds, covers the expenses. “We get no funds from the government,” she explains. This self-sufficiency exists thanks to community initiatives implemented by the sisters at their regional house located in Nakti Semera, such as assembling solar lanterns shipped in bulk from Bangalore. The sisters supplement their income by supplying sacramental wine and communion hosts for the entire eparchy. They also make vestments and cassocks for priests, and train others in this skill. Every sister learns tailoring so she can make her own habit, says Sister Anie John, who directs the sisters’ social works. Empowered by these efforts, the sisters continue to make their mark — perhaps most visibly in their work to educate Adivasi villagers about their rights. According to Noorul Hassan, who coordinates the Snehagiri Sisters’ Harama Hak (“our rights”)
project, villagers were largely unaware — before the sisters’ arrival — of the many legal benefits to which they were entitled. One key example is Gram Sabha (“village council”), designed to help and protect tribal and low-caste communities. In resource-rich India, commercial projects to tap into the supply of natural resources in traditional Adivasi lands require the approval of the local community. Villagers also utilize such gatherings to discuss common problems and seek ways to address them, including working with local municipal offices. “We conducted awareness campaigns, organized rallies and street plays, displayed posters and made public announcements to teach people about the importance of the council meetings,” says the coordinator of the public awareness campaign. Yet, fewer than a tenth of the locals attended the first meetings hosted by the sisters, and most of them were women. But as
women became more involved, their husbands grew curious about the sisters’ work. “My wife would attend and tell me what happened there. I became curious and started coming,” says Dhaniram Kashyap, one of the few educated men in Kesapur village, who has become a leader within his community. Mr. Kashyap says he has learned much from these meetings, and now shares this knowledge with others. The Snehagiri Sisters also reach out to villagers through health care projects, chiefly through the Maria Bhavan Health Care Center, a dispensary outside of Jagdalpur. Sister Sincy Pattathil, who manages the clinic, says the infant and maternal mortality rates in the area were high when they arrived some 20 years ago — nearly twice the national average. She says maternal deaths occurred mainly from anemia, infection and unhygienic delivery that led to septicemia.
“ When we first came, people would run away from us. Now they are our best friends and protectors.”
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“Now, infant and maternal mortality rates have come down to zero,” Sister Sincy says of the villages they serve. Her greatest success has been to convince villagers to have their babies delivered in her clinic or other health care institutions. “We have rushed to many houses and had to bring the woman to the clinic. We send serious cases to government hospitals.” In the past two decades, Sister Sincy has seen great changes in the villagers. “When we first came, people would run away from us. Now they are our best friends and protectors.”
he sisters of Deen Bandhu Samaj work largely in remote areas with an active Naxalite presence, says Sister Jancy Vattakanal, who assumed the role of superior general a year ago. The congregation was founded in Jagdalpur in 1978, first consisting of nine sisters looking for challenging missions. “We evolved our charism based on the needs of the local church,” says the community’s first superior general, Sister Mary Tresa. Focused on the poor, the Deen Bandhu Sisters serve as witnesses to the Gospel, while respecting the state’s laws against religious proselytization. “We pray for people’s overall development; nobody can object to that,” Sister Mary says. As with the Snehagiri Sisters, the Deen Bandhu Samaj Sisters found it hard to break the ice with villagers. “They never trusted outsiders, as they have had bitter experiences with them,” says Sister Eugene Vattamattathil, a nurse. Some outsiders, she adds, seek to exploit or dupe them. Communication itself was an early challenge, as many villages speak different dialects — such as Gondi, Halbi or Moriya. “People
appreciate when we can speak their language,” adds Sister Eugene. Transportation was another problem. Though dirt roads usually allow for bikes, Sister Eugene recalls once having to walk 15 miles to reach a community. Some would even go so far as to swim across flooded rivers, before bridges had been built. Once they arrived, the sisters immediately felt safe. “The villagers cared for us. Women guarded us at night, sleeping around us in their tiny huts.” The sisters managed to win over the villagers through home visits and dispensaries that greatly expanded access to modern health care and improved the quality of life for communities neglected by the state. But their impact has gone far beyond medicine. Where school enrollment and literacy rates were once low, children in their school uniforms are now a regular sight in all villages. Student dormitories host Adivasi children from remote and conflict-affected villages. Sister Jancy says they have erected primary schools in all their centers to give children a good foundation. “If they are taught well in initial classes, they will do well later.” Sister Eugene also points to hygiene and health education, noting that villagers used to practice bleeding to cure illnesses. “They would bite their own bodies to draw blood. It took us many years to convince them to go for proper treatment.” Sister Jancy says the congregation plans to open a hospice and palliative center for the poor — especially those suffering from cancer, tuberculosis and other diseases. However, the sisters have been forced to restrict their village visits and health care services as conflicts between the government and Naxalites have intensified.
Sister Jancy and Father Thomas Kollikolavil say Naxalites rarely trouble the sisters as they recognize the sisters’ efforts to help the poor. In several villages, churches are seen as the only safe houses for visiting government officials to hold meetings or events. The community’s first superior says they have found villagers and police officers alike settling down around their convents, to feel safer. Yet, she adds, the sisters have often found themselves caught in an awkward position between the two forces, witnessing Naxalites cutting people to pieces and police torturing suspected Naxalite sympathizers. Once, Naxalites took a priest, a sister and a parish catechist from Gangaloor for questioning, demanding they stop hosting meetings and halt their work in the village. Sister Jancy recalls they were forced to close one mission after Naxalites imposed unreasonable demands. “They wanted our nursing sisters to perform abortions or bring medicines for them along with our supplies. We had no option but to close.” Police and administration have also accosted them. After one encounter with the rebels, Salwa Judum vigilantes confronted Sister Julie and others. “They questioned why the Naxalites had not attacked us. They accused us of colluding with them, and converting children of our hostels.” In one case, the sisters had to stand before some 10,000 people, including vigilante leader Mahendra Karma, to answer questions. Sister Julie says she vented her frustrations in an outburst before the district magistrate. Both Karma and the magistrate apologized, she says. These experiences did nothing to deter her. “I want to go and work in all those areas we have closed down,” she says.
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Her former superior worries about assigning sisters to remote and difficult areas. “I can’t say what would happen,” Sister Mary Tresa says. “But no sister working in such remote centers has asked for transfers so far.” Her successor, Sister Jancy, concurs, adding that the community must continue its work because the villagers depend on them. “Our services are very much needed. People are suffering in places where we have stopped work.” Jose Kavi writes about social and religious issues in India from New Delhi.
JOSE KAVI HAS MORE ON LIFE IN THE RED CORRIDOR ON OUR BLOG, ONE-TO-ONE:
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from our world
Sister Sophie Boueri, D.C. by Amal Morcos
Even at the age of 83, the indomitable Sister Sophie Boueri is ready and willing to take on a new mission in a new place; after nurturing orphans in the West Bank for 30 years, she now cares for abandoned elderly women in her native Lebanon. Her community, the Daughters of Charity, has a worldwide charism to help the poor and the marginalized. But Sister Sophie, a highly qualified pediatric nurse — and something of a maverick — pursues her own special apostolate wherever she goes. CNEWA sat down with her to learn about her early life, her calling and what keeps her strong after so many years of ministry to the poor. ONE: Tell us about your early life. Sister Sophie Boeuri: I was born in Jounieh, Lebanon, in 1931. My father died when I was 8. My mother was just 28 and couldn’t support four
children, so I was sent to live in an orphanage. When I was 13, I had a dream I saw children crying. I asked them, “Why are you crying?” They said, “It is because the sisters do not treat us very well.” I decided to be a religious sister, to take care of orphans. My mother was against it, but I became a sister at 19. ONE: How did you become a pediatric nurse? SS: I went to France and spent four years studying at the Université de Lyon. I specialized in hospital management, pediatric nursing and psychology. I excelled at my studies and because of this I was able to get my papers to go to the Holy Land. I started out working in one of our hospitals in Nazareth. My mother superior then sent me to Bethlehem in 1988, during the first intifada. Our hospital had an intensive care unit and a neonatal
Sister Sophie introduces CNEWA’s Michael La Civita to a young resident of the Creche in Bethlehem.
unit, and cared for 360 newborn babies per month. ONE: Tell us about the home you started for abandoned infants in Bethlehem. SS: In 1989, I started caring for abandoned babies in the corner of a run-down hospital. A wing of the hospital was renovated with the help of CNEWA and we made that the Creche. Some of the children were left anonymously at the hospital, some were the victims of child abuse. Some were given up by unwed mothers, others had parents who could not take care of them. ONE: How were you led to reach out to unwed mothers and abandoned children?
SS: I had an ambulance and I used to travel to the villages by myself. One day, I found two girls who had been stabbed to death because they were unwed mothers. It was then I decided to prepare a department to receive unwed mothers. After delivery, we took care of their babies until we could find parents to adopt them, often in the U.S. and Europe. We didn’t tell the families of these women; their lives were at risk, and so was mine! ONE: What was it like to live in the West Bank in the middle of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? SS: I was not afraid. People were wounded in the streets. Israeli soldiers would capture someone and I would intervene. The soldiers knew me. They allowed me to pass because they respected my work with the children. At the time there was no Palestinian government. The Israelis helped me to file the papers so the children could travel. I had help from both people — Israelis and Palestinians. ONE: You spent a total of 40 years in the Holy Land — working first with unwed mothers in Nazareth, then abandoned children in Bethlehem. Why did you come back to Lebanon? SS: As sisters we are not allowed to stay in any one place for long; we change positions about every 10 years. I was allowed to stay in the West Bank because my work was so effective. But my mother superior sent me back to Lebanon two years ago to take care of the elderly — and because my health is not so good. But now I get no rest! I miss my babies in Bethlehem very much, and it hurts my heart to see the elderly here in Lebanon who have no one to care for them.
“I promised Jesus … I would help all people. This is a promise that I cannot break.” ONE: Tell me about your work in Lebanon. SS: We have 40 elderly women who live in our home. Some are sisters and others are women who have no families or who have been abandoned by their families. We have one doctor and ten staff members. I am the only sister. All the women are Christians, and we accept all rites — Maronite, Orthodox, Latin. We ask only that they be Christian because we take them to Mass every day. ONE: What kinds of activities do you provide for your residents? SS: I take them to daily Mass and to receive the sacraments. I walk with them and I am present with them all the time. Once a patient gets better and they can move, I take them on little field trips to places such as the Marian shrine in Harissa or St. Sharbel Monastery. ONE: What are the needs of the St. Cecile Home? SS: We need wheelchairs and hospital beds. I also want to renovate the third floor, where we house our residents. If I can renovate that area I can receive 13 more women. We want to install skylights so the residents will have natural light, which they don’t have now. ONE: What kinds of resources are there in Lebanon to help the elderly?
SS: In Lebanon there are many institutions to help elderly Muslims, but Christians don’t have these kinds of resources. Some are good, but they are expensive. But we don’t charge our residents anything. ONE: Are you given any help by the Lebanese government? SS: The Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs gives us $10 a day for each person — enough to feed them. But we are given nothing for medical care. For a person to be well cared for, we have to have at least $1,000 per month for medical treatment. In Bethlehem, I had lots of grants; in Lebanon, I always have to search for donations. People are left alone in Lebanon to find their own solutions. I want to go on TV and address the politicians! “Where is your conscience? Don’t your hearts tell you to do anything for the poor and the elderly who are dying with no assistance?” They call themselves Christians, but this is not Christianity. ONE: What keeps you strong enough to help the elderly when you are elderly yourself? SS: Only him! I promised Jesus a long time ago I would help all people. This is a promise I cannot break. All my life I have seen the poor and I cannot see them without helping them. Do you see how poor they are? And Sister Sophie also is very poor.
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ecently, I returned from a pastoral visit to Kurdistan in northern Iraq. I had been invited by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, along with four Catholic agency administrators from Europe, to accompany him on the trip. The purpose of the visit was to offer the loving solidarity and concern of Pope Francis for the tens of thousands of refugees and displaced Christians who have fled their homes in Iraq and Syria. The experience challenged both mind and heart. There was a strong common thread in the interaction with these suffering Christians, most of whom were victims of persecution. Conversations began with the refugees thanking the pope for his love, and expressing appreciation for the assistance offered by the aid agencies of the Catholic Church. We also noted an obvious love for the priests and sisters who heroically serve these displaced people of faith. By the way, almost all of these caregivers — clergy and religious — are themselves displaced. Some even fled Iraq with their flock, many of them orphaned or elderly, and ventured through the desert to seek a safe haven in Kurdistan. Over and over again, the refugees expressed what we would consider professions of faith. While ISIS took some as captives, executed loved ones, and confiscated all their properties and their identities, ISIS never took their faith. Some we met had rosaries around their necks and pointed to the cross; others proudly lifted their palms to show a tattooed cross on their wrists. To most of them, their faith was everything.
What surprised some of our group was the insistence by the vast majority of displaced Christians that they “did not want a visa and airline ticket to go to North America or Europe.” They only wanted to return to their towns and villages where they could sacramentally live out their faith in their local church. These are Christians who revere their faith and appreciate the heritage and blessing of living out that faith where it began.
I wish you could have joined me at some liturgies with the refugee community. One took place in a large tent with 350 faithful refugees singing their hearts out in praise to the Lord; another was held outside, gathered around a crude altar platform, and was attended by more than 600 Syriac Catholics who fled from the Nineveh Plain in Iraq. I had a view into their souls when they approached to receive the body and blood of Christ.
Even though their living conditions varied from crude, unhygienic and extremely stressful to moderately safe and “comfortable,” all the refugees demonstrated a warm sense of welcome and hospitality to Cardinal Sandri and the rest of us.
As I mentioned at the outset, this was a pastoral visit. This usually means that the visitor seeks to offer spiritual support to a group of believers, in this case to a group of refugees with a very uncertain future. But for me, this was a mini-retreat — a time to step back and celebrate baptism, Easter and Pentecost. It was also a time of renewal for me personally as a priest.
Many of those we met live in halls, sleeping on floor mats or dirty mattresses, with eight or even ten family members in a very confined space. They live alongside other families, separated by a dirty sheet or hanging drape. Some have been given shelter in shipping containers with no light and no ventilation. Others live in mini-trailers. A few have moved into shared houses with as many as four families sharing one home. Most bathroom and kitchen facilities are shared by the community. Water must be carried from large holding tanks and is always in short supply. Of course, there are complaints and disputes among the displaced. Given the living circumstances, the lack of privacy and space, and the uncertainty of their future, this is only natural. But in their faith, they endure.
As a prayerful supporter of CNEWA, please know how much you are loved by these refugees and how much they appreciate your generosity. Please remember them in your prayers as you celebrate the gift of your own faith.
Msgr. John E. Kozar
HEAR MORE FROM MSGR. KOZAR ABOUT HIS RECENT TRIP TO IRAQ: onemagazinehome.org/ web/videokozar
Children are a significant portion of those Iraqis who have taken shelter in Dohuk.
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