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Grace

Meet the Sisters Bringing Hope to Displaced Iraqis

by Don Duncan

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In 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 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, 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.

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