Welcoming the Stranger

Franciscan Missionaries of Mary serve Iraqi refugees in Jordan

text by Diane Handal with photographs by Tamara Abdul Hadi

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In June 2014, ISIS stormed Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, routing its security forces. Once in command, militants began canvassing neighborhoods. Coming upon houses whose occupants were Christian, they painted the Arabic letter N (ن) on its door, for “Nasrani,” or Nazarene — a term for Christians.

For the Fattah family, this mark inaugurated the greatest hardship of their lives.

“Ten men, 15 to 20 years old, came to our house in Mosul in many cars with guns and swords,” says Rakan Fattah, 45, a tall man with deep-set brown eyes. “They wore fatigues, had long beards and carried the black and white flag of ISIS,” he says.

The unit’s leader, who was maybe 30, entered and gave the family a message: Convert to Islam, pay a tax or be killed.

“They came in and took everything, kicked us out and would not allow us to take anything,” Mr. Fattah says. Conversion was out of the question, and “even if we did pay the tax, we knew we would be killed.”

When it became clear the Iraqi army would not return to liberate the city, the Fattah family fled to Qaraqosh, a Christian town in the Nineveh Plain, carrying only their passports. For three weeks, they lived in an unfurnished building.

Despite efforts by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to hold ISIS at bay, resistance collapsed and ISIS flooded the plain, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee deep into Iraqi Kurdish territory.

The Fattahs lived on the floor of a church along with 400 other Christians for a month before finally deciding to leave Iraq. They sold their car and bought airline tickets to Amman.

The experience of the Fattah family, though harrowing, is by no means unique. ISIS has uprooted many in Iraq, with current estimates suggesting about four million internally displaced persons and nearly 400,000 refugees abroad — Christians, Muslims, Yazidis and other ethnic and religious sects.

Rakan Fattah and his brothers, Rayan and Riyadh, now live in a three-room apartment with their mother and their father, who has suffered a stroke and heart attack. Their two sisters fled, one to Iraqi Kurdistan and the other to Lebanon.

Tall, slender and very pale, 37-year-old Riyadh Fattah sits near his aluminum crutches in an unheated room, dressed in layers. A hemophiliac, Riyadh had carried treatment supplies with him from Iraq. However, they are dwindling and the family cannot afford to replace them, says Rakan.

Yet the Fattahs, along with many in their position, have also found help in the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. Through the sisters, the family has been able to purchase groceries, fix their stove, buy a washing machine and seek medical assistance.

Dedicated to accompanying the most vulnerable, the sisters work to meet needs ranging from material aid — food, utilities, furniture, clothes or heaters — to providing emotional and spiritual comfort where hope flickers and fades. These women of service strive to be messengers of mercy to those plagued by suffering.

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