Friendship forged in conflict

This article appears in the Iraq feature series. View the full series.
The Dominican sisters pose on the circular staircase of their convent in Ankawa, Erbil. The building was an orphanage before the sisters bought it. (Courtesy of Durstyne Farnan)

In 1998 Fr. Timothy Radcliffe was Master of the Dominican Order and the people of Iraq were experiencing the burden of U.S. sanctions. Radcliffe, informing us we had “family” in Iraq, asked how we might be sister and brother to our family in the Middle East. It had never dawned on me that there were Dominicans in Iraq.

Relationships are sometimes developed at weddings, funerals or reunions. And sometimes they develop out of conflict. Such an experience happened to me with our Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Mosul and the Christians of Iraq.

I was the justice promoter for my congregation from 1996 to 2008, as well as co-promoter of Justice for the Dominican family in the U.S. It was during these years that a new relationship with Iraq was forged. The Middle East was all new to me. I had been a missionary in Africa. Little did I know that my heart was being taken over by the faith and love of the Iraqi people.

In 2008, the prioress of my congregation at the time Dominican Sr. Donna Markham asked if I would be willing to live with one of the Dominicans of St. Catherine of Siena, Mosul, Iraq who was coming to the U.S. I had lived in an international environment before, and I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity on many levels. I didn’t know any Arabic or Aramaic or anything other than what I had studied about the political situation as a result of the advent of invasion of Iraq. I had stood on the street corner every Wednesday protesting the invasion of Iraq since 2003. But this was going to be my first encounter with the people from Iraq. It turned out to be the beginning of a relationship that was destined to last a lifetime.

First I lived with Sr. Zena and then Sr. Ban. I began to learn about culture and faith from these women. I loved the food and tried to learn how to cook it, or at least be a sous chef to the sisters while they were baking or cooking. We got to know each other’s families through our conversations, pictures and stories and sometimes actual conversations over the phone. We shared faith and life with one another. What better way than this to begin a relationship.

When Sr. Ban completed her master’s degree in early childhood education and her Montessori Institute Certification from Siena Heights University, she headed back to Iraq. I promised I would see her at Easter in 2014. But things had changed in Iraq, and I wasn’t able to go at that time.

Sr. Ban and her family pictured in a suburb not far from Ankawa, where they rent a flat. (Durstyne Farnan)

Then the real shock came in late June 2014. During the last two days of my retreat, I began receiving a series of text messages from Sr. Diana Momeka in Qaraqosh about the situation in Iraq. I was in prayer late at night in the little chapel and these texts kept coming. The sisters were wondering if they should leave Qaraqosh and finally the decision came that they would leave and so for three days they went to Ankawa, Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. But things quieted down and they returned.

I was quite concerned so I called Dominican Sr. Marcelline Koch, Co-Promoter of Justice for the Dominican Family in the U.S., asking her how we could respond to the situation in Iraq. As things grew more uncertain about the fate of the people, we reestablished the Iraq Coordinating Committee in July and continued to assess the situation. In August, the sisters had to again flee Qaraqosh for Ankawa, Erbil. In November, it finally became apparent to us that we needed some type of delegation. We didn’t know if it ought to be the sisters coming here to the U.S. or us going there. Eventually we decided on a three-person delegation to Iraq January 5-15, 2015. And so with the permission of our prioresses we began preparations.

You probably have had the feeling of knowing something was right when everything falls into place. That’s what happened for Srs. Marcelline Koch, Arlene Flaherty and me. Everything from the dates, to tickets, and visas and the sisters’ schedule was in place. God knew that this journey of solidarity to meet our sisters was the right thing to do.

This was my first journey to Iraq. I have been to many countries in the Middle East since 2007: Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Jerusalem and Palestine. When I arrived in Jordan awaiting the plane to fly to Erbil, it just seemed ordinary and peaceful. I guess the sisters all over the U.S. were praying so hard that any fears I ought to have had were not there.

When we arrived in Erbil, the joy on each one’s face confirmed for us that we had made the correct decision. You can imagine how happy my heart was to be in Iraq. I have known these sisters in some way or another since 1998. But this was the first time I was going to know them in Iraq face to face, although Kurdistan is not home to them.

We have been talking about having family in Iraq for more than a decade, but I was finally with my Dominican family in Iraq. It was no longer just a saying on a button, but it was reality.

Sr. Aman and her family pictured in the apartment where they all live together. (Courtesy of Durstyne Farnan)

We were welcomed by Dominican Sr. Maria Hanna, prioress, and her council and some of the sisters that we had lived with here in the U.S. It was a very emotional and joyful experience. We were overcome with the realization that we were with our family.

Everyday we went to see where the sisters were ministering among the people in the various shelters and heard the stories of how they arrived and the conditions they had been living in since August 2014.

We heard the stories of the sisters’ families and how they were doing and then had the absolutely wonderful opportunity to finally meet the families of those we had come to know via phone calls, photos and stories.

We went to a different shelter or two each day. One seemed more awful than the other and yet the people were doing whatever they could to live within the confines of this new reality. Each day my heart was broken and then lifted up by the ministry of the sisters.

One evening I had the pleasure of spending three hours with Sr. Aman’s family. In the midst of their displacement they were incredibly engaging with questions, wonderings and stories. We shared a simple repast and entertainment by the children. I only realized after my visit that we were conversing on a level that wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t known her before. Relationships are possible because of the other. Conversations were rich and enduring and full of energy, hope, love and beauty.

On another visit, I was with Sr. Ban’s family. I could see the family resemblance so well. Their closeness and their love with one another and with me too was so palpable. How do I tell you how much I love them? How do I share with you how important it was for me to meet them, to talk with them and to share tea with them when we had never met before? The families are tight as we say, and yet they let me into their circle of life and love. What a powerful experience of friendship and care.

My commitment to the people of Iraq is deeper than ever. Since we returned to the U.S. we have been in multiple conversations that might make a difference among the people there.

I have called on relationships that I have here in Adrian, Michigan, asking people to help me make a connection in France for families who want to migrate. I have given interviews with the local paper, the Michigan Catholic, the Chaldean News, Global Sisters Report and now the Faith Magazine for a cover story in the autumn.

With my fellow travelers we have talked with our U.N. representatives in Geneva and New York trying to see if we can shed more light on the situation in Iraq, in hopes that something might just change for them. We are collaborating with people like Sr. Simone Campbell, of NETWORK, to try to get a briefing in front of Congress as well as a State Department hearing. We keep on telling the story and finding ways of advocating on behalf of all the displaced in Iraq.

Along with others we too are trying to keep up hope. An enduring hope.

We have discovered and are discovering that relationships call us out of ourselves and into the lives of one another on a profoundly personal and enriching basis. Our sisterhood connects us and provides the courage to strengthen the bonds of friendship and love that will last our lifetimes.

Friendships can be made under a host of circumstances, but especially in conflict. Friendship has no barrier for it is developed out of love. That’s what Jesus taught us, that love can be forged under any circumstance.

May peace prevail in Iraq and may nothing keep us from establishing Jesus’ reign on earth, not even war.

[Durstyne Farnan, is Director of Vocations for the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan.]

Click here to watch a presentation of the Dominican Delegation about their January 2015 trip to Iraq, given on March 8 in Adrian, Michigan.

Related: We have family in Iraq: A journey in solidarity and love

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