In the middle of makeshift refugee camps, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena are trying to make life work.
They get up every morning for prayer, and then they spend the rest of the day visiting the thousands of Iraqi refugees living in the abandoned malls and unfinished construction sites of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The sisters would like to open schools for the children, but for now they’re making do with a Montessori kindergarten that’s run out of an apartment.
As the sisters move about the camps, people clamor to touch them. After all, they have become the visible church for deeply spiritual people who have lost everything – at least that’s how Jersey City-based Dominican Sr. Arlene Flaherty sees it. Flaherty visited the camps last month as part of a three-woman delegation of U.S. Dominicans, evidence of a transnational relationship forged almost two decades ago in the aftermath during the Gulf War.
The Iraqi sisters have endured a lot. The first Iraqi nationals joined the community in 1877, and theirs is the first congregation of Catholic women religious in modern Iraq. They’ve stayed committed to their homeland throughout its embattled history, refusing to leave Iraq during the Gulf War in 1990 and again during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Even when a missile hit and damaged their motherhouse in 2003, they stayed. The sisters intended to outlast ISIS, too, but like tens of thousands of others, they were ultimately forced to flee north to Iraqi Kurdistan.