"My People Need Their Dignity Back"
The first thing that struck me about the veiled woman in white standing in our reception area was: “She’s so little.” The petite Dominican sister with the piercing eyes and dark hair didn’t look like someone who would shake the world.
But I soon learned that her passion and her message are, in fact, earth shaking. Small wonder that this small wonder has made some of the most powerful people in world capitals sit up and take notice.
Sister Diana Momeka left Iraq a few weeks ago to visit the United States; one of her most important stops was Capitol Hill, where she spoke to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Last night, she braved a thunderstorm to drive from Washington to New York, to visit with several of us this morning at the offices of CNEWA. Beyond a reunion between old friends and collaborators — CNEWA has sponsored the work of her congregation for many years — this meeting held a deeper and more poignant purpose. She wanted to share her message about the plight of thousands of Iraqi refugees — men, women and children, young and old, healthy and infirm — who fled their homes last year to escape ISIS, and settled in whatever housing they could find in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil.
It has been a harrowing time — and the Iraqi families aren’t the only ones suffering. Sister Diana and dozens of other Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena fled their convent and also settled in Erbil, where they are working tirelessly to help people who sometimes feel helpless.
“My main message,” she told those of us gathered in the board room, “is to get human dignity to people there, in Iraq.” Her words were measured and her focus, laser sharp.
“People,” she continued, “have been humiliated. They are living in slums. These people are human beings with great love, great faith. But when you lose your home, your heritage, your culture, you lose your dignity. When you live in a container, in a tent, you don’t have any privacy, this is not a real human life to live. My hope is to find a way to give dignity back.”
Sister Diana spoke of the great suffering the people are enduring — but also their great faith. She recalled a Mass last month celebrated by CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John Kozar, who made a pastoral visit to Erbil.
“At Mass,” she said, “at first, they weren’t smiling, but then Msgr. Kozar talked to them and spoke and gave a message of hope and said, ‘I’d like to see you smiling,’ and they smiled and he noticed there is faith there. They attended Mass because they are hungry for words of hope. They appreciate every movement, every step that is taken by the Western world to acknowledge their pain and persecution.”
Msgr. Kozar explained: “When you talk about the faith of these individuals, it is because of their faith that they continue to carry on. Their faith, their village, their church are all synonymous. It’s more than just going to a religious service. It’s everything you are.” He sighed. “And they’ve lost all of it.”
Sister Diana said they are working to rebuild the lives of the people, providing health care, education and a sense of hope. She told of opening a kindergarten to care for young children. “For the first two months,” she said, “we were just trying to get the children to smile, just to smile. They couldn’t smile.” They finally made some breakthroughs with painting and art therapy, but many challenges remain.
“We still feel it’s a nightmare,” she concluded.
She noted with gratitude that CNEWA had been a tremendous support to the sisters and their work — helping fund clinics, provide housing and give both material and spiritual comfort to the displaced Iraqis. “Through your help,” she said, “you have helped us give dignity to people. This is how you care for the Body of Christ that has been hurting.”
But she added, there is still much to do. Many Iraqi families still live in crowded storage containers that, in the heat of the summer, are “unbearable.” And then there are the storms. “We spend nights and nights not being able to sleep because you hear the rain hitting the containers,” Sister Diana said, “and the memory comes back of all the bombs we have heard before.”
And the small woman with the great message emphasized, once more, what she wanted the world to know:
“We need to get back our humanity, our human dignity.”
This article is published with the permission of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) and originally appeared at cnewa.org.