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An Iraqi Girl’s Brief Respite from Fear, in the US


Courtesy of the Knights of Columbus

Katreena, a Chaldean teen from Iraq, plays with autumn leaves at Little Sisters of the Poor residence in Enfield, Conn., as a sister looks on.

John Burger - published on 10/21/15 - updated on 06/08/17

Brought to Connecticut by the Knights of Columbus for medical treatment, Katreena heads home to beloved family

Her name reminds you of a famous hurricane that hit New Orleans. A diminutive 15-year-old with long strawberry hair, she doesn’t speak much English, but she’s learned phrases like “Oh my God!” and “I got it, I got it!”

She prefers pizza to a famous American hamburger chain.

And she’s headed back home to Iraq.

Because of the obvious security concerns for a Christian living in a place that is experiencing, in the estimation of Pope Francis, a genocide, we’ve been asked to identify her only by her first name, Katreena, and to speak of her home as “the area around Mosul and the Nineveh Plain.” Katreena and her mother, Rajaa, met with a few reporters Tuesday at St. Joseph’s Residence, a home for the elderly and infirm in northern Connecticut run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Like the famous hurricane, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—ISIS—has turned Katreena and Rajaa’s lives upside down, as it has for hundreds of thousands of others in Syria and Iraq. But unlike the residents of the Gulf Coast in 2005, Katreena and her family, including her father and three younger siblings, have little hope of  going back to the village where they had lived in peace and where Katreena even had her own room.

Since leaving their home town in the summer of 2014, they have been living in Erbil, the Kurdish capital of northern Iraq, which has sheltered thousands of internally displaced persons, primarily Christians from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain.

It was the flight from ISIS that eventually led Katreena to the US. She had already injured a foot, and that became badly infected during the long trek to Erbil, which involved a lot of walking. She now walks with crutches.

A medical clinic in Erbil that is run by the St. Elizabeth University of Healthcare and Social Work in Bratislava, Slovakia, found that they could not give her the medical assistance she needed. The Knights of Columbus had been supporting the clinic, as part of their assistance to Christian communities in Iraq and Syria, so the clinic reached out to the Knights for help.

“We worked with the clinic to secure a medical visa to bring Katreena and her mother here for evaluation and treatment,” said Andrew Walther, vice president for communications for the Knights of Columbus. Since September Katreena has been treated at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, and she and her mother were able to live at St. Joseph’s.

A hospital in Iraq diagnosed her with a failed kidney and planned to operate to remove it. They were in the car going to the hospital to have it removed when they got the call that they could come here for medical care. Had they gone through with the surgey, doctors tell us she likely would have died given the state of her foot and general health,” Walther said. “By bringing her here they were able to get her on a course of treatment that they can continue in Iraq.”

Though her health is more stable, Katreena’s family faces an uncertain future as she and Rajaa head back to Erbil this week. And even though the Kurdish capital is relatively safe, Katreena drops phrases like, “We don’t know when ISIS is going to show up in Erbil.”

Katreena’s father is a policeman, and ISIS threatened to cut his head off if the family goes back to their hometown, according to Rajaa. “They told us that they burned our house, that we have nothing left there.”

That was after they painted “nun” on it, an Arabic letter signifying the word “Nazarene,” or Christian. Katrina’s family are members of the Chaldean Catholic church.

“There’s no hope. We’re afraid,” Rajaa said. “That’s why my husband wants to leave Iraq. Even if an organization helps us, we don’t want to stay there. Until ISIS dissolves, there’s no hope.”

But without much hope for a visa, the family will have to stay put.

She said all Christians want to leave the country now, a sentiment that is in the crosshairs of  several determined bishops to see that Christianity survives in a land close to its birth.

But for the five weeks Katreena and her mother have stayed at St. Joseph’s, the visitors from Iraq have given of themselves to the sisters and the elderly they care for.

“It brought the residents a sense of having a granddaughter on site,” said Sister Genevieve Nugent, director of the facility. “For us and the staff, she was like our little sister…. She says she has to go home because if her family has to move again she’s afraid they’ll get separated, and if they’re going to die she wants to die with them.

“It’s brought the whole thing to life for us,” Sister Genevieve said. “We’ve always prayed for the Middle East, but now it’s got a face.”

Katrina and her mother, Rajaa, Chaldeans from Iraq, with some of the Little Sisters of the Poor in the St. Joseph's Residence in Enfield, CT
Courtesy of the Knights of Columbus
Katrina and her mother, Rajaa, Chaldeans from Iraq, with some of the Little Sisters of the Poor in the St. Joseph's Residence in Enfield, CT

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

Christians in the Middle EastIraqIslamist MilitantsKnights of Columbus
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