Harrowing escape from ISIS recounted for student audience
Christians all over the world will hear familiar words repeated next week when they attend services for Good Friday: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
They are, of course, some of the so-called Seven Last Words of Christ on the cross.
Recently, an audience in the US learned that they were also the words on the lips of Iraqis as they fled invaders of Christian villages three years ago.
The Daily Eastern News, the newspaper of Eastern Illinois University, reported on a talk that Dominican Sister Habiba Bihnam Toma gave on Wednesday about her experience helping refugees flee the Islamic State group in northern Iraq in 2014. The fleeing Christians “heard the sound of gunshots” as they were crossing into the Kurdish area of Ankawa, Toma said. “We were afraid. (We) cried, prayed and moved slowly among the thousands of people crouching to the ground to avoid the bullets and yelling, ‘Where are you, O God? Why have you abandoned us?’”
Toma said she and her sisters were reluctant to leave their convent in Qaraqosh while any other Christians were present. But when a friend called, tearfully pleading that they leave quickly because ISIS was already in the town, the sisters were forced to retreat.
“(The) only (things) we brought with us (were) our prayer books,” Toma said. “It was a shock to leave the walls of our convent and see the streets full of cars and people, all doing as we were doing, leaving our (homes) out of fear for our lives.”
The trek to Ankawa was 48 miles long, but it might as well have been a thousand.
“The main road was (so) filled with cars and people walking that we could not continue,” Toma said. “We abandoned the road for (an) unused path.” The sisters pleaded with a soldier, who would not allow them to bring their car into Iraqi Kurdistan.
“I told him all of (the) sisters can’t walk,” she said. “They are elderly.”
Once inside Ankawa, the displaced Christians had to live wherever they could find space: on the streets, in churches, in buildings still under construction. The sisters themselves—75 in number—had to share space in a building that normally held 20. Priests and bishops also had to flee, and they collaborated with the sisters to assist the internally displaced persons. Two by two, they visited IDP camps.
The newspaper reports:
“All day we visited (the refugees), listened to their suffering, encouraged them to be patient, wait in hope and strength of their faith,” Toma said.
The sisters gathered adults to pray and kept the children busy at play.
They accepted donations of food, clothing, water and money.
“Each family had limited living space, several sharing one classroom, others crowding under the stairs or living in tents,” Toma said. “The men and young people slept outside under the stars.”
Eventually, school was back in session, and the refugees were forced out to the tents. Toma recalled that the rain brought snakes and scorpions, but eventually the church managed to rent houses for the displaced families.
“Some of the young adults (had) given up their college in order to work and provide for their families,” Toma said. “Because all of our (younger) students were without school, we noticed an increase in violent behavior among them.”
As a result, the sisters opened four makeshift kindergartens and two elementary schools.
“Everyone was suffering because ISIS destroyed not only our homes and schools but our churches and monasteries and all the landmarks of our 2,000-year-old Christian culture,” Toma said. “We feel that we can only return to our village when there is peace and when the international community can (ensure) our safety and protection.”
As Sister Toma was speaking in Illinois, another religious who has faced similar danger in the Middle East was receiving an honor from First Lady Melania Trump in Washington.
Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh, a member of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, who lives in Aleppo, Syria, was one of 13 women honored March 29 with the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award.
Fachakh was recognized for working “tirelessly to support the needs of Syria’s most vulnerable populations, particularly internally displaced persons and children.”
“During a period of intense bombing around a neighborhood school, Sister Carolin selflessly ensured that the children were brought safely home to their parents,” the State Department said. “She has been a beacon of hope to both Muslims and Christians alike, while putting her own life at risk.”