Special Eyewitness Briefing: Restoring Hope in Iraq for Persecuted Christians and Other Religious Minorities
(Sister Diana Momeka, December 7, 2016)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Eyewitness Dominican Sister Diana Momeka, during a hearing before Congress in 2015, testified: “Uprooted and forcefully displaced, we have realized that ISIS’s plan is to evacuate the land of Christians and wipe the earth clean of any evidence that we ever existed.” Sr. Diana’s own convent was destroyed by ISIS.
She and Syriac Catholic Father Behnam Benoka founded and run the Humanitarian Nineveh Relief Organization in Iraqi Kurdistan where they provide crucial health services and humanitarian aid to thousands of displaced families in and around Erbil. Today, many of the ancient villages have been liberated from ISIS, but the majority of homes, churches, building and infrastructure have been damaged or destroyed. As ISIS retreats, their goal is to restore hope for those who have survived.
Sister Diana shared personal stories of ISIS’ campaign of genocidal acts throughout her homeland. She speak about the future of Christianity and other religious minorities in Iraq, the current humanitarian crisis and the urgent need to support the population.
Sr. Diana was displaced from her hometown Qaraqosh, where she taught English since 2013, by ISIS on August 6, 2014. She has also taught at St. Ephrem Seminary in Qaraqosh and the Baghdad Academy for Human Science. She received a Doctorate of Ministry degree from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
Robert R. Reilly:
I want to acknowledge the presence here tonight of Bishop Julian Dobbs, who is an office mate here and associated with Barnabas Aid, which is one of the premier organizations to help persecuted Christians. You will see information out there on it, and I also want to point out that there are several leaflets on the table about Sister Diana’s organization, the Nineveh Relief Organization.
I just want to point out for those of you who saw earlier invitations that Father Benoka was not able to come because of an emergency that arose in northern Iraq, not unfortunately an infrequent thing. Please join me in turning off your cell phone ringer. And now I have the pleasure of telling you that we have the honor of having Congressman Frank Wolf to introduce our guest tonight. You all know Congressman Wolf from his 17 terms in the U.S. Congress, where in the House of Representatives he was known as the conscience of the House, and the greatest champion of religious freedom, and against the persecution of Christians. Even today his good work there continues because Chris Smith has a bill before Congress now, the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. Please join me in welcoming Congressman Wolf.
Congressman Frank Wolf:
I want to thank Sister Diana for taking the time to come to visit us here in the United States at a very difficult time. It was just a week or two ago, she can explain, her village was liberated from the control of ISIS. Sister Diana runs a camp over in a very difficult region. Sister Diana runs two clinics where they treat roughly 300 people every single day. Sister Diana runs a series of kindergartens for young people, and they do so many other really very important things in a very difficult area. And interestingly enough, all of the nuns that Sister Diana works with speak Aramaic, the same language as Jesus.
Before the war broke out there were 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq. Today, the number is anywhere from 250,000 or some say only 200,000. There is a saying in the Middle East, first the Saturday people and then the Sunday people. The Saturday people [is] the Jewish community. In 1948, the population of the Jewish community in Iraq was 148,000. When I was in Iraq, I said how many Jewish people are living here? And they said Mr. Wolf, maybe about ten elderly individuals. And one person said it may only be four. More biblical activity took place in Iraq than any other country other than Israel. Abraham is buried there. Daniel is buried in Iraq. Ezekiel is buried in Iraq. ISIS blew up Jonah’s tomb about a year [to] a year and a half ago. And a group called Aid to the Church in Need put out a notice a couple weeks ago where they said as a result of this exodus, Christianity is on course to disappear from Iraq within possibly five years.
In the First [Epistle of] John 3:17-18, it says, “but if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need yet closes his heart against them, how does God’s love abide to him? Let us not love in word or speech but in deed or in truth.” And Dr. King said in that speech at the Birmingham jail, he said, in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but we will remember the silence of our friends. And German Lutheran pastor, anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer said silence in the face of evil is evil itself. Not to speak is to speak and not to act is to act. So, hopefully, by Sister Diana’s visit and your coming here, we in the United States will speak, but we will also act in order to save Christianity in the cradle of Christendom, and in the process, also the Yezidis and the other religious minorities who are going through a very difficult time. I am going to give you somebody who I think, frankly, will be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Sister Diana.
Sister Diana Momeka:
Just to say a word about Mr. Wolf. Mr. Wolf is the one who introduced the world to our plight. It was in 2014, August 6, when ISIS drove us out of our homes in the middle of the night, and [at] that time it was the Gaza events too, and there was nothing in the international news at all about the entire Nineveh Plain [people] who were forced to leave by ISIS. Nothing [was] covered in the media. And previously, I had met Mr. Wolf at his office with my Prior Sister Maria Hannah, so I said to a friend of mine who works for Simmer Tempers, I need to do something. I need to get our voice someplace far. He said who do you want? I said I want to reach Mr. Wolf because I know he has the passion. He can talk about this. He said, okay, I know friends who [are] going to connect me to him.
Believe it or not, I think August 12 or 13, they connected me to Mr. Wolf. They called me from his office. Is this Sister Diana? This is Mr. Wolf. I was like yes. I told him this is what is happening. He said really, and he promised me he would come, but during his [time in] office, he was not able [to come] for some reason, but he said Sister Diana, I promise you, as soon as I retire, I will be there the first week.
Believe it or not, the first week of January, Mr. Wolf was in Erbil. You know, I feel that God was with us when he sent Mr. Wolf. He came. People loved him so much because they felt that we were supported. He came with Marty. He came with a group of Wilberforce. It was Elise and Elijah. He came with us. He said I want to see. We took him to the camps to see the situation of the Christians, what was happening to them. After he came back, he was on the media, and people started contacting us, [telling us] we want to see how we can help, so thank you for that. Thank you, Mr. Wolf, really.
And I am here because of him and Marty too. They kept saying you should come. I said I am not coming this time. They said yes, you should come, and one word from him made me come. He said this is an Esther moment, and it just, you know, stayed in my heart and reflected on it. Thanks for that. I am not Sister Diana here. I represent my congregation, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine. I represent every Christian in Iraq. Do not look at me as Sister Diana. No, I am every Christian in Iraq who has been persecuted, who has been driven out of their homes in no time [at all].
You have not maybe heard the story. Maybe you have read some of the stories from [the] media, watched media or [read a] newspaper, but to live the reality is completely different, completely. When we heard of ISIS in Syria, we thought this is not going to happen to us. It is only, you know, across the border in another country. We never expected this [would] happen, but on August 3rd, when ISIS got to Sinjar and then to Bashiqa, and then started moving slowly, and people started leaving, we thought it was not that dangerous.
But then we realized [the] ISIS group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, is not an easy group. It is targeting all the minorities, so it started with Mosul when they started asking people, you have three choices, otherwise you live to convert to Islam, to pay jizyah, or you leave, or we will kill you. So, of course, because of our faith most of us chose to follow our Savior [and leave rather] than to stay and convert to Islam by force.
The journey was not easy at all. When we left, people started leaving in my hometown, that is called Qaraqosh, early from 10 o’clock because there was fighting on the border between ISIS and the army, so people were afraid that their kids could get hurt. They started leaving. For us as a church we made sure not to leave because we are responsible for people until 11 p.m. We saw that the danger was approaching us, so we were told you should leave because ISIS is very close. We made sure that most people had left already, and we were almost the last people to leave town.
Unfortunately, a few that were asleep could not feel the danger, so we had over 300 hostages under ISIS. We were able to liberate them step by step, but we still have a few left under their control, [living in] their captivity.
How did we live away from our homes? It is not [easy]. Those days were very difficult, and Marty [and] Mr. Wolf one day came [to us]. They saw [the reality of our situation. Christians are the creators of civilization. We built the civilization in Iraq. We have been in Iraq from the first century when Saint Thomas passed by through Iraq. We were Christians from first century [on], so we were not second citizens, people that came after, no.
From the seventh century we experienced persecutions from the south of Iraq, and then Christians were driven in the 7th century to the middle of Iraq, and now in the 21st century, we were driven from the middle of Iraq into the north of Iraq. And we do not know what the last stage is going to be. Mr. Wolf said it well, that Christians were 1.5 million-[strong] in Iraq then, and now there are 200,000. Maybe in five years, there will be zero Christians in Iraq, so the cradle of Christianity could die in Iraq, and this is very critical. Are we going to let Christianity die in Iraq? Why would it die? Because we do not feel safe anymore [in] our homes. When ISIS took our homes, we thought okay, it is going to be a while, and we are going to go back, and we are going to continue our lives.
But apparently, what happened? We waited for liberation for over two and a half years. During these two and a half years, I would say if it was not for the Western Church in the U.S. and in Europe, Christians could not have survived. Lots of NGOs, international NGOs, came [and] supported us with food and non-food items. They helped us to move from tents into containers, and some organizations helped with renting homes, [so] four or five families are living in one home. Now we have over 1,200 families living in containers, about 6,000 people. The rest are living in homes, rented homes. Imagine if you have one home, in each room there is a family living, so there is no privacy. There is nothing.[For example], children cannot study because they do not have their own room. That is one thing.
The other thing is education has been interrupted for our children because during these two and a half years, we did not have a school. We did not have curriculum. We have teachers. Our children want to go to school, so we are used to education because we feel education nourishes us, helps us to build the culture, to continue to be strong, so the first few months, we organized. We rented homes. We rented homes. We found every empty building. We started education there because we did not want our children to be without education. For college students, we have over four thousand college students. They have no place to go. Then they got hosted in Kirkuk. Some went to Dohuk. Some stayed without the school, so that is why we started worrying about the future of Christians. What is next?
If we cannot get proper education, if we cannot feel safe where we are, what is next?
The other thing is healthcare because all the infrastructure in our hometowns were looted and destroyed. The capacity where we were in the Kurdistan region, we are talking about over 120,000 people, it is not easy to go to a different town, so to cover everything, that was another problem, where people should go. And that is where we started as a church all working together. Some took care of education, some took care of healthcare, some took care of humanitarian aid, so we kind of divided our work so our people could have this hope. The reason that the church has been working so hard [is] because we did not want our people to leave. But lots of families have left. After one month, two months, they found there is no future in Iraq for them.
However, we were praying so hard that liberation would take place [and that] we would go back, but the big shock for us was when liberation took place, we were so happy, we [thought that we were] going to go back to see our churches, to see our homes, to see whatever we have left, but what do you think we saw? You have no idea.
We thought, okay, our homes might be looted, that is fine, okay, we will work hard, we will furnish them. We will start [our lives again], but it was not like that. ISIS showed who they are, and even I see what they did, it is not the act of human beings at all. Even beasts do not do things like that. As soon as we entered our villages and towns, the first thing we saw [was that] they had burned more than half of the towns, burned them badly, and I am going to show you some photos. They looted them. There is no house left with stuff on it at all, with furniture. They have taken everything they wanted, everything. They destroyed them. They destroyed so many. Some have been destroyed through airstrikes, some by bombs.
The other thing, and the worst thing, is to enter into your house, and you find tunnels dug in your house that are measured 5 X 7 meters or 10 meters. You will not believe it, and these tunnels are connected to somewhere else in other villages. You keep walking. One of the tunnels discovered is 22 kilometers. [It] reaches to Mosul. There are some, you will not believe me, but they are the size of this room, the size of this room.
If we are asked do you want to go back? This is our land. This is where we grew up. This is where we worship. This is where we got educated. This is where we have every beautiful memory. Do we want to go back? Yes, but the question will be: how could we go back if things are destroyed, burned, [and the] place is not totally secure? Who would take his kids into a house that has a tunnel, right? So, I think now Christians are more afraid than before because everything they have, they count on, does not exist anymore, and it is not only that.
The big shock for me was when I entered my family’s house. It was completely burned, and I said, okay, I just wanted something that ISIS did not reach, the cemetery. Can you believe even the cemetery did not survive from them? They opened the graves at one village called Karamlesh. There was a cross of one of the priests. They took his skeleton and hung it in the town, and some are missing. They let the grave open. Their bodies are missing.
In my hometown, when I visited the cemetery, the church is all put down. There is nothing in the church [at] all, like it is all rubbish. You do not see anything. The tombs are open, all [of them], so I have said, okay, you have destroyed the houses. You have destroyed because we did not stay this is the kind of revenge you are paying us, but what did the dead do to you? I mean I think these are not the acts of human beings. I was watching a report on Discovery, showing even the wild animals do not do that. They do have some mercy in their heart, but to see this kind of thing, never. I do not think humanity has experienced this business of human beings. It is really, really bad.
And I can show you [this]. This is Immaculate Conception Church. This is considered one of the biggest churches in the Middle East. [It is] completely burnt. What happened? They collected all the benches. There were over 3,000 benches. [They] burned them, so you see. And the chemical elements that they have used – like when something burns, okay, the smell goes away after a few days. After one month, you cannot even breathe when you get into the church because [of] the kind of chemical that has been used. They [are] still [doing] tests, [so] we do not know, but for some they used phosphorous, for some others they used some other chemicals that are really dangerous for the environmental health. This in Qaraqosh, yes, Immaculate Conception Church, so the main concern for us is the environmental health.
How can we go back if most of [the houses], I would say 60% of the houses, have been burned like this? 60% [are burned like this], and about maybe 35% have been destroyed, and the rest are between looted and destroyed. This is the church. This is the church in Bartella. You do not see the [church] because it is all black. It is the same thing. They burned everything inside it, even the floor you see it has the piles because [for] some they say the fire [burned for] about three or four days.
Actually, these they did not they did not burn like last year or the year before. Just before the liberation, they collected so many tires. When we entered our hometown, my hometown and others, you see tires along the way, hundreds and hundreds of tires of cars and truck tires, so when we entered this church, honestly, we could not breathe at all too.
You can see, and this church was renovated in 2005, I believe. This is one as well, and if you see how did they break all the crosses? You do not see any cross left on any church at all, even in our houses. They left no pictures of Our Lady, no crosses, nothing at all. Besides [that] they have [written in our houses that], “You [are] a crusader, we are going to kill you, and this is your end.” They have written so many threats, [so many] things on our walls, and our homes, and in the churches as well.
This is some of the destruction. This is in Bartella, actually, the town of Bartella. This is the chapel in our convent in Bartella. You see they have tried to break the cross. If they did not destroy it or burn it, they looted or kind of took whatever is valuable in there. And this building is the city council building. It is right in front of our convent. As you see there is nothing left. Apparently, a day before the liberation, according to eyewitness there was a huge truck filled with bombs. It damaged this building as well as our convent totally. This is one of the writings on our church, St. John’s Church. It says what they say, “In the name of God, the merciful, Islamic State will stay, against the alliance, the Crusader.” It is like even their Arabic is not correct, yeah.
I mean we have a hard time reading it. Yeah, it says a state with the blood of the Mujahideen, as we call it, those who kill him themselves. This is our convent where I left, so it is not only destroyed, when we entered into our rooms, nothing [was] left at all. I lived in the U.S., and I had at least 300 books. I was not sad at anything I lost, just for my books. When I entered, I was like what did they do with our books and everything we have? What happened was there is a square at the church where they took all the books that we have, and they burned it to blur the vision of the airstrikes when they were fighting.
This is my family’s house. You can see there is no window, there are no doors, there is nothing, so that was my first time getting into the house. It is like I did not know, should I laugh? Should I feel sad? It is kind of like [normally], you know your feelings, [but in this case], you do not know what to feel at all. You get numb. And most of the houses are like this, the ones that are burned, so when they ask us, do you want to go back, okay, yes.
Shall my dad live in this house? How? First of all, it is not healthy. Second, it is going to need to be renovated, but it is not easy to renovate it because [of] the material that has been used. You cannot just peel it and paint it. You have to take it all down and start a new house. The families with low income [cannot afford it] or most of the families because they left and left everything behind, and they can barely survive. How can they go back if they do not find help?
However, if there is no security, number one, how can we go back? The truth is [those] who did this to us were not only [members of] ISIS, but they were also our neighbors [in] surrounding areas. So many documents were found [with] so many documents’ names. [There are] eyewitnesses, two women who survived and [who were] found when the liberation happened. One of them said they were asking me where is the house of this man and that man? Those people who used to come to our schools, to our healthcare system where we treated them, they are the same people who turned against us and looted our homes and burnt them, and destroyed [them], and turned against [us].
How can we trust them again? It is impossible. No matter what you do it is impossible. [There are] so many stories told by people who are living in Mosul. The neighbor will say to his Christian neighbor, you should leave now because I want to take your home. If you do not leave, I am going to kill you. And they did not let them take any belongings with them. They left with nothing, so how can we go and live in Mosul again with our neighbor who said leave? How can we live with our neighbors who were living with us in Qaraqosh and [the] surrounding area, in Bartella, in Karamlesh, and go live with them again? It is hard. It is hard to gain that trust anymore.
If you notice in this church, see the tower [is] totally destroyed and they broke the crosses. We have eight churches in only Qaraqosh. If you see, they are in terrible condition, terrible, burned, looted. Crosses have been taken down. Besides that, it is not only that, what they did is they used the church square as a targeting [center], training children and training their men how to kill. This is how they desecrated our churches.
Yesterday was Monday. [On] CBN, they came to Iraq, and we went to Qaraqosh for eight hours. Chris Mitchell did a really nice segment about everything that happened. He showed everything that happened, so it is online on CBN’s Facebook page. It gives more details about how the destruction took place, and you see the houses. You see it like, oh, this is really simple, but you see my family’s house. When I saw this, I said this is really easy, we can fix it. But when you get inside, you see it is totally destroyed. Even the fans are melted. This is the tower.
But when we were there, I do not know, sometimes I love to see signs of hope. We cannot lose hope, right? If you notice when we were up, I saw that pigeon standing there. It is like, wow, you know, this tells something. This tells something. God is always present and when the Holy Spirit descended to Christ, it was through like a dove, and that was a sign for me. Honestly, as a Sister, as a believer, I found it as a sign of hope, so I do pray. I do pray that tower will be rebuilt again. I do pray that the church will be glorified again with the prayers. A mass was set right after the liberation in the midst of the burning and all that destruction. The bishop and people went and celebrated Mass there to bring the Spirit of God after that church was tested.
This is one of the tunnels. See how deep it is? And this is in Karamlesh. There is a shrine, Saint Barbara shrine. They have four of them. They are so deep that they tried to close them. It is impossible because they are huge. This one, I do not know, they said it was 4×6, I think, or seven. When I looked at it, I got dizzy. And what they did when they dug this one is they took all the dirt and closed the rest of the shrine. And we have volunteers that worked for fifteen days, taking the dirt out of the shrine. And they broke half of the Tomb of Saint Barbara, and that shrine belongs to centuries ago. I do not have the date exactly, but it is so old that it is on a small hill.
I mean this is dangerous. What we think [is] okay, people want to worship, but we do not know how safe these tunnels will be. In [just] Qaraqosh they discovered up to now one hundred tunnels. They have not gone house to house yet, so what kind of things are we going to see there? Besides, see this is a church. They actually bumped the tower, and they broke the crows, but what happened when we went? The soldiers, the NPU, the Nineveh Protection Unit with the army went [to Qaraqosh]. There were priests with them when they went to see the situation. They put the cross [back up on the church] because this, [removing the cross], is the worst sign, so they put that cross there to say that life will come back to this town, hopefully.
These are the markets where people used to make livelihood for their lives. All of them along this street have been burned, looted, [and] some [have been] destroyed. I could not include all the pictures, and some [are] destroyed, so how could people now go back if they have nothing left in there? They have always been asking this question. This is the square of the church. See how they made it target [practice] for them, and they destroyed it, really. It is [so tragic]. When you see it, it was so beautiful, and now all that you see is rubbish there.
In this area, there are about 15 houses that have been totally destroyed. Next to this house there is a woman who is my friend. When she was in Jordan, she [realized that she] could not live in Jordan. She loves her home a lot [so] she said I am coming back before the liberation, in four days, I believe. And after the liberation when they posted photos, she saw her home had been [hit by an] airstrike. She went back. I mean her story is so moving. She looked around. She said some people came back, they could find a photo as a memory for their [previous lives], anything that could really [remind them of their previous lives]. She said I could not get in and find a photo that can remind me of my entire family. To remind [her], she took a stone from her house and said this is as a memory for what is left of my house, so there are lots of stories of people coming back with a broken heart.
Imagine you have a beautiful mansion, and when you go back you do not see it, you just see rubbish or gravel. And the problem is for us as a Christians, we have never lived in tents. We are educated people. You see doctors, you see lawyers, you see engineers, you see teachers, you see all kinds of people. When you see this down, you do not believe that.
You say this is a message to tell [us to] go away, this is not your land. I mean how could you give it [another interpretation]? Can you give it another analysis? For me I [cannot] because I come from that area. When I walk in our streets, this is the message that I got from them. Otherwise, why would they do this? There is no other explanation. For two and a half years we left the town. We thought it is going to be fine, but apparently no, so now the people are more traumatized, more shocked [than when] we left in 2014.
Anyway, so that was a part of [the story]. I just want to show you how ISIS affected us by not leaving anything for us fine [in terms of] material things. They are trying to get into our faith, right? When they do this, they try to get us, but I see people still have faith. People continue to have hope. So many say if we get help, we will go back, we will rebuild, and so many are going back to clean their homes, trying to do what they can, but it is not easy to take this step now, if things are not clear.
When the liberation happened, we found so many things. We found clothes that in each house families would say these are not our clothes, so there were apparently strangers living there. Who they were we cannot identify now. There is so much evidence for things that were not supposed to be in our town. In some places, some families found their homes had been turned into a factory of weapons. Some found bodies, parts of bodies there, so there are so many things in our towns and villages. In some homes, there were 3,000 Yazidi women missing. We do not know if they were there or not, so there is a missing puzzle there that we need to find the pieces, but we cannot find them by ourselves. We are going to need help to find those pieces and put them together, I believe.
Three things that we really need for this: we are going to need security for Christians to save the cradle Christianity in Iraq. If they do not feel secure, they cannot go back, and they really want to feel secure and take their children. If they do not have something as tangible to tell them, you are going to be fine, you are going to be safe, [they will not want to go back].
Second, to live in such an environment is not healthy at all even if it is rebuilt. Third, all the evidence needs to be examined, I think, to see what happened. We have the right to know what happened [to] our towns and villages, and our churches, our homes, our institutes, our hospitals, everything that we worked so hard [for]. Those homes families work twenty, thirty years to build [them]. There was a teacher [who] got into his house [and found that it] was totally burned. He said my student, those I taught, burned my house that took me 30 years [to] build. How would you react to such a story? This is one of them. [In another instance], a widow who stands in front of her house with her children crying, this is all [that] I have, what should I do now?
I do believe this is a very difficult time for us. We are going to need lots of support, more than before the displacement. This is this is that we do need help. How? It is not easy to say. Many people want to go back. Some do not feel [that] they want to go back. They want to find a better future for their children, for themselves. As [a] church, we try to do the best that we can to keep people hopeful, to keep ourselves hopeful, and believe that since one of Jesus Christ’s disciples went through that land, we feel that Jesus wants that spirit to continue in that land.
How can we keep it? We ask ourselves this question every single day. The churches [on] Sunday, you see them filled with people praying, calling to God for protection, for safety, for strong faith. How long this would last [we wondered. One trauma after another, one persecution after another, how much can a human being carry? We yearn for a normal life. We do not live a normal life, and we cannot say we live a normal life. I think since I was born, I have never experienced a normal life; Iran-Iraq War, sanctions, Gulf War, U.S. war, and the worst of all, ISIS.
And what is ISIS? Is it people, that they did this? I think it is more. It is about the ideology. Children that are coming from Mosul [who] have been liberated, one of the children said he was asked, what did you learn at school? What do you think? In math class, he was taught one dead body plus one dead body equaled two dead bodies, one bullet plus one bullet equal two bullets. The infidels in Arabic, the class in Arabic – I did not post it here, [but] I have it – assess [that] the infidels deserved to be slaughtered. This is in Arabic class.
So, if you teach your children this, how would they grow up? And at the end of each curriculum there is a weapon, a gun or some kind of [other weapon], so we need to think deeply [about] who ISIS is. Is it a few people that came and did this destruction and left or is it two and a half years [of indoctrination]? I think it is a long period to teach children to do lots of things right at school from six years to twelve years. This is the age where you can plant things in the minds of children, and they never get it out because they think this is what they believe in.
So, if one bullet plus one bullet is equal to two, God help us, God help us.
And this is not only happening in Iraq. It could happen everywhere. We were the victims, we are the victims, but we do not know. We hear all over the Europe, in many places, lots of turmoil is happening, so we need to question ourselves now. Are we safe? We tasted suffering, bitterness, and all kinds of things. We continue to be strong because we do believe God has been journeying with us in each day and each minute, and this is how from [the] first day, I would like to tell you about our work as [a] church.
As Dominican Sisters we thought the first thing we could do is open kindergartens, open schools, so this way we can educate our children to continue [to] have faith, to continue to believe in life. Believing in life is the key to life, so this is what we started doing. We opened a school. We opened four kindergartens. We continue to be with people at the camps day by day. [We] worship with them, celebrate Mass, do catechism, [and] we do first communion as Catholics. We have two terms in summer. We have over 700 children in each year.
We try to do all kinds of things. Why? Because we thought this is how we can strengthen what we have, so we still work with our community. As [a] church, in general, too, what we did as you heard of Father Benoka and I, there were hundreds of people at the camp sick. They do not know where to go. [There are] no hospitals, nothing. There was a modest tent there. With the tent, we started a small unit for medical health. We divided into different parts, and then someone came. Doctors said can we volunteer? I said sure and looked. We do not have medicine.
I said to Father Benoka, let me go and beg. I am a Dominican. I am a beggar. That is what Saint Dominic was. [He] was a beggar. This is who I am. I follow my founder [and] that was his spirituality. I went to pharmacies. I said listen, we were just displaced, we do not have [medicine], can you help me? So, we got a small bag with a little spirit. That is what I call our clinic, how we started with a little spirit. And believe it or not, with that small tent and with this small amount of medicine, God blessed us with so many [things].
And then someone came to me. He was a friend of Kevin. His name is Matthew Noury. He said Sister, how can I help you? It is like wow, we need medicine, we need so-and-so. And Samaritan purse started helping us right away. And then Pontifical Mission came. They said how can we help? I started helping, and some other organizations [came], and that is how our clinic started growing. We started seeing people, between 700 to 800 per day. And then, as I said, God blessed us.
We became an organization that is named – you are going to see in the brochure – Humanitarian Nineveh [Relief] Organization. That was recognized officially in November of 2015. We call it [that] because it is not only for Christians, but it is all for all minorities. We reach out [to] all minorities, and it is open for everyone, so we have done projects with Yazidis. Those are Yazidis. They are living [in what] is kind of a slum. Hundreds of Yazidis were living [there], so we tried to get them food and non-food items.
And this is our clinic. As I said, we started with a modest tent, and then it started growing, growing, and if someday you visit us, you are going to see lots of logos of [which entities] donated [which items], so each caravan is donated by some organization. We had German organizations, French organizations, so to see this ecumenical thing is like really, really [inspiring].
I said like God sent people from all over the place. We received people from all over the world. They come to see our work, and then they see what kind of work it is they support, and this is how we have been able to continue our work, serving thousands of people every single month. Like each month the number of patients reaches to seven and eight thousand. We opened two clinics and we are doing project to help youth. We are doing some music training. We are doing English courses because some of our youths do not have anything to do, so we see education [as being like] a weapon for us, so this is how we educate our children. We are trying to do workshops for them. It is a small organization, but I believe that small things make a big difference, and this is how I see things, from a different perspective.
Cardinal Donald [Wuerl] visited us last year, and we were so blessed that because Kiniwa has been supporting us so much, so they would like to see our work, and we were so blessed that he came and saw our work and blessed it as well. This is another clinic in a town that is about 20 minutes away from Erbil. At this complex [there are] about 1200 families. 80% are Muslim, 28% are Christians, so you see we receive all kinds of patients. The clinic is open. This open door [is] for everyone. We reach out for Kaka’is as well. We see like what their needs are during summer, during winter, so we do the humanitarian work.
And this is the clinic in Ankawa. We [provide] the primarily care for [people in need], but we have expanded. We started only with a gynecologist and an internist, and then, as I said, God blessed us. We have [an] ultrasound department, we have [unintelligible] department, [a] dental department, a pharmacy, [and] a pediatrician, all kinds. You feel that little spirit was not only one part but God has blessed it so much, and I do believe with small things we can do lots of things. And this is [why] I say it does not have to be too big. With every penny we were able to help a family. That is why sometimes people would say Sister, we do not have much to give you, [and I would tell them that] a penny makes a difference to us. It does. Honestly, it does.
This is [what] our life is [like] every single day. People now [live] under a question. What shall we do? If you have any questions, [I will answer them].
People live where they can make a living. In your town what was its economic base for ISIS? What did people make? What did they do? Is it feasible to reestablish that now?
Sister Diana Momeka:
People before ISIS used to own mansions that [were] worth a million dollars. They owned so much. They owned houses, they owned cars, they owned businesses. We did not have poor people or any homeless at all. The poor ones could get by with ease. If they were not employees, they had their own business, so life was really, really good for us. And I would say despite everything, we were living in luxury as Christians. Like [although] we used to work hard, we used to have everything we wanted. People were getting married. [They would] spending two or three days partying. They were traveling. They were working hard, but after ISIS, because we left with nothing, we left with only our clothes, people could not restart [their old lives] again. There is hope that if we go back, people are so resilient they can work, they can start, they can rebuild that town be better than it was before, but they are going to need help. They cannot do it by themselves.
Thank you so much for coming. I am Yazidi. I really hope that Erbil is home again, and it is. Is it helping, your organization, [in] Erbil, or the KRG government? Is it [giving] assistance? And the second question is do you have any kind of branch or organization that is working in northern Syria because we have a huge community of Christians there right now too.
Sister Diana Momeka:
I will answer the second question. Unfortunately, we do not. We are hoping to expand. As I said, we are new. We just started on August 9th of 2014 to respond to the immediate emergency, and then, as you know, the number of refugees in Erbil are over 120,000. And as I said, there are lots of Yazidis. Lots of Syrians come to [Erbil]. Actually, we have employees [who] are Syrian [who] are working with us too. So we are hoping to reach out, but that is going to funds. It is going to need help, so as I say, we get [by] day by day, so hopefully, we pray that someday we are going to reach out to Syria and other places as well where there are critical situations and where they need help most.
Has there been a lot of discussion of making Nineveh an independent province or governance reform as well as suggestions from the Kurds that they could become independent from a national point of view? Would this situation improve at all in the sense of having lawful governance to also rebuild?
Sister Diana Momeka:
When I grew up, I grew up in Baghdad. One of our neighbors was Sunni, and the other Shia, and I was about 14-15 years [old]. I never knew who they were, if they were Sunni or Shia. I knew they were our neighbors who were Muslim, that we lived in peace with them, so I have never experienced being independent as a Christian. We always had this sense of community. Really, if there is a discussion about that, I cannot comment on that because I think this is on a higher level than me because all that I do is humanitarian work. I do not get into things like that. I would rather [act] on [a] spiritual and humanitarian level than to get into other thoughts.
Robert R. Reilly:
Sister, how can people here help you? How could anyone in the audience tonight who is listening on the video, which will be posted on YouTube, get to you? How do they get help to you? What is the [best way]? I know we have brochures in the next room that may have your address, but perhaps you could say that, so that it is recorded on this tape.
Sister Diana Momeka:
As I said, I am a beggar. I am St. Dominic’s daughter. We do need your help. We do need to help people, [so they have] something to count on. We do need your help to help us to rebuild, to rebuild. For those who can help with security on their side, they cannot do this from their angle. For those who can help in rebuilding, we do need your support. As I said, every penny counts.
We are hoping. We are preparing projects to revive the agriculture to create opportunities for livelihoods for people, [so] they can work and make money and go and rebuild. We have so many projects that we are hoping our students [will use] to continue their schooling. So, as I say, whatever your heart says that you can give, please listen to your hearts. Every penny counts, and if you can help, Christmas is coming and always with the Christmas we feel happy in giving.
Robert R. Reilly:
Sister, more specifically, how do they get their pennies to you? Is there a website?
Sister Diana Momeka:
Yes, there is a website. It is on the paper, which is: www.hnroIRAQ.org, hnroiraq.org. You can go to this website, and it will lead you [to] how to donate.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I could end with a question, that as you say you are concerned with humanitarian work, but there is going to be a new administration here in Washington, DC. What would you like to see them do in respect to the problems you face everyday?
Sister Diana Momeka:[I want them] to look at the situation of the Christians from a new angle. The cradle of Christianity in Iraq is disappearing. It is, just as I said at the beginning, [it has gone] from 1.5 million to 200,000. What is next? How can we help the minorities to stay, and as I say, the Christians, because I am a Christian, so to raise the awareness that the cradle of Christianity in Iraq needs help.
I am Iraqi American. Like you, I grew up in Baghdad and I went to school. Before I ask my question, I just want to express my deepest apology as a Muslim Iraqi to what happened to you.
Sister Diana Momeka:
Please forgive us. What has happened to you is a new Holocaust, and every Muslim in Iraq should be responsible for this crime. They should be ashamed. My question to you is you are Iraqis more than we are. You were in Iraq before. We came after you. And you are more patriotic than any Iraqis. Are you going back to your villages? What assurances are you seeking, as Mr. [Reilly] said, from this administration, from the international community to protect you and not let these shameful crimes happen to you again? Again, lease forgive us.
Sister Diana Momeka:
I would say what happened to Christianity is a genocide. It was declared a genocide. And my message to the new administration [is], okay, it was declared. What is next? How are you going to act with the genocide? Christians need to be recognized, that all this happened to them. It is a genocide, and they need to hear it, not only with words, but also actions. They need to see actions.
Robert R. Reilly:
Great. Thank you, Sister Momeka.