Iraq Refugees
Home | Sisters | Associates | Friars | Laity | Nuns | Link to Groups | World OP | DLC  
Care of Creation
Culture of Peace
Global Partnership

Find my Representative
in the
US House
US Senate

Contact the White House

To open a PDF document, you need Adobe Acrobat Reader,Click the icon follow the prompts. It is free, safe and secure.

"Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every person’s conscience in the sight of God.”   2 COR 4:1-2

The Family of OUR Family in Iraq

Toni Harris OP (Sinsinawa)
International Dominican Co-Promoter for Justice and Peace

An oversized edition of the Holy Scriptures lay open wide on a low table in the center of the room.  On closer examination, I realized the text was in Arabic. Our meeting with Bishop Josef Absi, Patriarchal Vicar of the Greek Melkite Church in Damascus, was just concluding.  As the Dominicans in the group -- Arlene Flaherty, Dusty Farnan and I -- stood near the table and admired the beautiful script, Bishop Absi joined us.  Arlene asked him if he please would read from the page to which the Scriptures were open. He read first in Arabic then translated in English. The Bishop read the verses of 2 Corinthians quoted above.  We three Dominicans caught one another’s eyes meaningfully as he read the phrase about speaking the truth.

LEFT: Toni Harris, Arlene Flaherty and Dusty Farnan hold Sacred Scripture in Damascus
This providentially proclaimed Word was particularly appropriate for our Catholic Relief Services Sisters Delegation to the Middle East, January 12-20, 2008. Eight Sister delegates traveled with a few CRS staff members to Lebanon and Syria. We hoped to learn the truth about the Iraqi refugees in those countries and to openly state this truth to our various publics and networks following the trip.

Our visit began in Beirut, Lebanon. Our first full day in Beirut included an opportunity to be with some members of our Dominican Family there. Sr. Maria Hanna, Prioress of St. Catherine Congregation from Iraq, and the local prioress, Sr. Germaine, joined us for mass in the Chaldean Cathedral. After mass, we were invited to their convent perched high in the hills north of the city. Their view of the Mediterranean Sea is breathtaking. The Dominican community there provided us with a feast of traditional Mid-eastern foods. This wonderful hospitality of our Dominican Sisters was a preview of the overwhelming hospitality that we would continue to experience everywhere we visited in Lebanon and Syria. (In Lebanon, two congregations of Dominican Sisters are present: St. Catherine, with two communities; Presentation, also with two communities. Presently, there are no Dominicans in Syria. However, Dominicans have been present in the Middle East since the earliest years of the Order. Jordan of Saxony, second Master of the Order, died in a shipwreck off the coast of Palestine in 1237.)

As I contemplate my week-long visit to the Middle East, several threads weave the fabric of the truth that I learned during those days:  consequence, desperation; dedication; powerlessness; hospitality.

Damascus chile
An Iraqi boy stands in a shelter for refugee mothers and their children in Damascus, Syria. The shelter reaches out to some of the estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees now in Syria. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Catholic Relief Services, January 2008 

The consequence or “fall-out” of US policy in the Middle East surrounded us on every side. The US-led invasion of Iraq has not only opened the way for mayhem in Iraq but has also caused enormous problems for neighboring countries.  Current estimates (conservative) indicate that 1.5 million Iraqi refugees are in Syria; 700,000 in Jordan; 50,000 in Lebanon.  More than 2 million Iraqis are internally displaced in Iraq. Some countries whom the US Government historically denounces are the very ones who have had to “pick-up the pieces” as a result of US policy. Syria, a country the size of North Dakota with a population of about 19 million, is trying to cope with more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees.  In general, Iraq’s neighbors have been tolerant, if not welcoming.

The desperation of the Iraqi refugees whom we met was tangible. In small groups, we personally visited the homes of Iraqi refugee families.  With my small group, I visited three families in Beirut and two families in Damascus.  Due to non-existent or non-renewable visas, most Iraqis in the countries are considered illegal.  Apartments are over-crowded, without much furniture, and unheated.  As undocumented refugees, adults cannot work legally.  Family roles are turned-upside-down as children are sent to work at menial tasks to support their families rather than to school.  Increasing numbers of women are driven to prostitution. The effects of trauma and depression are widespread and, for the most part, untreated.

The dedication of the Caritas and CRS staff and their partner organizations, as well as others from UNCHR (High Commission for Refugees), was extremely impressive.  Many of these persons have spent decades in direct work with refugees and other vulnerable populations.  Most significant for me were the strong, competent, and courageous women—especially Sisters – who work tirelessly to address the needs of refugees, particularly refugee women and children.  I remember especially the Good Shepherd Congregation, Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Congregation, the Lazarus Congregation (Daughters of Charity), and our own Dominican Sisters.

The feeling of powerlessness constantly tempted me to despair throughout our trip.  I think of the Iraqi mother of four who begged me to speak to the UNHCR about her case.  I can still see the young Iraqi couple and their new baby in a cold basement apartment with no furniture; the young mother refusing to leave the apartment because she was threatened by persons from another sect.  I remember the middle-aged couple describing the death threats they received in Iraq; the man simply sat, thin and expressionless, except for his vacant eyes.  I won’t forget the university-age Iraqis who hoped that we could help them obtain student visas to the US so that they might continue studies interrupted by the US invasion. The experiences of others in the delegation multiplied such stories. The words of Tony Kushner provide some encouragement:  “. . . the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.  I do not believe the wicked always win.  I believe our despair is a lie we are telling ourselves.”

The hospitality of the people of the Middle East is beyond description. The Chaldean Bishop of Beirut, Bishop Michel Kassarji, served a grand breakfast after our morning meeting with him. Sisters in Lebanon and Syria served us wonderful meals in connection with our visits. Every organization and office with whom we met provided coffee, tea, and delicious sweets.  Most significantly, the Iraqi refugee families provided from the little they had something for us to eat and drink (usually Coca-cola) during our visits with them.  All this kindness caused me to speculate about what kind of welcome these Middle Eastern people would receive in most places in the US.

Recalling again the Scriptures with which I began, the “ministry” of participation in this Delegation was truly for me “a gift of the mercy of God.”

Iraq Refugees The experiences and learnings confirmed for me the need to continue to “renounce” the “disgraceful and underhanded ways” in which the US government justified the invasion of Iraq, with the resulting violence, death and misery in the Middle East.  This “open statement of the truth” demands that citizens of the US, as well as of those other countries who were members of the Iraq invasion coalition (including the UK, Australia, Poland, Spain, Italy, New Zealand), must now help to address the plight of the more than 4 million displaced Iraqis in the Middle East.  Citizens need to encourage their governments to welcome more Iraqi refugees in their resettlement programs, to budget more funding for Iraqi refugee assistance, to generously fund UNHCR programs for Iraqi refugees, and to support bilateral funding to ease the burden of host governments with large Iraqi refugee populations.

In 2002, Dominicans began to remind themselves: “I HAVE FAMILY IN IRAQ.” Some continue to wear buttons/badges and to display bumper stickers that announce this message.  We want to stand in solidarity with our two congregations of Dominican Sisters, our Vicariate of Friars and hundreds of our Laity.  Even now, we CONTINUE to have Family in Iraq.  However, many of the family, friends, and neighbors of OUR Family have had to flee Iraq because of the “murder and mayhem” there. (See the US Catholic Bishops Delegation Report, July ‘07.)  As Dominicans, we need to proclaim “the open statement of the truth” to our governments that amends must be made for the enormous damage done in Iraq.  We need “to commend ourselves to every person’s conscience in the sight of God.”  The family of our Family in Iraq also stands in need of our solidarity.

Toni Harris OP (Sinsinawa)
International Dominican Co-Promoter for Justice and Peace
February 2008

The Family of OUR Family in Iraq
Toni Harris reflects on the recent delegation to Syria and Lebanon

Iraqi Refugees: Living in Limbo
Arlene Flaherty, OP assess the situation

video link
Link to a CBS News
Interview with Sr. Arlene on the Refugee Situation

Tonie HarrisLISTEN to a Vatican Radio interview with Sr. Toni Harris
on her impressions of the situation.

Advocacy Points from NETWORK

Dominicans Join Fact Finding Mission to Syria and Lebanon

Iraqis are the third largest and fastest growing refugee population in the world. 

subscribe to today and get a free email update every two weeks.