see also Sr. Ribah Mousa's reflection on her visit
home to Mosul
Dominican Sister's first visit home in 3 years
a very different village than she left
By Deborah Horan
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Published February 10, 2006
Sister Luma Khudher stared into the youthful faces
of the armed Christian men guarding the entrance to her Iraqi village.
They had peered warily inside her taxi until they realized they
recognized the driver and spotted Khudher and four other nuns in
habits seated in back. The guards' faces relaxed.
"Go," one of them said, waving the taxi
through the checkpoint. Within minutes the taxi reached the center
of Qaraqush, a small Christian village nestled in the shadow of
Kurdistan in northern Iraq. It was the first time the Iraqi-born
Dominican nun had been home in three years.
Flashbacks of that incident haunt Khudher, 29, as
she tries to reconcile her quiet life at Marian Catholic High School
in Chicago Heights, where she lives, with the chaos she encountered
during a one-month trip to her homeland last summer. There were
never armed sentries at the gate to her village before the war.
But then, there had never been a need. What had happened
to her country, Khudher wondered, since her Catholic order sent
her to Illinois in April 2002 to study and teach? And what lay in
store for her small town near Mosul?
"Every time I hear from my family, I thank God
they're still alive," said Khudher. "It makes me sad.
It took a long time for me to admit that what I saw, it's reality.
"The guards are good for now to protect the
village," she said. "But I hope it won't be for long.
You feel like you are in a battlefield. You don't feel that you
Before she left for Iraq, Khudher knew that the country's
1 million Christians were vulnerable to attack. In her phone calls
home, family members had described entire Christian villages left
to their own devices in the wake of the war. In Qaraqush, they said,
the head priest of the biggest church had become mayor after the
government-appointed leader fled.
But Khudher was unprepared for the stark changes
she encountered on the trip: the guns and garbage, the destruction
and fear, especially the fear. It had gripped Iraq's minority Christian
community, keeping residents from voting and prompting them to flee
In the last two years, liquor store owners had been
murdered and more than two dozen churches bombed. One day last month,
explosions at four churches in Baghdad and Kirkuk left three people
dead, according to news reports and Iraqi Christian leaders in Chicago.
Khudher was startled to discover on the trip that
nuns had received threats warning them not to wear their habits
in the street. And though she knew Christians feared that Kurdish
and Arab political aspirations threatened to overwhelm them, the
point sunk in only when she gazed up at a giant mural of a Kurdish
leader posted at the entrance to her village.
"It was hanging right where the picture of Saddam
Hussein used to be," Khudher said.
Part of the problem, Christian leaders say, lies
in the size of the country's Christian population in Iraq. Once
numbering in the millions, the community has been steadily shrinking
for decades. Dozens of Christian villages have been destroyed in
a succession of wars. And since Hussein's government fell, thousands
of Christians have fled to neighboring Syria and Jordan.
"We are now a seriously endangered people and
civilization," said Edward Odisho, an Iraqi Christian from
Morton Grove, who has been active in calling attention to his people's
plight. "In 40 years, no one will remain speaking Assyrian
For Khudher, the view from Qaraqush drove the existential
threat home. She thinks about her hometown often as she walks the
halls of Marian Catholic, past student lockers and science labs.
They remind her of how much Iraqi students lack, she said.
"Our students have nothing like this,"
Khudher said. "There is no lunch period, no study hall, no
gyms. There are no lockers. The students carry their books in a
backpack all day. There are lab rooms, but they don't have any materials."
Khudher is studying for a master's degree in biblical
spirituality, and when she's not in class, she is at the high school.
Sometimes she cooks Iraqi food for the other nuns.
But her village is never far from her mind. There
are precious few jobs in Qaraqush other than farming. Many of the
town's young men have emigrated. In the wake of the war, many villagers
were murdered as families settled scores in the absence of a functioning
police force. Men were captured and held, sometimes for weeks, victims
of a move to purge villages of Hussein's Baath Party, which also
Khudher's father and brother, both owners of small
grocery stores, made daily supply runs to Mosul. But many villagers
avoided leaving the town. The highways were too dangerous. Even
in town, they took extraordinary precautions, canceling last year's
annual Palm Sunday procession for fear of a bombing.
By the time Khudher arrived in June 2005 to take
her final profession of vows, Qaraqush had recovered from the initial
shocks of war. But the armed sentries reminded the townspeople of
their vulnerability. So did the lack of security on the highways,
teeming with insurgents. Iraqi police offered little protection,
as Khudher discovered during the taxi ride from Jordan to Qaraqush.
The taxi's tire had blown and the driver went to
the next town to get it patched, leaving Khudher and the other passengers
alone on the side of the road. Policemen in wrinkled uniforms came
by in a pickup truck.
"Do you know how dangerous this road is?"
Khudher recalled one of the officers asking before the men drove
away, disappearing in a plume of desert dust.
"They left us standing in the middle of nowhere,"
Khudher said, her jaw dropping in disbelief. "They didn't offer
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
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