12 April 2016
Sister Maria Hanna serves as the mother superior of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in northern Iraq. (photo: John E. Kozar)
The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena who serve the displaced people of Iraq are among the most selfless women we’ve encountered — and also, among the most heroic.
Their mother superior is Sister Maria Hanna, who fled with dozens of her sisters from their convent in Quaraqosh when ISIS swept through northern Iraq in August of 2014. They settled in Erbil, some 50 miles away, to begin serving others in the same boat:
Throughout this trauma, a backbone of support for the displaced Christians has been the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, some 73 of whom were also exiled from their convents across the plain. Led by Sister Maria Hanna, mother superior, the community initially administered to the displaced from their convent in Ainkawa. As families were moved from Ainkawa to Kasnazan, it became clear a second, satellite convent was required.
“We want to be with the people — to serve the people in the moment,” says Sister Maria. “If they move someplace else, we move with them.”
...The leitmotif evident across all the communities of displaced Christians living in towns across Iraqi Kurdistan is resilience. From the seemingly hopeless ashes of shock and despair of last autumn, green shoots of hope sprout. From Erbil to Dohuk to Suleimaniyah, the Christians, frequently marginalized from public services by the Kurdish authorities, are building their own structures of support and care. The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena have been crucial to the slow but steady emergence of this infrastructure from the chaos of displacement.
Within weeks of their exile, Sister Maria Hanna and her community realized children needed special help in this crucial time.
“Children in the displaced families are the real victims,” she says. “They are really crushed by the situation. Entire families had to suddenly all live together in one room or tent and the children were not allowed to speak, to express fear or frustration. They couldn’t play. They couldn’t shout. Often they had to bear witness to domestic problems caused by the displacement.”
Responding to this need, the Dominican Sisters established a kindergarten and an orphanage in Ainkawa, filling in for institutions abandoned back home. These efforts have eased the burden on families — especially the children themselves, starving to learn and play.
“One of the boys was so excited to be going to kindergarten that, the night before the first day back, he slept the whole night with his backpack on,” Sister Maria Hanna says. “He did not want anything to come between him and his learning!”
In 2014, CNEWA’s Michael La Civita hailed her as one of the Catholics of the Year in Our Sunday Visitor:
Sister Maria Hanna has served during a tumultuous moment in Iraqi history. Her term has coincided with a decade-long ordeal that has included invasion, war, sectarian strife and persecution. Sister Maria Hanna has made a difference. She has mobilized her own exiled community, organizing volunteer relief committees and working with partners, such as Catholic Near East Welfare Association, to assess the needs of the displaced, assist those with special needs, counsel those in shock and treat those who are ill.
Read more about Sister Maria Hanna and her order in Grace, from the Summer 2015 edition of ONE.