Partnering with medical clinics in Iraq, the Order assists refugees persecuted for their faith
In September 2015, 15-year-old Katreena quickly won the hearts of the sisters and elderly residents at her temporary home in Connecticut. A diminutive Iraqi girl with hair long enough to sit on, her quiet and cheerful presence became a mainstay while she served meals at St. Joseph’s Residence in Enfield, Conn. Although Katreena speaks little English, she expressed a clear fondness for the Little Sisters of the Poor. To her, the residence director, Mother Genevieve Regina, was “Sister Mama.”
Katreena’s crutches, though, betrayed the reason for her brief respite in scenic northern Connecticut: She required urgent medical attention beyond what a Slovakian medical clinic for refugees in Erbil, Iraq, or Iraqi medicine in general, could provide.
A little over a year earlier, in the summer of 2014, she and her family fled their home near Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Together with tens of thousands of other Christian families, they barely escaped the invasion that irrevocably changed their lives. Forever seared in their memories is the day “ISIS came.”
To assist those affected by the persecution, the Knights of Columbus launched its Christian Refugee Relief Fund in August 2014 and has since raised more than $8 million. Katreena and her family are among those who have benefited, and through a partnership between the Knights and medical clinics in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Katreena received the life-saving treatment she needed.
FLIGHT TO ERBIL AND BEYOND
“It was peaceful; it was a normal city,” Katreena’s mother, Rajaa, said, describing their middle-class home in the Nineveh region of Iraq, where Katreena had her own bedroom. That was before militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and Daesh, swept through on their way to toppling Mosul.
Their neighbor’s two children were killed in the explosions of bombardment, as was Katreena’s aunt. Katreena immediately fled with her family — her parents, three younger siblings and grandmother — on a dangerous 50-mile journey, complicated by Katreena’s serious medical conditions. Hoping the displacement would be short-term, they left everything behind; Katreena even left her personal savings in a small “piggy bank” in her room.
According to the United Nations, more than 600,000 Iraqis were driven from their homes in June 2014 alone. Many of these were Christians, like Katreena’s family, or other religious minorities who had been targeted by ISIS and told that they must either convert to Islam, pay a submission tax or leave. Death awaited those who refused. Katreena’s family followed the mass migration to the city of Erbil in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, finding shelter first in a church nave. Now, they are among the lucky families to have a more permanent living space: one bedroom in a house that they share with several other families.
Amid the turmoil of fleeing and living in overcrowded conditions, Katreena’s foot became badly infected, exacerbating her already complicated health issues. By the time she came to the Clinic of St. Zdenka Schelingová, run by a medical staff from Slovakia, Katreena’s situation was dire. She needed a lifeline. And in the fall of 2015 — after more than a year of living as a refugee — she finally got one.
Clinic director Dr. Zuzana Dudová, 29, reached out to the Knights of Columbus for help when she realized that Katreena’s case was beyond the clinic’s capabilities. During the previous spring, the Order began providing support to the Erbil clinic through its Christian Refugee Relief Fund.
Meanwhile, a hospital had diagnosed Katreena with a failed kidney. She was literally on the way to have surgery to remove that kidney when her family learned that the Knights could bring Katreena to the United States for treatment.
After she arrived, it became clear that her trip to Connecticut had almost certainly saved her life. It turned out the removal of the kidney was unnecessary and doctors warned that had she had her kidney removed in Iraq as had been planned, the surgery would likely have killed her due to a persistent infection that had not been resolved.
A month of treatment at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford shed a great deal of light on Katreena’s overall situation, and stabilized her kidney issues. Unwilling to stay in the United States without the rest of her family, she and her mother returned to Erbil — though she would be sorely missed by new friends at the Little Sisters’ home.
Given the medical problems she continues to face, Katreena and her family hope to be able to immigrate to the United States, where the level of care would be higher and surgeries and treatments unavailable to her in Iraq would be possible.
MEDICAL MISSION OF MERCY
Katreena was able to receive the immediate medical attention she needed, but with no foreseeable prospect of returning to the home from which she and her family were driven, and with limits of health care infrastructure in Iraq, her future remains uncertain. The difficulty of her situation underscores challenges faced by many in Iraq today. This is where the heroic efforts of Dr. Dudová and her team come into play.
Founded by St. Elizabeth University of Health Care and Social Work in Bratislava, Slovakia, the team’s two clinics currently serve two different refugee populations. In Erbil, the majority of refugees are Christians; farther northwest in Dohuk, the mobile Clinic of Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko travels among the more isolated camps of Yazidi refugees, another religious minority persecuted by ISIS.
Since being put in touch with the clinics around Easter 2014, the Knights of Columbus has donated more than $400,000 to fund the bulk of their operations, including the purchase of medicine and equipment, lab work and salaries. Any extra staff the team can afford is crucial; in addition to managing the whole operation, Dudová currently serves as the only doctor at the Dohuk clinic. The Erbil clinic has only one doctor as well. Patients come in a steady, daily stream, and the staff must regularly turn away up to half of them.
“Many times, we’re saying to ourselves that it’s already too much,” Dudová said, describing the overwhelming nature of her work. “But thanks to God, we continue.”
With the media spotlight on Europe’s refugee crisis — the worst since World War II — the world is starting to pay attention to the wave of displaced men, women and children fleeing their war-torn homelands. But Europe is only the tip of the iceberg. “It’s much worse back in Iraq and Syria,” said Dudová.
A native of Slovakia, Dudová had been working as a physician in Cambodia, serving orphans with HIV. She then came to Erbil at the end of 2014, right after the massive influx of refugees to that region.
She intended to stay only a few months; now, more than a year later, she is certain “this is the right place to be.” Dudová speaks with a gentle self-assurance about her work, even as she reflects on the horrors her patients have witnessed and the stress they continue to live through.
After more than a year since the refugees’ initial displacement, “people are still living in very miserable conditions,” Dudová explained. For some, ailments such as infectious diseases and respiratory problems reflect their overcrowded living situations. Others suffer from chronic issues such as diabetes and heart disease.
Refugees also face the trauma of having been hunted down and run out of their homes, and the despair of facing an indeterminable amount of time in camps or overcrowded houses with no way to provide for their families. The psychological effect of falling from relative comfort to refugee status is perhaps more subtle than maladies like Katreena’s. “But it is affecting the way they are looking at life,” Dudová said. “They are tired.”
The experience of Katreena’s family illustrates a limbo-like status shared by the other refugees. Their home was emblazoned with the Arabic letter “nun” — ن — the first letter of the word Nasara (meaning “Nazarenes”), which ISIS uses to refer to Christians. Rajaa explained their situation further: There is no way to go home to the Nineveh region, no way to earn money and very little chance of obtaining a visa to immigrate to the West. Visibly frustrated, she added, “Who wants to live like that?”
STANDING IN SOLIDARITY
Despite the refugees’ hardships, Dudová knows that without support from the Church — from the local archdiocese to groups such as the Knights of Columbus — the situation would be drastically worse.
“People would be still staying in open spaces without access to basic life needs … probably begging in the streets,” Dudová said.
In Erbil, the Knights’ Christian Refugee Relief Fund has helped to meet those needs not only through its partnership with the Slovakian clinics but also a $2 million donation to the archdiocese to build approximately 70 permanent housing units for families. In addition, the Order sponsored the delivery of a month’s worth of food for more than 13,500 families last fall.
The Church’s willingness to stand in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in the Middle East can mean the difference between a glimmer of hope and utter despair.
When he addressed the Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention in August 2015, Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil said Iraq’s Christians would continue to proclaim “that we are children of God, and this is our home.”
He added, “You stood at our side just as our Mother Mary and the beloved disciple did at the side of the crucified, even as much of the world turned away.”
Knowing the clinics are a part of this faithful service allows Dudová to sustain her own hope and to share moments of grace in a compassionate hug, a listening ear or a simple smile. That reward, she said, is priceless.
“For many of them, the very presence of our organization is a source of comfort,” Dudová explained. “They see there’s someone who still cares for them.”
ELIZABETH HANSEN writes from Branford, Conn.