Francesco has given us life back

Ibtisam Habib Gorgis is an Iraqi nun, she belongs to the Congregation of Franciscan Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We meet her in Jerusalem, where she is for a short period of spiritual exercises. He has an infectious smile, fierce speech and a face that conveys serenity and inner peace. Despite the atrocities the war in your country has called you to witness.

“I was born and raised in Qaraqosh, an Assyrian city in northern Iraq, which is only 30 kilometers from Mosul and near the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh. The dialect spoken there is a derivative of Aramaic. We speak the language of Jesus», he says proudly, but he also speaks fluent and correct Italian, which he learned in his novitiate years. “Qaraqosh – he explains – is a small Christian enclave in northern Iraq, with both Assyrian and Chaldean traditions, but we have always lived in peace and mutual respect with our Muslim neighbors”.

How is it that an Iraqi girl decides to become a nun?

In truth, I had never thought about it because despite living in a patriarchal and traditional environment, I have always been very independent. I am very jealous of my freedom. Even now – and he laughs – I wear this veil.

So how did it happen?

I went to the Catholic university group where I studied biology. At that time, I must say, we did not live badly: ​​After the first Gulf War, we were isolated from the world, we did not understand what was happening outside our borders, but we lived in peace. Tāreq ‘Azīz, the foreign minister – who actually had a very wide influence – was a Chaldean Christian and came from Tel Keppe, which is very close to Qaraqosh. There was one thing I really liked about my militant nature among young Catholics: helping the poor. I found joy in doing good. It was not a self-centered satisfaction, it gave me inner peace, it gave me back the truest meaning of humanity: to live with others and for others. But I still couldn’t find a place to fulfill myself. A Franciscan friar came to visit us. I was deeply impressed; I read the life of Saint Francis and a little light came into my heart. Then two Italian nuns came and invited me to visit their convent in Jordan. I was now of what is for us marriageable age, but … but I wanted to be free. When my family sensed my gaze turning away, they froze. “This is my daughter, not yours,” my father said at the door of the house to the nuns, preventing them from entering. Finally, after much insistence, he gave in and let me go to Jordan. A trip, accompanied by my uncle, which lasted 18 hours because of the embargo that our country was in. The entrance was not easy, I did not understand the language very much, I had to learn Italian, the nuns followed the Syrian rite and not the Latin , so at mass, praise and vespers I understood nothing, and above all it was an order of life that I did not know. The point of no return, it may seem silly, was the haircut; a real cut with the previous life. But despite all the difficulties that had to be overcome, I felt a growing inner peace. Life changes generally create restlessness, anxiety; this change, although so radical, instead brought so much peace to me. We were four girls from Qaraqosh, and that was a comfort to me; there was someone with whom I could at least talk and be understood. After nine months they allowed me to go home and see my parents again and then they sent me to Italy to do the novitiate.

Did you go back to the Middle East afterwards?

Yes, first they sent me to the Holy Land, to Bethlehem and Nazareth, and then three years to Baghdad, engaged in the educational front. Until the dreaded August 6, 2014. I was in my hometown. Daesh had entered the Nineveh region. There was no more water and electricity in the houses. Then we heard an explosion. A house on the outskirts had been hit by a missile. We rushed there and found only rubble and corpses. With the dead buried, the Great Escape began. Fifty thousand, without religious or political distinctions, left their homes and the city. The horror stories that came to us from the areas already occupied by Daesh left no option but to flee. When Daesh entered Qaraqosh, Daesh was no longer going to find anyone. We helped as many people as possible, and by all means, to escape. From all over the Nineveh region, 120,000 headed for Kurdistan. We sisters stayed until the end, partly to help the displaced and partly because we did not know where to go. We slept on the streets to be ready to escape. Then the bishop ordered us to leave: we were the last to leave Qaraqosh, we left at two in the morning and at five the first Daesh outposts occupied the city. When the militiamen entered a town, they left three options: either you become a Muslim, or you pay, or we kill you. Almost every family has a death to mourn. A quarter of the houses were burned, all looted and the churches destroyed. We have worked together with the entire Catholic Church to help displaced people who have been living for months in tents or in temporary homes. Then we were sent back to the Holy Land where we crossed the Jordanian border. A night that lasted more than two years. Qaraqosh was liberated on 19 October 2016 with the Battle of Mosul. After that date, some of the inhabitants began to return. But many, especially those who had found refuge abroad, never returned. Today the situation is still painful, reconstruction is slow, there is no work, there is a lot of poverty.

And what are you doing today, Sister Ibtisam?

Today I am back in my country. And together with two sisters, I manage a kindergarten with over 500 children. Pope Francis’ visit last year was a fundamental step in our experience. It gave us a breather, for the first time in years we felt that there is someone who really cares for us, someone who loves us. It made us feel that we are a value to the Church. We are alive and we are in the faith. He gave us pride among other religions, among Muslims who, like us, had also fled the atrocities of Daesh. Only when we saw and touched Pope Francis in this country, here next to us, did we realize that it was over. It really was over and now we can turn the page. It was not a “visit” by Pope Francis, it was a return to life.

from Roberto Cetera


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