BRISBANE priest Fr Gerry Hefferan has visited some of the towns devastated by ISIS in the Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq and been struck by the “incredible resilience” of families rebuilding their lives there.
“I remember the courage and perseverance of returning families and their hospitality,” Fr Hefferan told parishioners at the Parish of St Joseph and St Anthony, Bracken Ridge, in Brisbane’s northern outskirts, recently on the first weekend after his return from a 10-day solidarity visit to Kurdistan and the Nineveh Plains.
Fr Hefferan has a special interest in the people there because his parish is home to many Catholics from Iraq, as well as from Syria, who were forced to leave their homelands in the wake of ISIS’ brutal raids through the region.
He also visited the region in 2009 in the time of Al Qaida and in 2013, and he – with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Brisbane archdiocese and Australian Catholic University and some religious orders – has been involved in projects supporting the people there throughout that time.
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, invited Fr Hefferan to make the recent visit when Catholics there would be celebrating the Exaltation of the Cross, a special feast for them.
Fr Hefferan could see first-hand the progress of Church projects and programs in Kurdistan and meet the people organising them, and then visit people in some of the towns devastated by ISIS in the Nineveh Plains.
“They have rebuilt some of their houses in some towns of the Nineveh Plains. They were so welcoming,” Fr Hefferan told his parishioners.
“I joined in a few meals, as is their custom of hospitality. They shared some of their stories.
“They want to know that people outside Iraq care about them and their efforts to rebuild their lives.
“They need to feel connected, as do we all.”
Painting a picture of what it was like for people returning to rebuild their lives post-ISIS, Fr Hefferan said ISIS had destroyed everything – houses, churches, banks, schools, shops, factories, businesses, pastoral industries, crops, playgrounds, water pipes and electricity.
“Their poultry and sheep and other animals were slaughtered – their food crops, fruit trees, vineyards devastated – (they were) homeless, jobless,” he said.
“I was taken on tours of three towns devastated by ISIS (– Telskof, Karemles and Qaraqosh).
“I remember the courage and perseverance of returning families and their hospitality.”
Fr Hefferan was struck by “the incredible challenges they’ve got – to build from scratch – and the sense of community that they have, doing it together”.
“One of the beautiful things (in the towns in the Nineveh Plains) was to be able to share a meal with them in their own house that they’ve renovated,” he said.
“They were just so proud to share hospitality and show what they had done. And they’d have photos showing what it used to be like.”
In the face of the devastation left by ISIS, the major concern in most communities he visited was employment.
Fr Hefferan said small businesses – like fruit and vegetable shops, petrol stations, clothes shops – were slowly returning to the towns he visited.
“Even some restaurants (are appearing) …,” he said. “In Qaraqosh, I saw cafes …
“Some were talking about how they were going to get their farms and pastoral properties and vineyards and those things going again.
“It was just good to see a lot of activity in the main street of Qaraqosh with the small businesses there.
“And you never forget what it looks like because as you look at the houses, some people are not going back and they don’t want to rebuild their houses at this time so they’re just going to be left in shambles.
“So you can have a street of several beautiful houses that a lot of work had gone into and others that were just a mess, and that’s the reality of it.”
A parish in Karemles offered encouragement in a simple way.
“One of the signs of hope that I found was at the presbytery vestibule (in Karemles), just outside, they have a map of every house and building in the town and they have it colour-coded to show which are now repaired, which are to be repaired or undergoing repair at the moment, and then which others they haven’t heard from and will have to stay the way they are at the time,” Fr Hefferan said.
“So on that map, Father told me, there are about 400 houses now repaired in that town.
“The parish priest was explaining it to me that 330 families had returned …
“They’re still waiting for another 150 families to return and originally the town was 820 families, so that gives an idea of how many have come back, how many are still to return and how many won’t be coming back.”
Fr Hefferan said one of the emotional traumas for the people was the desecration of the cemeteries where their loved ones were buried.
“They could talk about the hardships but then there would be tears sometimes when they were talking about that,” he said.
ACU Chaldean Scholarships have helped train Catholics in key areas for the rebuilding, including in health and education.
Married medical couple and recent ACU graduates Doctors Saveen Oghana and Ban Isaqi are busy planning the medical side of a new Catholic hospital, due to open in Erbil early next year.
Fr Hefferan visited them in Erbil, as well as Daughters of Jesus’ Sacred Heart Sister Samar Mikha and Fr Denkha Joola, who had also had scholarships to study at ACU – Sr Samar in Brisbane and Fr Denkha in Sydney.
Sr Samar is the principal of the recently opened Al Bashra primary school in Erbil, and her school includes local students from Ankawa and displaced students from Mosul.
Fr Denkha has returned to the cathedral parish in Erbil as he prepares for a new role soon to be announced.
The Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil has begun the selection process for a new round of ACU scholarships.
Pondering the spirit of the people who have returned to the Nineveh Plains to rebuild, Fr Hefferan said “I think they’re realistic”.
“They know the big challenges ahead but they’re willing to have a go – not certain of the future, but the spirit to rebuild is there,” he said.
Fr Hefferan returned with the message that the people of Iraq wanted “to be connected, to be thought of” by people elsewhere in the world.
“It’s very important that they want to know people are thinking about them, that they haven’t forgotten them, and to look at modern ways of being connected, just to show that (they’re not forgotten),” he said.
In telling people in his parish about the people he visited in Iraq, Fr Hefferan said, “May we pray to God for strength for them and those still returning – and for the families our parish has welcomed here from Iraq and Syria.”