HANAR Keka turned 30 earlier this year and, because she was a long way from home, she decided to do something different to celebrate.
The young Catholic woman from Iraq spent the day on her own in Brisbane’s St Stephen’s Cathedral.
“I decided to take a break in the cathedral,” she said.
“I spent all the day in the cathedral. I think that was a big thing for me – reflecting over the 29 years of the journey. It was my 30th birthday.
“That was a good break for me – just staying away from everyone – just me and the person that I love the most (Jesus), talking to him, shouting at him – smiling, crying, telling him thank you for the blessings …”
Hanar was midway through a two-and-a-half-year Master’s degree in Educational Leadership at Australian Catholic University in Brisbane on a scholarship from the Ursuline Sisters.
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, in northern Iraq, chose Hanar for the scholarship so she could be part of his strategy of helping the Church and the nation rebuild after the ravages of Islamic State, especially in the areas of education and health.
Hanar has been working at the Church’s Mar Qardah School, in Erbil, and will return there when she has finished studying at ACU.
Hanar said she was smiling on her birthday in St Stephen’s “because I’m lucky”.
“I cry because sometimes it’s very hard to see the reality from a person who lived in a war,” she said.
“Sometimes it’s hard when these memories come. But there is always hope and I am so hopeful to see the new Iraq.”
What gives her hope are “smiles, children, education, good people …”
“And the most important thing is, without faith, there’s no hope, and as long as we have faith there will be always hope,” she said.
Originally from Mosul, in Iraq, Hanar and her family had to flee after the United States’ 2003 invasion.
“We had to move …, because we are Christians, so it was not safe for us, especially after we knew that (Muslim extremists) wanted to kidnap my little brother,” she said.
The extremists had threatened to kidnap Hanar’s little brother, who was six years old at the time.
“Then my dad took the decision to leave the city,” she said.
“The only reason was because we were Christian, and Christians were a target at that time.”
In 2014, when Hanar was teaching in the Catholic primary school in Erbil during the day and volunteering at a refugee camp in the evening to support people who’d fled IS, an encounter with a particular child had great impact on her.
“During one of the days I was in the camp and I was talking to a child, he said, ‘I miss my dad’, and I just said to him, ‘Go and give a hug to your dad’,” she said.
“And he said, ‘Oh, no, my dad is dead …’
“And it was a moment of shock for me because … (here was) a six-year-old talking about how he saw his dad dying in front of him because people killed him.
“This is where I felt that, ‘I’m so lucky. I’m blessed’.
“And then, with volunteering, I found myself.
“I found compassion … and I knew that life is about what we give.
“It’s not about what we expect, and, in the end, life is about love.
“It’s about the main message – the message that is love.”
For someone who had dreamed of having a career as a geologist, worked to finish a degree in that field and even been invited to complete a Master’s degree in it, this was all part of answering a higher call.
Hanar kept being asked to put aside her dream, to teach the children.
“And, in 2017, I got a phone call from the bishop, saying, ‘Hanar, would you like to do your Master’s degree in Australia?’,” she said.
“And I thought, ‘No, thank you. Why should I go to Australia, to the end of the world?’
“‘My parents are here; I’m enjoying teaching.
“‘I don’t need it, besides I’m in school, I’m working, I’m enjoying life here.’”
After talking it over with her parents and Archbishop Warda, Hanar accepted his offer.
“On my life journey, I try to find angels, and Bishop Warda is one of those angels,” she said.
“He is just doing his best to bring the best education, the best health care, just to keep the roots of Christianity in Iraq, and we are all part of this mission.
“So I said, ‘Yes’. I am here today doing my Master’s degree in Educational Leadership, with the hope of going back home.
“I see it as planting the seed of love and peace through the children. This is how I see it.
“I think, for a person who lived here (in Australia) and a person who lived in Iraq, a person who has an experience of two different cultures maybe, for me, I could see the thing is accepting others’ differences, and see it like, maybe here in Australia, I learn how to accept others’ differences but maybe at home in Iraq we’re still missing this.
“We still think, ‘No. It’s either me or it’s either you …’ And this is where conflict starts.
“But, then, if we start planting love and we tell people, ‘Well, life is not about me; life’s not about you; it’s about everyone, so you cannot love yourself if you cannot love your neighbours …’
“Then this is where the dialogue starts and the only way.
“Maybe, it’s the time at home in Iraq to accept differences and dialogue, and this could happen through education and children.
“So we have the tool; why not use the tool?”
Hanar’s looking forward to putting into practice what she’s learnt at ACU and during some time with Brisbane Catholic Education – “giving the children good education”.
“It’s more about showing people and proving that God’s about love and it’s about others,” she said.
“I’ll be helping the Church always. I’m the daughter of the Church.
“My hope is going back home and making life better and telling everyone that this land is our land; we have to live here.
“Being part of the Church mission is one of the priorities in my life, so my heart is there.
“Through the Church mission, we make life better for children, and those children, those seeds, will grow into trees, and those trees will be fruitful trees – the fruit of love, the fruit of peace.
“This is my hope.
“I would like to thank everyone here for giving us the opportunity and making our hope alive here …
“(I thank) all the friends that I made here, and every single person who smiles at me in the street.
“(That makes a difference) for someone who wants to see hope; a smile is a hope.”