When Sr. Luma Khudher, O.P. speaks of her life and her countrymen in Iraq, she does not discuss politics, ideologies or even Saddam Hussein.
Instead, the 30-year-old Dominican nun talks about her friends and family, and her concern that they have food, water, and electricity. But even those basic issues are trumped by her biggest worry: Are her friends and family even alive?
Living and studying in Chicago, Illinois, Sr. Luma is far from the violence that grips Iraq, but while her physical self is sheltered her mind is constantly focused on people back home. She starts each day by visiting a type of small town newspaper website to check and see if friends or family have died during the night. “I don’t want to look,” she says, admitting the fear she feels when checking the site, “but I have to look.”
Sr. Luma comes from a large Christian family of six brothers and three sisters most of whom live in Qurqush, a small town 35 miles from Mosul. Her father owns a shop there and her mother is a homemaker. Because Qurqush is so small, it has been fairly insulated from the fighting in Mosul or Baghdad, but of late, there were a few cases of kidnapping in her village, along with a murder.
The unrest, or as Sr. Luma calls it, the Civil War, is spreading throughout the country. “My sister is in Baghdad and she does not feel safe anymore. She can’t afford to move because even in my town, she’ll pay triple the price for rent that she pays in Baghdad. She cannot afford that” she says. “It’s so sad now. It’s so shocking to see. I went home the summer of 2005 and the mess, the garbage in Mosul…shocking.”
Garbage isn’t the only problem; the country’s infrastructure seems to have crumbled and Sr. Luma does not see improvements in the near future. Her parents get electricity for two hours every six to eight hours and they feel lucky if they get water every other day. Sr. Luma also said her motherhouse community in Mosul included 50 sisters, but now only seven remain. The rest have been relocated in small towns, because it is simply not safe to live in Mosul.
Guns are Always Pointed at You
The reality of day to day life in Iraq is filled with extraordinary tensions and fear. “When you are in Iraq, you have to keep 50 meters between you and a military car or else you might be shot” she says. “Guns are always pointed at you. It’s scary for anyone.” The language difference in particular between Americans and Iraqis can lead to dangerous misunderstandings. When she last visited Iraq, the car Sr. Luma was in was stopped by soldiers, who wished to examine the luggage inside. The soldiers kept giving the driver instructions turn the keys off but the driver did not understand English and tensions escalated until Sr. Luma was fortunately able to translate and defuse the situation.
Currently, there are six young Iraqi sisters in the United States, according to Sr. Beth Murphy, O.P., the communications coordinator for Dominicans in Springfield, IL.
Transforming World Views
The young sisters came here to collaborate across the borders of nations and cultures by living, praying and working with their American counterparts. “In the process, they have transformed the world views of so many people whose lives they’ve touched” Sr. Beth says. “This is a somewhat intangible reality, but I think it is the most important thing of all.”
For Sr. Beth, transforming views about Iraq and its people is a crucial byproduct of the Iraqi nuns’ time here in the United States. “Mothers and fathers—the people in Iraq—want the same things as you want for your family,” Sr. Beth said. “We don’t understand the humanity of the Iraqi people. In the U.S., we have given up the responsibility of our citizenship. We are not passive recipients of U.S. policy.”
Sr. Beth urged people to write and phone their government representatives regarding the war in Iraq, saying these efforts can make a “huge difference” in the decisions made by policy makers. But her suggestions aren’t limited simply to political action. “Prayer is also incredibly important” she adds. “Prayer is what keeps us going–it keeps us alive.”
Sr. Beth’s sentiment is echoed by Sr. Reg McKillip, O.P., the promoter of peace and justice for Wisconsin’s Sinsinawa Dominicans. For some time, the Sinsinawas have promoted a campaign called I Have Family in Iraq. “The program is our claim that we have [Dominican] family in Iraq, but all of us have family in Iraq, because we are all connected” says Sr. Reg. “We want to keep our worldwide family involved in trying to stop the war and encourage that troops be pulled out of Iraq.”
Sr. Luma agrees with Sisters Reg and Beth. “My people are ready for Americans to leave. That is for sure,” she says. “Maybe U.N. troops would be more accepted. I don’t know. It is so hard to figure out what to do but right now, the people in Iraq can’t trust the government.”
In Iraq, Religion is Different
She is frustrated that her country is struggling for basic needs and is further frustrated that Americans may not fully understand her people. “What makes me angry is that no one understands that our culture is different. Here, you can accept a separation of church and state” she says. “In Iraq, religion is different. Religion will affect the government. Whether Iraqis believe in the Koran or the Bible, they will build their lives according to that. That is something Americans do not understand.”
“I can’t speak for all my people,” Sr. Luma says. “Maybe my opinion is just my opinion. But many people don’t see a future in Iraq and that is why people are leaving the country. There’s no point in talking about Saddam. Sometimes here, someone will say: ‘Aren’t you glad we liberated you?’ and I think ‘Liberate us from what?’
A Beautiful Country
Despite the danger and the difficulties in Iraq, Sr. Luma plans to visit her family this summer. After that, she will return to the U.S. so that she can pursue a PhD. in Biblical Studies. Wanting to fulfill a dream of living in Iraq in peace, she plans to finish her degree, return to her country, and teach at the college level. “I love education. I love teaching and I love God” she says. “Education is one way to build Iraq today.”
While the pain and fear caused by the ongoing tragedy back home is always present, Sr. Luma still recalls the surprising warmth and kindness she experienced during her 2005 visit to Mosul. “Everyone was so nice, so respectful, so welcoming” she says. “I want people to know Iraq was once a beautiful country. The desert was beautiful and the mountains were beautiful. My country was a wonderful country filled with good people.”