Dominican-Iraqi sister Habiba Bihnam Toma spoke Wednesday
about the time she spent helping refugees after bombings in northern
Iraq in 2014.
Toma said she and her fellow sisters did not want to
leave Qaraqosh, Iraq until everyone in the village had fled, but upon
hearing news that ISIS was on its way, they were forced to retreat.
“A friend called me and tearfully pleaded that the
sisters leave quickly,” Toma, who began learning English in the fall,
said. “ISIS had already entered…and we were in grave danger.”
ISIS demanded the remaining survivors convert to Islam, pay monthly fees or be killed.
Between this and the explosions, 25,000 Iraqis were
forced to leave their homes, many with little more than the clothes on
“(The) only (things) we brought with us (were) our prayer
books,” Toma said. “It was a shock to leave the walls of our convent
and see the streets full of cars and people, all doing as we were doing,
leaving our (homes) out of fear for our lives.”
Alongside their neighbors, the Dominican sisters traveled 48 miles east to Ankawa, Iraq.
“The main road was (so) filled with cars and people
walking that we could not continue,” Toma said. “We abandoned the road
for (an) unused path.”
A soldier guarding the border of Ankawa’s providence, Kurdistan, kept the Dominican sisters from entering by car.
“I told him all of (the) sisters can’t walk,” Toma said. “They are elderly.”
They had barely reached Ankawa when ISIS invaded.
“We heard the sound of gunshots,” Toma said. “We were
afraid. (We) cried, prayed and moved slowly among the thousands of
people crouching to the ground to avoid the bullets and yelling, ‘Where
are you, O God? Why have you abandoned us?’”
Toma said survivors lived on the streets and in
churches. Many sought shelter in incomplete buildings that did not have
windows or roofs. The only heat they had to prepare food with was from
the sun. Many were crying. They were sleep-deprived, hungry and thirsty.
Like the Dominican sisters, the priests and bishops who
had also fled and suffered the same fate refused to leave the refugees’
“Finally, all of the sisters arrived at the convent,” Toma said. “(We) numbered 75 living in a building meant to hold 20.”
The sisters and priests split into 15 teams of two to
travel across Ankawa and assist at various camps, with some living in a
school abandoned for the summer.
“All day we visited (the refugees), listened to their
suffering, encouraged them to be patient, wait in hope and strength of
their faith,” Toma said.
The sisters gathered adults to pray and kept the children busy at play.
They accepted donations of food, clothing, water and money.
“Each family had limited living space, several sharing
one classroom, others crowding under the stairs or living in tents,”
Toma said. “The men and young people slept outside under the stars.”
Eventually, school was back in session, and the refugees
were forced out to the tents. Toma recalled that the rain brought
snakes and scorpions, but eventually the church managed to rent houses
for the displaced families.
“Some of the young adults (had) given up their college
in order to work and provide for their families,” Toma said. “Because
all of our (younger) students were without school, we noticed an
increase in violent behavior among them.”
As a result, the sisters opened four makeshift kindergartens and two elementary schools.
“Everyone was suffering because ISIS destroyed not only
our homes and schools but our churches and monasteries and all the
landmarks of our 2,000-year-old Christian culture,” Toma said. “We feel
that we can only return to our village when there is peace and when the
international community can (ensure) our safety and protection.”