Sister Ibtisam Habib Gorgis is an Iraqi nun who belongs to the Congregation of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We meet her in Jerusalem, where she retires. She has a contagious smile, a pleasant voice and a face that betrays serenity and inner peace, despite the atrocities she experienced in her country during the war.
“I was born and raised in Karakoshu, an Assyrian city in northern Iraq, just 30 km from Mosul, near the ruins of ancient Nineveh.” The dialect spoken there is derived from Aramaic. “We speak the language of Jesus,” she proudly admits, but she also speaks fluent Italian, which she learned during her novitiate. Karakosh 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 come an Iraqi girl decides to become a nun? “To tell you the truth, I never thought about it, because although I live in a patriarchal society, I have always been very independent. I am very allergic to my freedom. Even now she smiles when I wear this veil. So how did it happen? “I went to Catholic group meetings at a university where I was studying biology. I must say that we did not live badly at that time: 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. Tareq Aziz, the foreign minister – who was in fact the leader of the country – was a Chaldean Christian from Tel Keppe, which is very close to Karakosh. There was one thing I really liked among young Catholics: helping the poor. I found pleasure in doing good. It was not self-centeredness, because such a life brought me inner peace, restored my true sense of humanity: living with and for others. But I still couldn’t find a place where I could fully develop myself.
One day a Franciscan friar visited us. He made a deep impression on me. I have the life of St. Francis, a light went on in my heart. Then I met two Italian nuns who invited me to their monastery in Jordan. I was an age that is marriage age for us, but… I wanted to be free. When my family felt I was looking for something else, it stiffened.” “This is my daughter, not yours,” the father said to the nuns who stood in the doorway, blocking their entrance. “Finally he gave, after much insistence, he agreed and let me go to Jordan.
The journey, in the company of my uncle, took 18 hours because of the embargo on our land. The beginning was not easy, I didn’t understand the language very well, I had to learn Italian. The monastery worked according to the Syrian Rite, not the Latin Rite, so during Mass, Adoration and Vespers I understood nothing. There were also problems with a new way of life that I was not familiar with. The point of no return – it may sound crazy – was the haircut; a real break with my life so far. But despite all the difficulties I had to overcome, I felt a growing inner peace. Changes in life usually cause fear, anxiety; this change, however radical it was, gave me peace. There were three more girls from Karakosz with me and that was reassuring to me; there was someone I could talk to and understand me.
After nine months they let me go home and see my parents, and then they sent me to Italy for the novitiate.” Then you went back to the Middle East? “Yes. First they sent me to the Holy Land, to Bethlehem and Nazareth, and then to Baghdad for three years to go to school. “Until that terrible August 6, 2014” I was in my hometown. Daesh entered Nineveh’s side. There was no more water and light in the houses. Then we heard an explosion. A house on the outskirts was hit by a bullet. We rushed there and found only debris and dead bodies. Along with the burials of the dead, wandering began. Fifty thousand of us, regardless of religious affiliation and political affiliation, have left their homes and cities. Chilling stories from areas already occupied by jihadists left no choice but to flee.
After entering Karakosh, ISIS would find no one. We helped as many people as possible to escape. Of the entire Nineveh region, 120 thousand. people on their way to Kurdistan. We sisters stayed until the end, partly to help the displaced and partly because we didn’t know where to go. We slept in the street to be ready to run. Then the bishop ordered us to leave: we were the last people to leave Karakosh, we left at two in the morning, and by five o’clock the first outposts of Daesh had taken over the city.
When militants entered a city, they gave you three options: convert to Islam, ransom or die. Almost every family has died. A quarter of the houses were burned down, all looted and the churches destroyed. We worked with the entire Catholic Church to help displaced people who had been living in tents or makeshift houses for months. Then we were sent back to the Holy Land across the Jordanian border.
Karakosh was liberated on October 19, 2016 during the Battle of Mosul. Then some of the residents started to come back. But many, especially those who had found refuge abroad, never returned. Today the situation is still painful, the recovery is slow, there is no job, there is a lot of poverty.”
What are you doing today? “Today I am back in my country. Together with my two sisters, I run a kindergarten with over 500 children. Pope Francis’ visit last year was a milestone in our lives. It gave us breath, we felt for the first time in years that there was someone who really cares about us, someone who loves us. This made us understand that we are important to the Church, that we are part of it. It was only when we saw and touched Pope Francis on this earth, right next to us, that we understood that it was over, that we could turn the page. It was not a visit from Pope Francis, it was a return to life.”