WASHINGTON — Dominican Sister Attracta Kelly in Adrian, Michigan, has been able to speak a few times with the superior of a group of Iraqi Dominicans and knows how desperate their situation is since they escaped Islamicists in northern Iraq.
Sister Maria Hanna, the superior, and 51 other Dominican sisters, along with their family members and other villagers were driven from the Ninevah Plain by Islamic State fighters.
"The problem is they have nothing," Sister Kelly said of the group, which fled to the northern Kurdish city of Irbil. "They are sleeping in the streets, sleeping under trees. There is a church (where) they have been sleeping on pews, on the floor, outside in the yard, and they have no shelter. They are having a time getting food, and they want to leave the country."
She told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview Aug. 18 that she had last talked with Sister Hanna early that morning. She said the Iraqi Dominican still has a working cellphone and also is able to send email every so often describing what she and the others are facing.
The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena have had a presence in Iraq since the 13th century, so this is not first time they have been in such dire straits, Sister Kelly noted.
"They have been itinerant before. There's been so much war and oppression in that part of the world they have suffered over the years," she said.
For her community's part, Sister Kelly said the Adrian Dominicans would like to help their Iraqi counterparts get to the United States with their families and others in their group.
But she emphasized that if there is any chance they could leave their country, the Iraqi Dominicans would not do so without the entire group. In the meantime, they continue their ministry to those in need.
She told CNS she has been in touch with an aide to U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and hoped to reach other staff of members of Congress, which is in recess for the month of August.
"What I'm hoping is that the UNHCR (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees) might designate them as refugees and the U.S. would be willing to take them," Sister Kelly said. "That would be the greatest thing we could do at this point. I don't know how else to get them out."
Asked whether the Dominican sisters and those they are with consider themselves in imminent danger, Sister Kelly said it is "a matter of minute to minute."
"The small children are absolutely beside themselves with fear, she said. "Any noise they hear now, they are sure it is ISIS after them."
Sister Kelly is hoping donations can be sent to the sisters so they can use the funds "for people, maybe even (to) build shelters. I don't know if there is the possibility of buying that kind of thing." She added that Catholic Relief Services has workers on the scene trying to help the Iraqi people.
She also emphasized the place of prayer in this "heart-wrenching" situation.
Sister Kelly noted that she had just returned from the annual assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in Nashville, Tennessee, where an account from a CRS worker was read as part of the sisters' prayer Aug. 15, the assembly's final day.
"All I can say at this point is keep praying for them and for all of the people there," she said. "We're agonizing for them. It's just unbelievable that this ISIS can come in and do this and no one is doing anything."
Late Aug. 18, Msgr. John E. Kozar, president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, announced the agency was rushing $75,000 to its partners in northern Iraq to help 100,000 homeless Iraqi Christians get urgently needed supplies for infants and children and to provide sanitary facilities for displaced families seeking shelter in U.N.-sponsored camps.
The funds are going to the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena and the Chaldean and Syriac Catholic archbishops to "meet the most basic needs of their homeless flock," the priest said in a statement.
He described the $75,000 as "an initial installment" from donations sent after CNEWA issued a plea July 28 for emergency funds to help Iraqi Christians forced to flee their homes in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Response "to the needs of their brothers and sisters in Iraq has been overwhelming," Msgr. Kozar said.
An agency of the Holy See, CNEWA works throughout the Middle East, with offices in Amman, Jordan, Beirut and Jerusalem. It has been active in Iraq for more than 50 years, but has redoubled its efforts among the vulnerable Christian population since 1991.