IN AUGUST 2014, THE CITY OF QARAQOSH FELL INTO THE HANDS OF ISIS. The city, located on the Nineveh Plains, about 15 miles from Mosul, was once the largest Christian city in the country. Christians living in this region of Iraq were forced to flee from their homes. ISIS killed many, destroyed property, and displaced thousands of people.
Qaraqosh was liberated by the Iraqi army in 2016. Once the city had been freed, families began to return. Now, seven years after the invasion, remarkable progress has been made in rebuilding the city. And the Church has been closely involved in this development.
An example is the work of the Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of Saint Catherine of Siena, an order that has been active in the region since 1890. The sisters were among the first to return after the liberation of the city, and they did not hesitate to start working on the rebuilding of the community. The return and presence of the sisters encouraged many Christians to come back to their homes and revive the Christian community on the Nineveh plains.
Sister Clara Nas, the prioress of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena, had barely returned to Qaraqosh in 2016 when she had the idea of building a new secondary school. When she told others about her dream, people would not take it seriously, because families had just survived the horrors and the suffering caused by the ISIS. People were beginning to return to a city that had completely been destroyed. Many considered the project of building a new secondary school to be impossible.
Sister Clara, however, refused to give up. “Our goal was to offer young people a place of reconciliation and healing after being displaced by ISIS and living for so many years as refugees,” she explained. In 2018, she sought the necessary support to undertake the project of building a new secondary school. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and Austria promised to help.
Families in Qaraqosh received the news that a new secondary school was going to be built with great jubilation, because one of the main concerns of those who had returned or were planning to return was the education of their children. The current education system in the region is of very low quality. There are so many pupils that the schools work in two shifts, teaching one group in the morning and the second in the afternoon. Another problem is a lack of school supplies. To make matters worse, there is a shortage of teachers. The government does not offer enough teaching positions to meet the region’s needs, besides not paying competitive salaries.
There is another reason for the project to be received with such great enthusiasm. The sisters are known and highly appreciated by the locals for their many years of experience in education. Prior to the invasion of ISIS, they ran the Al-Thaira primary school. They continued to carry out their mission of education as refugees themselves in Erbil and taught the displaced children in temporary schools set up in containers. The primary school in Qaraqosh reopened in 2017 and now has 427 pupils.
The secondary school is expected to open its doors on Oct. 1, able to accommodate 625 pupils between the ages of 13 and 18. “As Dominican sisters, we are convinced that education illuminates the mind and opens the hearts to the truth. That is why we initiated the project for a new secondary school—in a village where young people urgently need a healthy educational environment,” Sister Clara explained.
The new three-story school building will help the community in many ways. First of all, it strengthens the educational system in the region and frees pupils from the burden of having to attend school in two shifts. Furthermore, there is a plan to build a sports field, which will be open to all young people in the community, even those who are not enrolled in the school.
In addition, the building project offers new employment opportunities for the community because locals were hired for the construction work. Some 200 engineers and construction workers have been involved in the building of the new school. Once completed, it will offer jobs for teachers and other school staff.
The sisters will have a chaplain at the new school, as they did at their primary school. They know that it is a valuable source of spiritual support for their pupils. The young people can make use of the school chapel, which is open to all. They can also participate in a wide range of religious activities, such as catechism classes and preparation for First Communion.
ACN is involved in many projects on the Nineveh Plains, with a particular focus on the rebuilding of Baghdida (Qaraqosh) and give Christian families the assistance they need to return to their homes. For example, the pastoral charity has approved grants for the education of the children living in the region as well as for rebuilding six kindergartens and an orphanage.