Iraqi Catholic Student at Franciscan Vows to Rebuild Christianity in Iraq
After escaping persecution from Islamist militants in Iraq, Hala Warda is preparing to return to Northern Iraq to help rebuild a Christian presence almost destroyed by ISIS.
STEUBENVILLE, Ohio – After enduring decades of war and now genocide by ISIS, the future of Christianity in Iraq, the cradle of Christianity in the Middle East hangs by a thread. But some courageous Catholics are now looking to return to Iraq and help the Catholic Church rebuild the Christian presence, which is vital to establishing peace and stability for all its peoples.
In this interview with the Register, Hala Warda, a graduate student in the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Catholic leadership program, shares how she plans to return to her native Iraq to help the Church carry out its mission, and the critical role that Catholic universities in the U.S. can play in helping Christians rebuild their presence on the Nineveh Plain and Northern Iraq.
Hala, can you tell us about yourself and what made you come to the U.S. from Iraq?
I was born in the city of Mosul (Nineveh, Iraq) in 1980 to a devoted Catholic family. Following the Iraq liberation war in 2003, many Christian families began leaving Iraq due to the rise in Islamic extremism as Christians became a very easy target to radical groups. The situation got even worse in late 2005 as tension between different groups grew, which marked the beginning of the Iraqi civil war, and the threat to Christian communities grew rapidly. By late 2008, my family had no choice but to escape Iraq for their safety. Luckily, they were granted asylum in the United States. A few years later, I rejoined with my family in the U.S., where we currently live in San Diego, California.
I have a bachelor’s degree in Business Studies (BA) from Al-Dijla University in Iraq and I am currently working towards obtaining a MBA degree as well as a Master’s in Education at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. I was involved in many pastoral activities for 12 years in many provinces in Iraq as well as in Lebanon, helping with evangelizing work, and spiritual and pastoral formation.
How life was in Iraq for you?
In general, life in Iraq is very challenging for all religious and ethnic minorities, but it is more challenging for women who are of a religious/ethnic minority background. Iraq is a country under the Islamic Sharia which means inequality is, to some degree, lawful. This means that women have more obstacles in their way to reaching higher education or even having a voice in their communities. However, the Church has always been very active pastorally and in the community, giving those whose voices are unheard a chance to express themselves and have a role in the community the Church has created around itself. This also gives people an opportunity to engage with others from different youth groups.
How did you start attending Franciscan University?
Despite living in the U.S. for four years, I never forgot those who are still suffering in Iraq and who are losing hope in life. I realize the pivotal role I can play in empowering those people and instill hope in life again. I feel obligated to go back and help other Iraqis, especially those who are disadvantaged and those who are persecuted. I understand their needs and their suffering because I was once in their situation.
Following my relocation to the U.S., I worked toward enhancing my proficiency in academics and I have also improved my proficiency in the English language substantially. Thus, I believe that I am now better prepared to help the community in Iraq.
When I was informed about the scholarship granted by [Aid to the Church in Need – USA] to study at the Franciscan University of Steubenville for individuals who are willing to go and serve the community in Iraq, I immediately wrote to His Excellency, Archbishop Bashar [Warda], expressing my readiness for this adventure and my willingness to work hard to gain the needed knowledge and skills from the rich and wonderful spiritual and educational environment at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. I believe that the Franciscan University of Steubenville will provide me with the knowledge and experience needed to be able to serve the Church as effectively as possible.
Why do you want to go back to Iraq? How will your degree and experiences at Franciscan University help you?
Although I have left Iraq years ago, I am still aware of what the people in Iraq go through each and every day. There is a lot to be done in that region of the world to make the environment less hostile and more welcoming to everyone of different backgrounds. I believe that God has blessed us here in the U.S. with many talented and courageous young people, and if I and others are willing to go back and plant the seed of hope and prosperity and serve the needy Christian in Iraq, I am sure many others will join and Franciscan University is a great place to start from.
Why is that?
Franciscan University has demonstrated the willingness and the ability to support Catholics across the globe. In the recent years, the Franciscan University partnered with the Archdiocese of Erbil-Iraq to academically enrich the Christian students of Iraq. His Excellency, Archbishop Warda, has entrusted Franciscan University to provide excellent graduate training for several of school leaders in his archdiocese. Four of these students are pursuing Masters of Catholic Leadership and one is pursuing the Masters of Business Administration as well as Masters in Education.
Franciscan University also hosted the first St. Thomas Mission where a group of high school students from the archdiocese of Erbil were introduced to the college life in North America. In addition to hosting the students from Iraq, Franciscan University provided an opportunity for them to meet the local Ohio Valley students, form friendships, and gain a much-needed reprieve from the extreme stresses of wartime life.
What do you think could be done to really help reinforce and strengthen the Christian presence in Iraq?
I believe in the power of prayers and its ability to transform darkness into light; however, we can do a lot more than just prayers. I believe that we still need to raise awareness in regard to crisis and the difficulties that so many Christians and other religious minorities go through every day. In addition, unemployment amongst Christian communities, especially those communities which were displaced by ISIS in the Nineveh Plains is very high, reaching almost 70% of the total population. Many families are still living off their savings since ISIS swept over the region in August 2014. Since then there have been no livelihood programmers of any significance from neither the Iraqi government nor from the international agencies. People want to be able to live in dignity and they want their kids to live a decent life where they can attend school or be able to find jobs, that’s why many are choosing to leave the country since they no longer want to live the rest of their lives in humiliation.
Fortunately, the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil has been supporting most of the students on scholarships but, unfortunately, it cannot realistically continue that way because the diocese’ resources are stretched thin. To overcome this issue, the Archdiocese of Erbil is leading an initiatives to help support students through an student-adoption program in which a family living in Northern America would share the cost of enrollment of one student for one school year, which includes the cost of enrolment, fees, and university materials.
Do you think these student exchanges between Franciscan University and the Catholic University of Erbil will help enrich and strengthen the Christian presence in Nineveh?
The historic strength of Christianity in Iraq has always been through two main things, education and health care. Since the Sasanian empire in the second century, through the Abbasid rule, to the time of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Christians were always entrusted with educating and healing the public.
However, the eight years of war with Iran, then the U.S. sanctions in the 1990s, marked the beginning of the “brain drain” of the educated Christians leaving Iraq. To make matters worse, more than two-thirds of the Christian population had fled the country following the events of 2003 and then with ISIS in 2014. Among those who fled Iraq first were those of high educational backgrounds.
It is very obvious and clear that the survival of the Christian community in Iraq is very dependent on whether Christians are able to reclaim their role in the society once again. One way to reclaim our role in the Iraqi society is by being able to produce and form future Christian leaders. Thankfully, with the extreme efforts of the Archdiocese of Erbil, the Catholic University in Erbil was established in 2015.
Why is the Catholic University in Erbil so critical for Christians’ future in Iraq?
I can confidently say that the establishment of the CUE will bring an end to a dark period of Iraqi Christians. The Catholic University in Erbil will give hundreds of young students a chance to rebuild their lives through education. It will not only be about academia, but also rebuilding faith and the traditional values of a Catholic education. With all that being said, and given the academic and spiritual richness of Franciscan University, I am hopeful that the exchange program between the two universities will have a positive impact on the lives of thousands living in Iraq.
This interview is edited for clarity.