Seeds of Love

June 01 2004 | by

THREE KINDERGARTENS and a home for disabled children in Baghdad, a hospital and a school for nurses in Mossul, an orphanage in Alquosh – schooling, health care and social service are the projects for which Saint Anthony’s Charities is encouraging your participation for the Feast of Saint Anthony.

Priority to children

For the first time, we have made the bold decision to extend our solidarity to a strife-ridden country. And this for two reasons: first, because we wanted to celebrate our Saint’s feast day by reaching out to Iraq’s grieving children. Second, because we have the ideal channel: the Christian communities in that war-torn area.
At a time when the future in Iraq is still very bleak, we feel it is imperative for us to get there as soon as possible in order to be able to sow our seeds of hope and, since children have been the primary victims of this catastrophic war in terms of physical and mental health, we thought about them.
Ahmed, for example, isn’t going to school because he is terrified; lack of clean, running water is forcing Fatema to draw water from muddy puddles; Alì has lost one of his legs in the bombings. These are only some of the typical situations in which Iraqi children find themselves nowadays.
“These lively children in Baghdad laugh and play like any other children, but the drama of what is happening is taking its toll on them”, says Gian Paolo Silvestri, member of ASVI (Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale), an Italian volunteer organisation.

War trauma

A study conducted on a hundred Iraqi children just before the outbreak of the war by Magne Raudalen, a Norwegian child psychology specialist in war trauma has confirmed Silvestri’s impression.
Dr. Raudalen’s reports are about children like Shema, a six-year-old girl, who always covers her ears so as not to hear the news on TV. The soldiers who were about to invade Iraq were, in her imagination, evil, masked men bent on looting the country, and ready to “cut the throats” of mummy, daddy and herself.
“When the bombs start falling” Shema was saying before the invasion began, “the air will become exceedingly hot, and the ground will open up and swallow us, and our eyes will become bloodshot.” “She always spoke about her fears,” Raudalen explains “as though they were being experienced by another child, then she would happily go back to her games, in an apparently light-hearted manner.”
History rarely highlights that all wars, even the so-called “humanitarian” ones, affect children deeply, and Iraq is a nation of children: 41 percent of its inhabitants are under the age of fourteen. They are the ones who are paying the highest price. Save the Children, an international non-governmental organisation, and UNICEF were talking about a humanitarian crisis even before the start of this war. 500,000 Iraqi children died solely through the economic embargo because of malnutrition and the lack of basic medicines. Even today, the most common cause of death is the lack of clean water. The most common infections are diarrhoea and respiratory diseases which, altogether, cause about 70 percent of all deaths. One child in four is malnourished, and one in eight dies before the age of five. Half of all pregnant women have anaemia, and give birth to underweight children.
The war has dismantled the previous State run medical infrastructure and service, which the coalition forces are now slowly and painstakingly trying to reconstruct. Another menace to Iraqi children is posed by anti-personnel mines and other explosive devises, which are causing a considerable number of deaths and injuries.
“In the cities, electric light, water and food are still lacking” reports Giampaolo Silvestri. “There are no jobs and, with unemployment, children cannot even receive the basic necessities. Roads are unsafe. Consequently, parents are not sending their children to school, especially the girls.”
Iraq is no easy place for charity organisations. This is proved by the attacks against the Red Cross and the United Nations. Inter-ethnic tensions are on the increase, as also the violent opposition of Sunni and some Shiite factions to the presence of the coalition forces, and yet effective humanitarian aid requires stable and accepted political institutions.
The plight of these children, which we see every day on our television screens, has moved Saint Anthony’s Charities to seek out a channel through which our aid may reach them.

An ancient Church

Iraq is blessed by the presence of a small but vibrant Christian community consisting of 800,000 people, roughly 4 percent of the population. Most of these Christians are Chaldean Catholics, the rest belong to various other Catholic rites.
“All these rites are of ancient origin, deeply rooted in the territory, and it is through this channel that our charity will get to these poor children,” explains Father Luciano Massarotto, Director of Saint Anthony’s Charities. “Our projects are, in actual fact, designed by them, and are therefore tailored to suit their real needs.” Chaldean Christians are among the oldest inhabitants of Iraq. This community dates back to the earliest days of the Church, when Thomas, the ‘doubting’ apostle, is said to have evangelised the region. They reside especially in the north, around the city of Mossul, Iraq’s Catholic stronghold. These Christian communities have gone through much persecution in the past. The persecution subsided a little with the advent of Saddam Hussein’s secular regime which, at least in the religious sphere, had established a more tolerant society. At the moment, a lot of Catholics are tempted to leave the country for good, fearing a resurgence of religious intolerance, and the increasing economic difficulties.
Relations with the Muslim majority are friendly. Catholics and Muslims have even helped each other at times during the war. Monsignor Shelmon Warduni, the auxiliary Chaldean bishop of Baghdad has said “During the war our churches were open to everyone. Muslims and Christians found a safe haven there.” These ties were further strengthened by the stand taken by the Holy See to the war. “The Pope has spoken out against this conflict. This has made people in Iraq look to the Catholic Church with a more sympathetic eye than before, and Muslims have made public expressions of gratitude,” maintains Monsignor Dal Toso, the director of the Iraq section of Cor Unum, established by the Italian Bishops’ Conference to provide aid to the third world.

Time for courage

However peaceful this coexistence may have been up to now, dark clouds are looming in the distance. “The uncertainties are about the future government and, above all, the future Constitution,” adds Monsignor Dal Toso. “Will it secure the rights of all, even of minorities?”
In the meantime, tension between Shiites and Sunnis is on the increase, as also between the Arab population and the Kurds in the north. Racial and religious conflicts may be just round the corner.
“We asked ourselves how best to intervene in such a tricky situation,” says Father Massarotto. “We came up with the idea of handing our projects over to the Catholic minority, which will direct this aid in favour of all Iraqi children, irrespective of race and religion. This, in itself, is an act of peace and reconciliation, a small but important building block for the future. The Iraq we have in mind for these children is an Iraq of justice, peace, and tolerance. These projects are but small seeds of love sown in Baghdad, in Mossul and Alquosh; seeds sown by all of you.”

Three kindergartens in Baghdad

“People are loitering aimlessly around the streets, and they are all simply waiting and wishing for life to become normal again. Whenever I saw the Italian news-service in Baghdad, I was surprised: I never actually saw all that violence, and I never had the feeling of living in a besieged city,” claims Giuseppe Parma, an engineer working for AVSI (Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale), an Italian volunteer organisation, upon returning to Italy. Giuseppe Parma is in Italy at the moment to prepare the projects for the renovation of three kindergartens, at an estimated cost of about $100,000.
“There are still a number of problems to solve, but people generally seem relieved,” he says. “The other day I was at an Iraqi family for dinner. Everyone was talking freely and openly: this was unheard of not long ago. People in Baghdad are more afraid of criminals now than political assassinations. The kidnapping of children as ransom is on the increase. Schools are guarded by policemen. Children attending kindergartens used to travel in minibuses, but now they are accompanied by their parents because some buses have been ambushed.”
AVSI has already restructured and made workable four kindergartens in Catholic parishes. Some parishes already had kindergartens, often in cramped, shabby quarters; other parishes had no kindergarten because of lack of funds. Now that some kindergartens are already operating, the Education Ministry of the Provisional Authority and UNICEF see this experiment as a sort of pilot project to be extended to the whole city. “They are interested,” says Mr Parma, “in the lay-out of the kindergarten, in our list of priorities, in the teacher training programs, etc. A kindergarten in the Middle East is the beginning of schooling. This service, which is still lacking in Baghdad, will became a dire necessity now that parents might begin to find work.”
There are a host of necessities: the renovation of the buildings, furniture, school stationary, and the salary for the teachers. What does it mean for a child in Baghdad to attend kindergarten? “It means to live in a place where he can feel at home, and not feel fear. All this implies a return to normality,” replies Mr Parma. He then recalls the episode that struck him most during his work in Baghdad. “Last year I was passing through a very poor suburb of Baghdad called Dora Mecanic, and saw some children playing in the mud. The sewers were out in the open, and garbage was all over the place. You could see goats and sheep walking freely everywhere. This year, at the kindergarten inauguration in that suburb, I saw those same children again, all clean and with joy in their faces, because they now had a place all to themselves. This confirmed to me that we were on the right track; that the best thing is to give them tangible reasons for hoping in the future.”

A hospital in Mossul

The two main objectives behind the project promoted by the Iraqi bishops in Mossul, in the north of the country, are to make an already existing clinic more accessible to the poor by renovating and extending it to include 50 beds, and the establishment of a school for nurses, which will also offer working opportunities for girls in the area.
“A clinic run by the Catholic Church,” explains Monsignor Dal Toso of Cor Unum, “where doctors and nurses work on a volunteer basis has already been operating for years. The necessity of extending these services to the whole population, particularly children, the elderly and pregnant women, has driven the local Church to dedicate its heart and soul to this project.”
The war has completely dismantled what had remained of an already inefficient health service, and created an emergency in the emergency. This was confirmed by a recent message from Doctors Without Borders (MSF), “The greatest medical problem was the lack of direction in a highly centralised health care system which practically collapsed in the aftermath of the war.”
This disorder, according to Morten Rostrup, President of MSF during the war in Baghdad, has caused an “unacceptable toll in human lives.”
This deterioration of the health care system is made worse by the difficulties under which medical personnel are forced to work, for even doctors and paramedics are attacked as “symbols of the Western presence in Iraq.”
“The strength of our project is that it was conceived in Iraq,” maintains Father Luciano Massarotto, “and it is being directed by Iraqis themselves. It will be a great benefit for those who are sick.”
The project to start a school for nurses “is a response to the lack of trained nurses in the country,” Monsignor Dal Toso explains. “It also addresses the unemployment problem, another great emergency in this after-war phase.”
The overall cost of this project is $100,000.

Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Baghdad

Before the start of the war, the Indian government recalled home Sisters Denzy, Rosylin and Thresiana who, together with another Sister of the Missionaries of Charity from Bangladesh, were running an orphanage in Baghdad for disabled children. “We just couldn’t leave Iraq,” says Sister Denzy. “Who would have looked after our children? We said to ourselves ‘come what may, we shall remain here!’” The four sisters of Mother Teresa had come to Iraq from other poverty stricken countries like India and Bangladesh to show their closeness and solidarity in the wake of the first Gulf War of 1991 in response to an invitation from Saddam Hussein himself. They are now foster parents to 25 children, aged between one and thirteen, orphaned either on account of the bombings or because their parents received poisoning from depleted uranium. Some of these children have speech impediments, others are completely blind, and others still are missing limbs. The orphanage, situated in the centre of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris river, was miraculously spared during the bombings of operation ‘Shock and Awe’, but the children, Sister Denzy says, experienced “pure fear and terror,” as the huge explosions went off only a few miles from their building.
The loving care of these nuns is all these children can rely on at the moment. The facility they are using is too small for their needs. “The readers of the Messenger of Saint Anthony” Father Massarotto explains, “will contribute to buying a larger building. This will enable the nuns to improve the living conditions for these children, and to accept more of them. There are currently many small children affected with severe disabilities who are more or less left to themselves, with little or no aid coming to them in the various orphanages around the capital.”
The overall cost of this project is $120,000

An orphanage in Alquosh

Perched on the mountains overlooking the Assyrian city of Alquosh, in northern Iraq, about 50 kilometres from Mossul, stands the Rabban Hormiz Monastery, one of the symbols of Christianity in the Middle East. Built in the year 640, this monastery was closed in the 1980s by order of the Saddam regime. The monastery, however, has continued a subdued, unofficial life, and the nearby church connected to the monastery was even able to offer refuge to children orphaned by poverty. This painstaking task has been bravely tackled by Father Mofeed Toma Marcus, the director of the monastery and of the Church of Our Lady (see article on pg. 16 of the April issue of the Messenger).
It was Fr. Marcus who established the orphanage in proximity to the monastery. The orphanage now houses 28 children aged from four to fourteen. These children are living under very harsh conditions, and must rely exclusively on the charity coming from the parishioners, who are themselves very poor. “We have to weather frozen winters here,” says Father Marcus, “and we have no heating system.” He then continues with a list of all the things that could improve the quality of life of those he considers his children. “Most of the switches and taps are out of order, we have no wardrobes or beds. The children are forced to place their mattresses on the ground, and cover themselves with old, worn-out blankets.” But this is just the beginning of the sad list. “They lack just about everything: desks, pencils, books and exercise-books, but what’s worse is that their school is many miles away, and the children must go there on foot along a track infested with poisonous snakes. A minibus would spare them this perilous journey, and would allow quick access to a hospital should they be bitten.”
Father Marcus would like to open the doors of his orphanage to at least another 12 children, thus reaching a total of 40 in the next months. His simple but concrete list of demands will enable these children to lead a decent life, and will give them hope in the future.
Switches, new taps, 16 heaters, furniture, clothes, stationary, a computer and a second-hand minibus will total about $25,000.

Updated on October 06 2016