Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, February 22, 2018

lsp iraqi 2401 webMother Rajaa, third from left in back row, and daughter Katreena pose with Little Sisters of the Poor at St. Joseph’s Residence in Enfield, where the two stayed recently while Katreena was treated at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. Katreena’s family fled an ISIS attack on Mosul last June. They left for Iraq Oct. 23. (Photo by Karen O. Bray)

ENFIELD – A mother and daughter’s story of refuge and love after fleeing the horror of an ISIS attack on Mosul last June was recounted Oct. 20 at St. Joseph’s Residence, where the pair had been staying.

The mother, Rajaa, and 15-year-old daughter Katreena, had been guests of the Little Sisters of the Poor since mid-September, when Katreena underwent treatment at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. The Knights of Columbus sponsored their stay in the United States on a medical visa.

Mother and daughter were introduced at a press conference by their first names only because of security and safety issues related to their imminent return to Iraq. They left Connecticut on Oct. 23.

The Chaldean Catholic family’s saga began at their home on the outskirts of Mosul, where, until June 8, 2014, they lived peacefully among the middle class. On that day, when ISIS came, life as they knew it was destroyed forever for the household of mother and father, four children and a grandmother. Bombs and cannon attacks forced the family to flee on foot. It was a long and difficult journey that changed their lives forever.

The family fled from the Mosul area to a refugee center in Erbil, said Rajaa. Katreena had already injured a foot, and it became infected during the arduous trek to Erbil.

Andrew Walther, vice president for communications for the Knights, said Katreena and her mother represent untold numbers of predominantly Iraqi and Syrian Christians and minorities of other religions who remain “trapped in their countries.”

Katreena earlier had been diagnosed with kidney failure at a hospital in Iraq, where she was scheduled to have the kidney removed. They were in a car and on their way to the hospital for the surgery when they learned that they could come to the United States for treatment.

 Mr. Walther said that they now know that the surgery not only was unnecessary, but it likely would have killed Katreena because of the condition of her foot and the state of her health.

Although her condition has been stabilized enough that she can continue treatment back in Iraq without surgery, she will also require further treatment of her foot.

For more than a year, the Knights of Columbus have helped Christian refugees and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Mr. Walther said the Knights had contributed more than $4 million toward that end, and an additional $2 million since July.

Among the many projects the Knights support in the region, predominantly in Iraq and Syria, is a health clinic run by Slovakians in Kurdistan in Iraq. People at the clinic contacted the Knights of Columbus about Katreena’s need for medical assistance that could not be provided in Iraq with the facilities on hand.

Katreena’s doctor in Iraq traveled with the girl and her mother here to the United States once the visa was approved. The Little Sisters of the Poor were happy to offer their home as a place for the two to stay.

The sprightly and engaging Katreena, who has waist-length brown hair, won the hearts of the entire community of Little Sisters, residents and staff while at St. Joseph’s. Until they heard the details provided during the press conference, even the sisters who have cared for them daily had known little of what the family had experienced during the past 15 months.

Despite the language barrier, love and warmth were evident between the sisters and their guests. Katreena calls Mother Genevieve Nugent, who oversees the community of 10 sisters and the facility, “Sister Mama.”

Rajaa said they have “no hope” of ever going back to the home in Iraq that they once knew. The family hopes to emigrate from the country. She said ISIS has threatened to behead her husband, a policeman who has not been paid since the current crisis began over 15 months ago, if he returns to their home.

During their flight the family first lived in the nave of a church, then in tents or caravans. The family of seven now lives in the area of Erbil, the Kurdish capital.

Rajaa cried when she spoke about her fear for the family’s future in Iraq.

Katreena, sitting between her mother and the translator, smiled shyly at her sister friends from time to time during the press conference.

Because of her foot injury, Katreena used crutches to navigate the halls of St. Joseph’s Residence. She spent her days with the sisters and many residents, staff and volunteers. She became a favorite in the kitchen and dining room, where she has helped serve meals. Rajaa recently helped out at the “balloon booth” at the sisters’ Oktoberfest celebration, selling tickets.

At the press conference, the Knights of Columbus gave Katreena some gifts, including a new pair of crutches. They also gave her an iPad, which she promised she would use to communicate with the sisters and Knights on  Facebook.

Rajaa said of the sisters, “They are like my family, like my mother; when I see them I see my mom; I see my brothers and my sisters; they are like my family. We love them very, very much.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor, whose apostolate is to care for the aged poor, take the four vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and hospitality. There are 2,358 Little Sisters in the world, and they run 25 homes in the United States and 185 world-wide, in 31 countries.

Mr. Walther said that the Knights will continue to follow Katreena’s and her family’s story upon her return to Iraq.