By Vanessa Denha Garmo
What may come as a surprise to most people who talk to Fr. Pierre Konja about Iraq is the normalcy of it all. “I grab a bite to eat with friends in town and the locally owned Christian restaurants will even serve beer. I drove to the store today and picked up few things, the kids play Fortnite and love Snapchat” said Fr Pierre, speaking on a Sunday evening Iraqi time.
He even picked up an exercise mat this day for his room at the seminary where he is currently living. “When my parents came to visit, I drove them through the North and we felt comfortable the whole time. My father left Iraq almost 40 years ago and my mother almost 50 years, which is the story for many Chaldean families in Detroit, so we’ve lost a connection to the country. When I tell people that ALL my aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings live in America, they’re surprised because for people who left Iraq after the 90’s, their families are spread around the world in different countries.”
Fr. Pierre enjoyed his time with his parents. “My parents loved their visit to Iraq, there are still some unsafe areas near Mosul that we didn’t get to see, but we drove from Ankawa, visited Shaqlawa and the waterfalls, Alqosh and the great history there, Duhok, Zakho, Amedia, Aradan, and back to Ankawa. I think it was bittersweet for all of us because Iraq is truly a beautiful country with a lot of natural resources, it’s just sad to see how division, persecutions, and wars can hinder such potential development and stability.”
His day-to-day life is pretty uneventful he explains. His official assignment is the spiritual director at St. Peter’s Chaldean Seminary in Ankawa, which is a Christian village just outside of Erbil, more than an hour east of Mosul. He also spends time learning Arabic, to speak as well learning to read the written language. “My Sourath is much better,” said Fr. Pierre. “I preach every Sunday in our native tongue and I am much more comfortable today with the language. I am tutored in Arabic and I practice reading the language every day, but Arabic is a difficult language, I’m sure it’ll be a lifelong journey to get comfortable with it, but I’m happy with my progress.”
His main assignment is working in the seminary while becoming immersed in the language and culture. “I love working with and praying with the seminarians,” he said. “I love the Chaldean Catholic church and if I can potentially help a future priest with his relationship with Jesus so that the church can constantly be renewed by the Holy Spirit, then this is where God wants me today.”
In the midst of the normal were small surprises. “I’ve been happily surprised to see how people accept my broken Sourath,” he noted. “They’re very understanding that I’m from America and are pleased that I’m at least trying.”
At the seminary there are 14 seminarians, 11 of whom are native Sourath speakers with the other three stronger in Arabic. English is often spoken in Iraq as much as Fr. Pierre wishes it wasn’t so prevalent. “I keep telling people to stop speaking English to me, I want to better my Sourath!” he said laughing.
Fr. Pierre left for Iraq last spring but before he left, he did his research and talked to several people already living in Iraq about life in the country. He also gained insight from others who travelled there before him like Fr. Patrick Setto and Fr. Fadie Gorgies as well as seminarians Dc. Perrin Attisha and Dc. Rodney Abasso.
As normal as it seems on most days, the plight of the people is still very real.
“People here have already lived through ISIS and wars, sanctions and turmoil for more than 40 years,” he said. “Some want to reunite with family members who have settled in other countries like Australia, America, Canada, and all over Europe.”
As much as there are people deeply rooted in this country and want to stay, many still want to leave. “They don’t trust that this normalcy will last for the next few decades,” he said. “They are still very skeptical and I can’t blame them, they’re jokingly just waiting for ‘the next thing’ to happen in Iraq, while the current economic instability causes stress for many families.”
Although thousands of miles away across the ocean, there are still similarities with Chaldeans in America. “The faith in Iraq is very similar to the faith in the American Chaldean community. Everyone has crosses in their homes, they receive their sacraments in the Church, and they celebrate the feast days, but the average household does not go to mass every Sunday.” Fr. Pierre is not assigned to a specific parish, but he has observed this through his experiences and conversations with the people he’s met.
He left in early May 2018, and will be home for a Christmas visit. Fr. Pierre plans to return home in June of 2019 with a better grasp of Sourath and a strong foundation in Arabic. “I will be a life-long learner of the language,” he said. “My hope is that Iraq’s government and economy remain stable for all people. There has never been a time where I ever felt unsafe. Now might be a time where people can begin to consider making a visit to their homeland.”