By Claudine Denha
Little did I know that a simple text I received in January 2019, would change my life. I was asked to join a small group of people traveling to Iraq during Easter. In my mind the answer was yes, but I wanted to run it by my parents first. I was nervous telling them for fear they would be completely against the idea. My nervousness was for nothing; they wanted me to go to Iraq, to be the first of their six children to see where they grew up, where it all began.
On my birthday, April 11, we began our journey to the homeland. Nothing could prepare me for the feelings I had when I stepped onto the land of my ancestors; not the endless stories I had been told by my dad, or the pictures and videos from “the days”, even the cram session we had before I left. “Wow” is all I can say. I was speechless, and if you know me, that doesn’t happen very often.
Each day I posted a diary of our journey on Facebook. I would like to share it with all of you as well. I hope seeing where we have been will invoke feelings of desire to see Iraq and possibly nostalgia of your home country. God Bless.
When I got the invite to travel to Iraq and Jordan for a couple weeks, I thought why not? The north of Iraq is safe and I have always dreamed of seeing my dad’s house in Telkeppe. This dream turning into a reality was a life changer for me. Never have I felt more connected to my people and my heritage. Never have I watched someone do something in Iraq and chuckled cause my dad does exactly the same thing. Never have I appreciated the love and sacrifice my parents made for me and my siblings than I did in Iraq. Never have I been prouder to be Chaldean. Thank you to my parents for encouraging me to come, to Father Pierre for leading us on this journey, and to my new Iraqi sisters who have made this even more enjoyable. Below is my travel diary.
Day 1: Anakawa/Erbil
After a very long flight we were greeted by Father Pierre, our trusty guide, and Adnan, our fearless driver. With very little sleep, we visited the Chaldean Seminary, toured the Syriac Heritage Museum, enjoyed some awesome kabob in Erbil, witnessed and participated in the most amazing Palm Sunday procession, avoided a spider attack in the van, had dinner and fell into bed! What a great start to our trip!
Day 2: Duhok, Alqosh, and Tesqopa
Alqosh did NOT disappoint! After a beautiful Palm Sunday procession, we explored Alqosh, saw the Bishop’s home, ate lunch in a welcoming home, saw a movie set, spent time at St. Anne’s Monastery, visited Rabban Hourmizd’s Monestery and had dinner in Tesqopa in a seminarian’s home.
Day 3: Duhok and Zakho:
We started off the day with mass at Mar Gorgis, headed to one of the seminarians homes, visited the Denha Tahini Store (yes these are my cousins!), and went to the Zakho bridge aka Dalali bridge, visited the Sharanish Shalalat (waterfalls) and caves, saw the Sultan Makdoht, and ate Masgouf (fish) old style!
Day 4: Telkeppe and Mar Matti:
Nothing can describe the feeling of walking the grounds of my ancestors and seeing where my dad grew up. Thank you to Uncle Manu for showing us around and Father Pierre for helping me to FaceTime my parents so they could see Telkeppe after 43 years. Seeing the courtyard where my dad was baptized, the area where the terrible flood took place, and walking the town as if I truly belonged there was breathtaking. Standing in front of my dad’s house where he grew up was one of the greatest gifts of all. Also, thanks again to my crew for encouraging me to jump outside my comfort zone and basically walk down the side of a mountain at Mar Matti.
Day 5: Baghdad
Baghdad wasn’t on the original itinerary, but after some deliberation we made a decision to head to Baghdad and I am so grateful we did. I am so happy to have walked and visited places my mom grew up walking and seeing. We saw the Tigris River, Baghdad College, many beautiful famous statues, visited the Chaldean sisters, and prayed at Our Lady of Salvation Church where many lost their lives in 2010 from a terrorist attack; St. Joseph Chaldean Church, and the National Museum of Iraq where we saw the famous Lion of Babylon. To round out the day, we celebrated Father Pierre!
Day 6: Erbil/Ankawa:
Today was a day of visiting friends, shopping at the bazaar, visiting the Citadel and just exploring the city. Super cool and chill day followed by Holy Thursday mass celebrated at Mar Eleia Church.
Day 7: Karamlesh, Baghdida, and Ankawa:
We started our day visiting Mar Addai church in Karamlesh that was rebuilt after the ISIS bombing in 2014. There we saw Father Ragid’s grave and heard personal stories from those who were in town when the raid began. We then went to Saint Barbara where we got to explore the chapel, grounds, and walk through an ISIS tunnel that lead to the top of the property. After that, we drove through Baghdida and back to Karamlesh for lunch at our driver Adnan’s house. After that eventful day, we attended Good Friday prayers and visited churches in the area. Good Friday took on a whole new meaning for me after seeing it through the eyes of our neighbors. Never will I take for granted the freedom I have to express my beliefs and love for God.
Day 8: Bikhal and Gali Ali Bag Shalalat (waterfalls), Shaklawa, and Ankawa:
We started off the rainy, cold day visiting waterfalls, enjoying breathtaking views, visiting the vacation town of Shaklawa, and back to Ankawa for a visit to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart which house Sr. Cecelia’s remains. Sr. Cecelia is a martyr who was raped and beheaded and the church is working on canonizing her for sainthood.
We spent the evening packing and relaxing because our flight to Amman was at 4am. We attended midnight mass at Mar Elia and enjoyed pacha made by one of our seminarians’ family.
This was the last day of my Iraqi journey, but definitely not my last time visiting! I cannot tell you how amazing this journey has been for me. The people I’ve met, the generosity and hospitality of the people here, and the pride they have. this was my once in a lifetime trip and I’m so very grateful that I got to be here. God is great!
Breathtaking! Is the best word to describe Iraq. I know that seems surprising considering what the country and people have gone through over the years. Our time in Iraq was everything I imagined it to be and more. Seeing the villages, the land of our ancient Suraye, everything of our faith and culture all made sense. I pray every day that it becomes a stable country long enough for everyone to go back and visit.
“I know a lot of Chaldeans and Suraye who were born in America or immigrated when they were very young, thus have no memories of their homeland. I was so happy and honored to help this group experience their motherland’s beauty and still thriving and surviving Christian community. I hope and pray that others take an opportunity to visit the land of their ancestry and take pride in the land, villages, and cities that will always be a part of their identity”
-Father Pierre Konja