In Kurdistan, Iraq, a new Catholic hospital and university bring hope to an embattled Christian community
by Ragheb Elias Karash
CHALDEAN ARCHBISHOP Bashar Warda of Erbil, Kurdistan has been the prime mover behind the establishment of two major new Christian institutions in the region. In 2016, the Catholic University in Erbil opened its doors and late summer will see the formal opening of the new Catholic hospital in Erbil, the Maryamana, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. For more than three years, the Archdiocese of Erbil hosted more than 120,000 Christians who fled the 2014 onslaught of ISIS on the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq. While some 40,000 faithful have since returned to their homes, many thousands have made Kurdistan their permanent home. The university – the only Catholic university in Iraq – and hospital will be a significant boost for the re-established Christian communities on the Nineveh Plains as well as for the local Christian community in Kurdistan. The archbishop spoke with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the significance of both projects.
What is your vision for the new Catholic hospital?
The overall goal of the hospital is to bring effective and affordable healthcare to a war-torn region that is totally lacking in resources and modern equipment. This is partly due to decades of continuous conflict but also because of the inactivity of the government. It is likely that in the next decade there will be even more refugees, IDPs, and older persons in need. We will be in a position to support the neediest patients and offer them discounts of up to 60 percent.
The hospital must also be important, especially for Christians, in generating jobs in a region with high unemployment?
The provision of jobs will show Christians that we are building a future for them in Erbil.
Christians and other minorities are often denied jobs and are overlooked for promotion due to a prejudiced political system. There are few if any politicians willing to stand up for the rights of Christians. This has a direct correlation to people leaving the country. Along with the university, Maryamana is a crucial and pivotal project that aims to keep Christians in Erbil and on the Nineveh Plains. Both institutions demonstrate that Christians matter and that they are an integral part of Iraqi society.
Will the hospital serve only Christians?
The hospital’s mission aligns with that of the Church. Any person, regardless of religion or race, can receive treatment at Maryamana Hospital; priority will be given to those whose medical needs are most urgent. It is well known that Muslims trust Christian healthcare professionals; hopefully, Maryamana will also facilitate our communal reconciliation efforts by addressing the health-care needs of other faiths.
What medical services will the hospital provide?
The hospital will have 70 beds and seven operating rooms, all of which we expect to be in constant use. The hospital will be able to serve 300 outpatients per day and will offer most medical services. In addition to the care of pregnant women and pre-term infants, there will be clinics for a full range of specialties. The hospital will have up-to-date laboratory equipment and be able to administer the full spectrum of diagnostic tests (e.g., MRIs, CT scans); there are two emergency departments, as well as a pharmacy. In some three years, we hope the Maryamana can become a teaching hospital. Planning for an oncology center at the hospital is also underway.
What is the mission of the Catholic University in Erbil?
The Catholic University in Erbil was founded to secure educational and professional opportunities for our young people so that they will be encouraged to stay in Iraq and become the future leaders of the Christian community here and elsewhere in the country. Eventually, when our young people are getting good jobs in a majority Muslim country, they will find hope and turn to the university as their conduit to succeed and thrive in their careers in Kurdistan and Iraq. We hope that the university will inspire religious minorities and prove to them that they have viable and bright futures here. We are trying to establish Erbil as a long-term home for the Christian community—and people choose to stay when there are jobs and when there is a strong infrastructure of services and institutions. The school will give the Christian community a major sense of worth and belonging.
How many students does the university have now and what is your goal?
Currently 108 students are enrolled, including 10 Muslims; academic degrees are awarded in Accounting, English, International Relations, Information Technology and Computer Science Our target for the academic year 2022-2023 is to have 825 students enrolled – 615 Iraqi Christians, 125 Muslims and 85 Yazidis, from Kurdistan, Mosul, the Nineveh Plains, Duhok, Kirkuk, Baghdad and Basra. To attract students, we are aiming to build and establish additional departments in core academic disciplines: Economics, Engineering, Health & Medical Sciences, and Education.
We want to establish the university as an international anchor project to keep Christianity in Iraq. We are building relationships with the relevant ministries here and working internationally with many universities to establish the brand of the Catholic University in Erbil. Iraqi Christians and other minorities are drawn to the university because the teaching is done in English and because of its location in Ankawa, the Christian quarter of Erbil, an environment that promises safety and care. The new Maryamana Hospital is also located in Ankawa.
What are your main concerns regarding these initiatives, the hospital and university?
The key challenges were getting both institutions built and operational. With the hospital, the priority is to repay our loans, but we know that the hospital will be fully utilized and become profitable. The demand is there. In Kurdistan, there are more than a million refugees and hundreds of thousands of elderly people; clinics in Erbil and Duhok serve more than 1,000 patients each month; as many as 2,000 chronically ill patients rely on our local clinic, St. Joseph’s, for very expensive drugs.
The university, still young, requires more funding, since most of our students – many of them from Qaraqosh on the Nineveh Plains – are attending on full scholarships. We need to expand academically, since the number of departments correlates with the number of applicants. It is difficult to recruit native English speakers as teachers, as consulates say that Kurdistan is unsafe. We can only attract people through word of mouth and testimonials from visitors, but I believe that we will succeed. Currently, 14 of our local young people are earning Master’s degrees in the US, the UK, Italy and Australia. Upon their return home, they will play key roles at both the university and the hospital. I thank all our benefactors with all my heart and prayers; they are doing a magnificent job for all of us here. God bless them all.
For the past two years, ACN has supported the Catholic University in Erbil and the Maryamana Hospital with funding for scholarships and for the purchase of state-of-the-art medical equipment. From 2014 through 2017, ACN sponsored projects totaling more than $40M in support of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil as it provided food, medical care, housing and education for the IDPs who had fled the Nineveh Plains after ISIS captured the region.