A refugee’s tale of horror

By  Fr. Don Doll S.J., Catholic Register Special
  • May 18, 2011

Jinan and Wafi Youssif hold a photo of their daughter Raghda, one of the victims of last October’s church massacre in Baghdad. (Photo by Fr. Don Doll, S.J.)AMMAN, JORDAN - Wafi Youssif asked his daughter Raghda not to go to church because churches had been bombed for years. She told her dad: “If I have to die, I don’t mind dying in church.”

Raghda did. She bled to death in Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Church, Oct. 31 last year, only 40 days after her wedding day. Terrorists stormed the church during Mass, locked the doors, cut the electricity and began their killing spree.

Wafi and Jinan Youssif told me the story of their 22-year-old daughter in their Amman apartment where they lived since fleeing Baghdad. They showed me the near-perfect grades she earned studying for her PhD in chemical engineering, the plaque she was given for representing the Syriac Catholic youth community at a National Eucharistic Congress in Amman and the photos of her crowning the statue of Mary in May at their church in 2008.

I was on assignment in the Middle East for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), which works with refugees in over 50 countries. My interpreter, Dr. Luay Sarsam, age 26 and an Iraqi refugee himself, leads the home visit team for JRS in Amman. Many Iraqi Christians have left their country for Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Some estimate Christians were less than 1.5 per cent of Baghdad’s population, but they represent 30 to 35 per cent of Iraqi refugees in Jordan.

Wafi and Jinan left their home, possessions, everything in Baghdad. They fled because they feared for the safety of themselves and their son. Traditionally, when a death occurs in an Iraqi family, a death notice is posted on the front gate or door. Their neighbours warned them to take it down, and they moved to Amman in early January.

Wafi asked if Luay and I could look at some awful pictures. We said yes, not quite sure what he meant. Wafi proceeded to show us photos of his daughter’s body in the church, a place where she was actively involved in parish life.

Raghda, present for Mass when the terrorists struck, had taken refuge in the church’s sacristy with more than 50 others. She called her father on her cellphone about 5:30 p.m. and stayed on the phone till 8:30 p.m. In the course of that conversation she told Wafi that his sister was shot in the leg and Raghda presumed she died. Later, Wafi learned that his sister survived the ordeal, and now lives in Toronto.  

Raghda and others barricaded themselves in the darkened room. When the terrorists discovered their hiding place, they threw three to four  stun grenades into the room. A grenade rolled under Raghda’s legs and exploded, breaking them. She bled to death, along with the child she only recently discovered she was carrying in her womb.

Heart wrenching as it was, Wafi, Jinan and their son Yousif stayed on the phone with Raghda until she died.

When security forces finally broke into the church, the terrorists set off their suicide bomb vests, killing 58 people. Only two other elderly persons hiding in the sacristy died — one from a heart attack and another of a stroke. Wafi and Jinan were able to retrieve Raghda’s body after midnight.

Wafi reminisced how his daughter rode daily to Baghdad Technical University where she received her degree and where he worked maintaining electrical service. Jinan  worked in campus planning as a CAD (Computer Aided Design) operator. Tears formed in all of our eyes as Wafi showed us pictures on Raghda’s new HP computer of her May crowning of Mary in 2008, and of her recent wedding photographs.

It saddens Wafi and Jinan that their new son-in-law, who also fled to Amman, has never contacted them to see how they are doing. They said they really didn’t want to live any more after losing their beautiful daughter, but they have their 20-year-old son to look after.

Refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria or Turkey are not allowed citizenship. They can’t even apply for a residency permit. Nor are they allowed to work. Wafi and Jinan live off of savings and wait for UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refuges) approval for re-settlement in Toronto where they have relatives. Jinan’s mother and her brother are there. Wafi has two sisters there, one a doctor and the sister who was shot in the Baghdad church attack.

(Jesuit Father Don Doll is a professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. His photo journalism can be found at www.magis.creighton.edu.)

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