Special to ASSIST News Service, courtesy of the Assyrian International News Agency (www.aina.org)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (ANS) -- It was a pleasant morning and the sun was warming the faces of those who were walking to St. George Church in Baghdad. Among them was Ronda, a 10 year old little girl with beautiful wavy black hair tied in pigtail fashion with little pink and white ribbons. In her little hands she was carrying her rosary and a little white scarf to cover her hair out of respect for when she stepped inside the church. Customarily, Assyrians (also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs) cover their hair while in the presence of the Holy Eucharist.
Ronda's parents, along with their younger daughter Lourde, were trying to catch up with their 10 year old, who was joyously rushing to get to church.
Smoke from a car bomb pours over
a Baghdad street
Once in church, women covered their hair with scarves and traced the sign of the Cross on their body. Men knelt in respect and blessed themselves with Holy Water. As soon as she stepped inside St. George church, Ronda ran to her usual seat in the pew and wiggled her little body to give room to her sister, who was complaining that she did not have enough space to sit. Mass began, continued and was completed without any explosions being heard in the neighborhood.
The fairly quiet streets were now full of people coming and going, you could see American troops walking with their AK40s, watching carefully the face of every passerby. Ronda's father Basil asked the family to walk faster so they could get home as he did not feel safe being outside. They began to walk faster and faster, passing street after street, alley after alley. All they could see were the ruins of buildings which were destroyed by bombs. After a few long minutes filled with anxiety, the family turned the corner of their street and as they began getting closer to their home, they noticed their yard door was open.
The congregation at St. George Church in Baghdad
Basil assured the family that he had locked the door when they left for church. As they neared the house, they noticed the door had been cracked in many places, exhibiting the impact inflicted by those who were trying to break in.
Ronda's little brown eyes were fixated on the door, staring at it in horror. Basil carefully pushed the door open and stepped into the yard, which seemed quiet and untouched. As they walked through, they saw windows shattered and doors barely hanging on their hinges.
Basil screamed: "Who is there? What do you want from us?" There was no answer. He asked Ronda's mother, Nadia to get the girls and take refuge behind the age old oak tree in the yard. They obeyed but their fearful eyes followed their father into the house. Next they heard a loud scream. Ronda's mother could not tolerate the unknown and ran into the house where she found Basil standing there in dismay. She traced his stare and saw their living room ransacked; their beautiful chandelier was in pieces on the ground, their television had been destroyed, their furniture was torched and still smoldering, their dishes were in thousands of pieces all over the floor, and on the wall their fate was written in red: "Leave or Die." This is how Ronda's story of exodus, trials, and a life threatening illness begins.
It was a beautiful sunny morning in Scottsdale. I looked at my calendar and it read Tuesday, 10/16/2012. My laptop in my hand, I stepped out on our balcony where the sun warmed my face. I placed myself in a comfortable chair and opened my laptop. The first email which caught my eye was titled Message to Iraqi Christian Relief Council. I eagerly clicked on the message and read it carefully line after line. I read and re-read the email sent by Sarah, sharing her sister's devastating situation in Syria. This is an excerpt of that email:
Message: I am writing to beg you to please help me!
I was able to speak with my sister a few minutes ago and I am shaking as our phone call was abruptly disconnected. I could hear the bombs and sound of explosions in the background. She was crying and begging me to do something to save them. My nieces were crying and praying in the background, it was very scary and sad at the same time. I beg you please, if any of you or someone you know has connections in a high government office, please help me get them out of Syria before it is too late.
I held my breath and uttered a prayer. I called Sarah immediately and spoke to her about this situation. It was my first time talking with her and found her to be profoundly nervous for her sister's family and at the same time she possessed an unshaken Christian faith. She told me in 2004, while the family was in St. George church, her sister Nadia's house was ransacked and there was a threatening message written on the wall giving them the option to leave or die. After taking a deep breath and with a quiver in her throat she continued to tell me her sister and her family fled for their lives to Syria where they have been stuck for 9 years. They had not been able to secure a visa from any of the Western countries and now their lives are in danger once again.
Nadia, her husband Basil and their daughters Ronda and Lourde are like other Iraqi Assyrian families in Syria who have become refugees for the second time. I vowed to help in any way I could, explaining that Iraqi Christian Relief Council, an organization founded in 2007, was mainly an aid organization and that we had not been involved in immigration issues.
Months later, I received another email from Sarah which added to the urgency of the matter. The following is an excerpt of the email:
Message: Update from Syria!
As if the challenge to survive in the war torn country of Syria is not enough, my sister just informed me that her oldest daughter Ronda, 19, has multiple small tumors in her lymph nodes from the upper part of the neck to the lower part of her chest. The family is terrified that they are cancerous.
And the next email:
Dear Family and Friends,
I received the call I have been waiting for with news I have been dreading about Ronda. It is Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
By grace of God, the family was able to get a temporary visa into Lebanon where they were able to have a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan administered on our young heroine. The results showed she has tumors in her neck and in her upper chest. The doctors told her she needs eight Chemo treatments which would be very costly. Through much prayer and efforts, we have raised a small amount and still have a long way to go to meet the demand for all of the required chemo therapy sessions in order to save Ronda's life. In addition to this hardship, finding housing has been a taxing and an exhausting process for this family.
Because of the rise in Syrian and Iraqi refugee influx into Lebanon, the cost of living has skyrocketed. Amidst his tears, Basil explains he has knocked on many doors, traveled on foot from street to street to find a place for his ailing daughter and his persecuted family. Sadly, he has been rejected time and time again. The excuses given to him range from: "You were not baptized in our church" to "We are at capacity." Even Christian organizations have turned him away.
Those who have suffered and achieved victory in their battle with cancer know very well in order to be triumphant; a patient needs a complete support system, a healthy lifestyle, peace of mind and a good exercise program.
How can Ronda prevail over this life threatening battle while not eating adequate meals, not having adequate housing or loving support from her community? Is it cancer that betrayed Ronda at the tender age of 19 or are we as Christians failing to comply with the Lord's command: "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me." [Mathew 25:35-40]