Many people would be excited at the opportunity to tour the White House at Christmas time. For Sister Raghad Saeed Saqat, OP, a Sister of the Dominican Congregation of St. Catherine of Siena from Iraq, it was a moving and thought-provoking experience.
Sister Raghad – a doctoral student studying physics at Catholic University of America – was invited to accompany Sister Donna Markham, OP, President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, to a Christmas party at the White House. Because of the pandemic, the party was a tour of special rooms in the White House decorated for Christmas.
“They decorated everything,” Sister Raghad explained. “There were different kinds of trees and beautiful decorations. … It was pretty amazing to see all the decorations of Christmas and all the colors,” with each room honoring something different, from nature to the military.
Sister Raghad said she was also moved by the parting gift of a White House Christmas ornament. “This is a good sign for the new year,” she said. “It will carry something from the White House to Iraq. It’s an instrument of peace.”
The experience at the White House brought mixed feelings to Sister Raghad. When Sister Donna invited her to accompany her to the White House, she said, she was worried. “I didn’t think they’d accept me as an Iraqi,” but she was cleared after her documents were checked.
At a deeper level, Sister Raghad said, the visit to the White House reminded her of her own country, which had been decimated years ago by the 2003 U.S. invasion. It was in the White House, she noted, that the decision had been made to attack her country.
The relationship between the two countries was also an issue for Sister Raghad when, in 2018, she came to the United States – first to study English and then to begin her doctoral studies in nano physics. She finished her academic studies and passed her comprehensive exam, and is working on research and writing her dissertation.
“The challenge when I came here was how I can be in a country that destroyed my country,” Sister Raghad said. “Sometimes I got to a point where I don’t want to stay here, especially at the beginning. You feel you have to be with your people.”
The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Iraq have faced numerous challenges in recent years. In August 2014, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena were forced to evacuate their convents on the Nineveh Plain with the coming of ISIS. The Sisters – along with tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities – were displaced for years in northern Iraq. In recent years, the Sisters and other local residents returned to their former homes, which in many cases had been destroyed by ISIS.
Sister Raghad said she had originally planned to study at a university in England, but the documents she needed were destroyed by ISIS. “We lost our convent, our books, even our documents – everything – but God was there walking with us, walking in our journey,” she said. “We need faith for sure, and hope that things will be better.”
Since coming to the United States, Sister Raghad has faced her fair share of challenges – as the only Iraqi student and as a doctoral student studying in a second language. “I am the only Iraqi student, and I am a Sister,” she said. “There is a mission here – not just to be studying here, but to show who the Sisters are, especially from a different country.”
Sister Raghad said her fellow students have shown a great interest in her life and in the situation of Iraq. “It’s very interesting how the people want to hear from me, and they are very respectful to hear me tell my story. They are wonderful people and they want to help me. Before I thought about what the U.S. did to Iraq, but the people [here] are amazing, how they try to help.”
Since coming to know people in the United States, Sister Raghad has served as a bridge between the people of the two nations. She tells Americans, “We are not all ISIS. There are really good people in Iraq. Do not look at us as terrorists. We are really kind people, generous people.”
On the other hand, Sister Raghad tells the people of Iraq that, although America is a powerful country, the people of the United States are kind and want to help. “They don’t want to make people suffer,” she said. “They feel our pain.”
Sister Raghad hopes to continue this ministry of good will when, after she completes her doctorate, she returns to teach at the University of Mosul. “I will be teaching Muslims and all kinds of people at the University of Mosul,” she said. “To be there as a Christian is a big thing, to give the people hope. Especially after ISIS, it means a lot to people to have a Christian there.”
In the meantime, Sister Raghad appreciates the people at Catholic University and the support of the Dominican family in the United States. “They are my family,” she said. “They are my Sisters, my friends for sure. Without them I cannot do this in such a short time. They encourage me. They’re walking with me.”