As part of its international Easter campaign in support of the work of religious sisters, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has collected testimonies from sisters from different countries. This article is the story of a religious sister from Kazakhstan: Sister Vera Zinkovska, born in Shortandy, Kazakhstan – 43 years of age, Congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Sister Vera’s father was a devout Catholic. During Soviet times, he refused to collaborate with the KGB. For this reason, one day he and two other men – a Lutheran and a Baptist – were summoned by the KGB. They were threatened with harm to their children. Soon thereafter, the daughter of the Lutheran was found dead near Moscow, where she was attending university. Something also happened to the child of the other man. Vera’s parents had just had their first child. It was a girl. One of the baby’s legs was broken at hospital. When the child was treated for pneumonia, she was transfused with the wrong type of blood. The little girl died. The parents wanted to have more children and they were blessed with twins: Vera and her brother, who was born 15 minutes after her. The father was afraid to tell the children about God because he feared that they would suffer the same fate as the first child. In spite of this, both children found the faith and both discovered a vocation: Vera became a religious sister and her brother a priest!
Sister Vera Zinkovska, Congregation of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
She explains, “A priest came to our city for the first time in 1990, after Perestroika. He invited us to Holy Mass and we heard the Polish language and helped him with Russian. We slowly found our way to God. I received Holy Communion for the first time when I was 15 years old. That was 28 years ago at Christmas.”
When religious sisters from the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary first came to Vera’s hometown for a two-week visit, she was impressed, “This was the first time I had met religious sisters and I really liked them. During Soviet times the teachers had told us that the devout were quite dense and uneducated, basically illiterates. They said that people of faith were the absolute worst. But I saw the joy of the sisters. It impressed me that they didn’t dress up and had no husbands and children and, in spite of this, seemed happy and joyful. From a purely human perspective, one would assume that anyone who doesn’t dress up and have a family would be unhappy. That was the moment when I first thought about becoming a religious sister and living as they do.” After Vera finished school, she went to Poland to learn the language and then joined the order.
Sister Wiera Zinkowska doing homework with children.
“I liked that the charisma of the congregation included taking care of poor children. That drew me. And then I knew: if I join this convent, the sisters will come to Kazakhstan to work there. This pleased me and that is exactly what happened. My brother was also very supportive of me. At the time, he was already in Poland at seminary. Our parents were also happy, but our father was at first apprehensive that the KGB would again cause problems. But deep down in their souls our parents were happy. When I suffered a crisis at the beginning and did not know whether I wanted to stay or leave the order, my mother was very supportive of me staying. I am very grateful to my parents and my brother. Friends of mine who were not devout also respected my decision, but could not understand taking such a step. But they also supported me. I can therefore say that nobody was against it.”
Vera’s greatest wish was to work with children. “Before I started going to church and was only 12 years old, I thought that I would not marry, but devote my life to abandoned children. Later, after I had found Jesus and my vocation and was given the opportunity to go to Kapshagay to work with these kinds of children, I discovered what you could almost describe as a ‘calling within a calling’.”
Sister Wiera Zinkowska in church with chlidren.
However, at first it did not seem as though the religious sisters were even going to found a second convent in Kazakhstan or that Vera would even be assigned to the new convent. For a long time it was uncertain whether the convent superiors would agree to establish a second convent. And when it surprisingly did happen, two other sisters were initially chosen to go to Kapshagay. Sister Vera was deeply disappointed, but says, “In spirit I prayed, ‘Lord, what is most important is that the children receive quality care and that sisters are caring for them. I humbly accept that I will not be the one to go there and will not go with them. That is just how it is: other sisters will be the ones to go.’”
However, it just so happened that there were problems with the visa for Kazakhstan and Sister Vera was therefore asked to go to Kapshagay for one month. And then the plans were changed. Ten years have in the meantime gone by. “For me, this was a clear sign that God wants me and that he has accepted my sacrifice. I am happy that I am able to work here with the children.”
ACN has supported the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kapshagay many times in the past with funding for the remodelling, expansion, renovation and furnishing of their house and chapel. The organisation continues to help them arrange for visas and spiritual retreats.
Catherine Ibrahim lives in a camp for displaced persons run by the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri, Borno State. Here, this Catholic widow describes to Aid to the Church in Need, the murder of her husband and abduction of her children—both at the hands of Boko Haram—and her eventual captivity:
The first time Boko Haram came to our village, we were lucky. Just as we settled in for dinner, we heard their gunshots and ran to the mountains. For the two days we were there, our fear of death kept us alive. We returned to burned houses and churches, which led to a crisis between Christians and Muslims that was only stopped by military intervention. Less than a week later, Boko Haram struck again. They came at my family with a deadly mission. A million thoughts flooded my mind, but none overshadowed the thought of my children—Daniel and Salome—and getting them to safety.
Refugee camp for christians, the center was the official representation place for the Christian Nigerian Assosiation (CNA), they gave the place for the refugees. There are 5000 IDP’s.
But they beat me to it. When I reached where my children were hiding, I saw the insurgents holding them by their shoulders as they struggled helplessly. They were about five and seven years old then. The insurgents looked triumphant. My knees buckled, and my eyes filled with tears. I was afraid of what might happen to them, especially to my daughter. Then, one of the insurgents savagely dragged me, so I could witness my husband’s death. They butchered my husband mercilessly, and they made sure that I saw it all. I can’t forget the fear in his eyes. I don’t want to say more than this. I hate to remember.
Meanwhile, my children were taken away. My maternal instincts were charged up. They had taken away my husband; I would not let them take the fruits of our love, too. I’d be dead without them. But the journey was too risky to make then, and I ended up in Yola, the state capital, for six months, with haunting visions of my children’s struggles. Around May of 2014, I heard that the soldiers had recaptured Gworza. I went to look for my children, but I couldn’t get a vehicle to take me to Ngoshe, where I was told they were. So I trekked for a day. On the way, I saw soldiers and Boko Haram clash, which was no worse than what I’d already seen. I simply avoided them and took the ‘safe’ paths.
Refugee camp for christians.
I was captured when I reached Ngoshe. The capture pleased me, because in a way, I felt closer to my children. My mother-in-law was the first person I saw. As she excitedly screamed, my children showed up from behind her. I don’t think I can describe the joy I felt. Only God knows the depth of my gratitude. This was the first time in my life I consciously recognized God’s presence. But now, as we speak, I realize that he has always been there. I was happy that my mother-in-law didn’t ask me about her son. I don’t know how I would have told her about what happened. My children, while in captivity, were Islamized and renamed. Daniel became Musa; Salome became Yagana.
After three days of planning, my attempt to escape failed. My children were taken away, and I was brought to a detention camp. For two weeks, my hands were bound behind my neck, and my feet were tied together. I was tortured with all sorts of objects, and they didn’t stop until they drew blood. They beat me very badly, but I kept my faith. When my detention mate died, I prayed fearfully in my language. It turned out that a guard spoke that same language; he was from my tribe; eventually, at his urging, I was freed after three months from the detention camp and let back into the larger camp.
Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme of Maiduguri, Nigeria.
My mother-in-law nursed me back to health. It’s been four years since my release, and I still don’t have the full use of my hands. Since I came here, the Church has helped me in my treatment. I was brought to St. Patrick’s Cathedral from Maiduguri Specialist Hospital, and a cathedral administrator took me to the private hospital, where I underwent physiotherapy for six months. After three years, on March 2, 2017, I was reunited with my children in Maiduguri. After a clash with Boko Haram in Ngoshe, the soldiers had rescued them. Now that I am back with my children and mother-in-law, my joy knows no bounds. But my husband’s death—having to watch it—will haunt me forever.
In 2017, Aid to the Church in Need visited the Diocese of Maiduguri and met Catherine and many other widows and orphans victims of the atrocities of Boko Haram. The foundation supported the pastoral work of the Church in Nigeria with projects totaling more than $1.6M in 2017. These included support for the care widows and orphans, victims of Boko Haram, as well the reconstruction of the cathedral and the minor seminary in the Diocese of Maiduguri, destroyed by the terrorists.
A bad day for Selma. Today, the Syrian mother of three children had to watch her oldest son leave for Lebanon. “My son had to go because of the difficulties. It was hard to say goodbye,” she says, fighting back tears as she washes a few coffee cups. “I don’t know when I will see him again. I was only able to give him some money for the trip. Not even something to eat. He has to walk the last leg. I will send him his clothes later.” Her story mirrors the current situation of many Christians in Syria.
The family fled when the crisis began in 2011 and terrorists descended upon the homes of Christians in Idlib. “They hammered against the doors to let us know that we had to leave because they wanted the houses. Who? We had never seen them before. They shot their guns into the air to frighten the people. Everyone packed up their belongings and left.” Since then, the family has been living with Selma’s mother Johaina in the Valley of the Christians in western Syria. When Selma’s husband died in a car accident three years ago, from one day to the next, the family had lost its breadwinner and its entire savings. Her son, 16 years old at the time, suddenly had to support the family by himself.
By the light of a battery-operated lamp, Selma talks about her other two children, her son Elian (11) and her daughter Marita (16). “Elian thinks like a mature man because he is now working from eight in the morning until six o’clock at night and no longer goes to school. He has developed eczema from carrying wood and furniture,” she says with concern. However, the widow is even more worried about Marita. “She has already received a lot of marriage proposals because she is so beautiful. However, she looks older than she actually is. To save money she walks to school, even when it is raining. But a young man from outside of the valley recently tried to pick her up.” Selma is proud of her daughter. “She took first place in a regional Olympics for chemistry and mathematics. But we did not have the money to travel to Homs for her to take part in the national competition.”
View of Choukri Al Kouwatli, one of the main avenues in Homs (Syria), where – despite the fact that the country is still at war – one can see the reconstruction of some flats together with others in ruins in a block of buildings.
When her daughter Marita suffered burns on her leg and no one could help Selma pay for her treatment and medicine, she turned to the centre of the Catholic Maronite Church in Marmarita, which is supported by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). She met Majd Jalhoum (29) and her brother Elie (31) there, who have spent the last seven years working together with a team of young members of the Catholic Maronite Church to help the many refugees in the Valley of the Christians. She has received food packages from them and some money for the rent. “Without them we would have nothing to eat. I used to go shopping at different markets all the time to borrow money from the various merchants. Now that I have money, I first have to pay them back.” Her faith is very important to the widow. “If God, the Virgin Mary and Elie – from the centre – had not been there, I would no longer be alive.” Selma’s most heartfelt wish is to have work and a house of her own again…but not in Idlib. Even if peace were to return, she does not want go back. “My house no longer exists. None of my Christian neighbours want to return.”
Selma’s story mirrors the circumstances of many Christians in Syria, as studies carried out by ACN on the situation of the Christians have shown. With the help of the dioceses, a small team is contacting parishes all across Syria to find out exactly how many parish members have stayed and how many have fled, were abducted or murdered. They are also cataloguing the church property that has been damaged or destroyed. Even if the results have not been published yet, alarming trends have surfaced. For example, a large number of young Christian men have just left the country so that they do not (or no longer) have to fight in the war. It is difficult to return; a legal provision dating back to before the war stipulates that they may only officially return after four years and after paying about 7,000 euros. For the many young men who are working for a pittance in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, this is a prohibitive amount. One concern with regard to the Christian presence in the country is that the women who remain will in the meantime marry Muslims…which inevitably means that the children will not be baptised.
Moreover, just like Selma, a number of refugees no longer want to return – irrespective of whether they stayed in the country or fled to other countries. Many lost all of their belongings during the war. Others have rebuilt their lives somewhere else and are not exactly thrilled by the prospect of having to face the uncertainty of a new job and a new flat in a country that has largely been destroyed and in which unemployment is rampant. And then there is the deep mistrust towards former Muslim neighbours who in some places were involved in the capture and occupation by extremists. As a result, only a very small community of faith remains at historically Christian places – and that although the Church has been established there since the first century A.D. It is questionable whether time will be able to heal these wounds.
Reznan Berberaska (22) on the balcony of her family’s home on the former front in Homs. It was renovated within eight months, a minor miracle when you see the destruction on the street from the balcony.
Sign of hope
Then again, Christians are coming back to the most unexpected places. Such as the family of Reznan Berberaska (22) from Homs. Their house is located at the former war front. It was renovated within eight months, a small miracle when you look down from the balcony of the house over the destruction on the street. Reznan, who would like to become a pharmacist, points to the plastic chairs and the full clothesline that are visible farther down the street through the large holes in the façade. “They are also busy rebuilding there.” The Church in Syria is hoping to see a reversal similar to that which occurred on the Nineveh Plains in Iraq. Prior to the withdrawal of the so-called Islamic State, only 4% of the local refugees wanted to return home. Now, two years later, 45% of the 12 000 houses that were destroyed have been rebuilt and the families have in fact come back. For this reason, a committee of the largest communities of faith in Homs signed an agreement with ACN last week for the reconstruction of several hundreds of houses. With a lot of prayers and help from outside of the country, the dream of Reznan of Homs may come true: “That the street is restored to what it used to be.” However, in view of the migration of Christians in Syria on the one hand and the necessary rebuilding of houses and churches on the other hand, the prospects are not good. Syria will never return to that which it once was, it will never be the same country.
With a missionary nature, the Sisters of the Institute Servants of the Lord and the Virgen of Matará are committed to the proclamation of the Gospel and the witness of Christ through the evangelization of the culture. They are present in 31 countries around the world. In Albania, the Sisters run a residency for young women, a home for the disabled and a parish convent. ACN supports their work.
Around the world, people joined ACN’s campaign for religious freedom. From Chile to Australia – through Brazil, Mexico, USA, Canada, Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, UK, Belgium, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Malta, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Philippines – cathedrals, churches, schools, colleges, universities, public buildings were illuminated red in memory of the blood of the martyrs shed because of religious persecution. People made a stand for faith and freedom, wearing red, praying and taking a moment of the day to reflect on the sad situation of lack of religious freedom in many countries of the world. #ReligiousPersecution #ReligiousFreedom
In the region of Marmarita the local Catholic Church is working together with the international Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) to support the refugee families and help them return to their homes
Ghassan Abboud and his wife Maha Sanna used to live in Homs with their two sons, Joseph and Michael. But exactly five years and seven months ago their lives changed completely, on a day that will be forever burnt in their memories. “We were at home”, Maha recalls. “My son Michael was standing quietly in the sitting room, when we suddenly heard the sound of breaking glass. When we went to see what had happened, we found Michael lying prostrate on the ground. A stray bullet had gone through the window and straight through his head. He died instantly.”
The civil war in Syria had erupted in the city of Homs just a few months earlier, and the initial outbreaks of urban warfare had unleashed bloody bombings and sniper attacks throughout the city. The street protests calling for an end to the regime of President Bashar al Assad had prompted a hardline response and fierce political repression. Everything dissolved into a civil war which led to a division within the army and within society and to the appearance of numerous armed groups of a jihadist stamp. As of today, the death toll stands at around 500,000 people, and one of these victims was the youngest son of the Abboud family.
Hassan Abboud with his wife Maha Sanna and son Josef Abboud.
“Michael was a wonderful boy. He worked as a TV film producer and dreamt of becoming a film director one day”, his mother explains, sadly, yet with a tinge of pride. Following his death, and due to the outbreak of still worse fighting within the city, the family decided to leave. “We were planning to leave the country, but we were refused a visa. We didn’t have much money and so we gave up on the attempt. Instead, we came here to the Valley of the Christians”, Ghassan explains.
All these years the Abboud family have lived in a small rented house in the village of Almishtaya, one of the 20 or more villages that make up this region, which was known before the war as a local holiday destination for the people of Homs. Many of them used to come here from the city to enjoy the peace of its valleys and mountains. Maha explains that their economic situation was not good enough to be able to afford a rented home in another town where there was no fighting, but at the same time they couldn’t go on living in Homs, surrounded by so much violence. “Ever since we arrived here, we have been supported by the priests and the young people of the Saint Peter’s Centre in Marmarita”, she tells us. “Without their help to pay for this house, for food and the medication I need for my heart, I don’t know where we would be today.”
Her husband and her other son Joseph both lost their jobs when they left Homs. In the Valley of the Christians they managed to find work for a few months, but the economic situation of the country and the saturation of the refugees has caused the work to dry up, and the wages are in any case very poor. “I am self-employed”, Ghassan explains. “But now I’ve stopped working. I am over 60 now, but I don’t get any pension.” His son Joseph does have work, as an electrician, “but the employment situation here is very unstable. I would like to return to Homs and earn my living there”, he tells us.
The Abboud family is one of over 2000 families who are receiving monthly subsistence aid distributed by the local Church, thanks to the financial support of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Many of these families have recently expressed their intention to return to their former homes as soon as possible, and as soon as they can be rebuilt. “I am almost certain that we will be able to return soon”, Ghassan tells us. “We were able to return to Homs and see the state of our house. Although it is partially damaged, it is not that bad. But nevertheless it is still difficult to live in Homs, with all the ruin caused by the catastrophe and the many shortages of electricity and water, but nevertheless it’s always better to be in your own home rather than living here as refugees. Besides, having to pay rent is also very costly”, he acknowledges.
With this hopeful message about their return, Ghassan, Maha and Joseph say goodbye to the small visiting group from ACN who have travelled to Syria to learn about the situation of the refugee families and their needs. “What gives us hope is the support we receive from Iliash, the young man in charge of coordinating the aid at the Saint Peter’s Centre. The priests and the Catholic Church are supporting us in every way. Theirs is the only help we receive; it is a testimony to their generosity, and it is all the more precious to us, given that we are not Catholics, but Orthodox Christians”, Maha explains.
“My faith is what gives me the strength to continue, despite so much suffering. You tell us that many people in Europe and other countries feel strengthened in their faith when they hear about our story and our perseverance in the face of our difficulties. I can only say ‘Alhamdulillah’ (God be praised! in Arabic)”, Ghassan remarks. And as they lean over the balcony of their home and wave goodbye, they warmly add: “Shukran ktir ktir (Many, many thanks!)”