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Malaak’s short life painted on his tunic. In Zarqa, amidst Christian refugees, the dream of Don Orione is revived

In the "Saint Joseph” Centre in Zarqa, the Orione Fathers welcome and help Iraqi and Syrian refugees with the support of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. It’s a continual coming and going of Christian and non-Christian families that escaped Daesh’s massacre after the invasion of Mosul and of the Nineveh Plains. They are waiting for a visa for Australia, the US or Canada. None of them intend to return to Syria or Iraq. None of them want to convert to Islam. The story of the young Malaak, whose name means “angel”, drowned with her family while trying to cross the waters separating Turkey from Greece. Her short life was portrayed on her tunic in the fresco painted by an Iraqi refugee in the parish church "Mary Queen of Peace.” The prayer of the Iraqi parish priest Fr Hani: "no more angels should die."

A life embroidered on a small patch of coloured fabric, as small as the years of her life. Five. Her name was Malaak, which means “Angel.” She came from Qaraqosh, the largest Christian village in the Nineveh Plains. She fled, held in the arms of her parents with her three brothers, from the throat-cutters of the Islamic State after the invasion of Mosul (June 10-17 2014). Her story was told by Iraqi Father Hani Al-Jameel, parish priest in the “Mary Queen of Peace” church in Zarqa (Jordan), member of the Don Orione congregation. He too comes from Qaraqosh. Since the outbreak of the war in Syria and Iraq the church and the adjoining “Saint Joseph” centre became shelters for many refugee families, also thanks to the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), that finances several solidarity projects locally with 8×1000 tax-deduction funds.  Malaak was here before undertaking her last journey that was supposed to bring her from Turkey to Greece, which she never reached. The barge that was carrying her and her family capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. After having escaped the fury of Daesh she died on the route believed to lead her and her family to safety. Nobody survived.

Malaak’s tunic. Her face, her large, green-blue eyes framed under her red bangs, is depicted in the large fresco behind the altar of the church of Fr Hani, along with those of children from other Countries. “It was Don Orione’s dream – the parish told a group of journalists members of FISC – the Federation representing diocesan weeklies -, who travelled to Zarqa under the Fisc-8×1000 “Without borders” program –shared by the Saint when he was a young seminarian. Faced with the risk of having to shut down his oratory in Tortona, Don Orione prayed to the Holy Virgin not to abandon him, to be saved with his young orphans. That same night, the Holy Virgin appeared in his dream with a blue mantle extending over the multi-coloured youths. Mary’s protection, yesterday as today.” Father Hani is sure: young Malaak now rests under Mary’s mantle. “The fresco was painted by an Iraqi refugee from Mosul – the parish priest recalled -. While finishing his painting he was informed that his visa-request for Australia had been accepted. Before leaving for Sidney, he decided to complete the fresco depicting the story of young Malaak on the coloured tunic.”

The small garment illustrates at the bottom the time of joy, playing with her young friends in Qaraqosh, the church illuminated by sunlight. Further above is depicted the arrival of Daesh, the cross of the Church torn down and corpses of those murdered on the ground. A row of flowers separates this image from the illustration of the flight on a barge packed with refugees and finally, at the level of the heart, the image of a small angel that rises to the skies to embrace the Cross of martyrdom. Young Malaak is holding a palm in her hands, peace and martyrdom, represented by the same symbol.

A tragic destiny is shared by many Iraqis and Syrians, Christians and non-Christians alike. In Zarqa, Father Hani and his confreres of the Don Orione Foundation do their utmost to give them comfort and assistance – at least until the arrival of the longed-for expatriation visa for the US, Canada, and especially for Australia. None of them intend to return in Iraq or to Syria. In the Saint Joseph Centre recurs the motto “when someone knocks on your door don’t ask “who are you?” but “what do you need?”

There are two ways to respond to the persecution of Christians and of all those who oppose fundamentalists. These are: “charity and mercy”, the Iraqi priest said with a smile.

In the meantime school pupils gather outside the centre: 580 boys and girls, only 120 of whom are Christians. Among them there are also Iraqi refugee children. CEI and the Orione fathers are carrying out an education and development program addressed to them, which includes mechanics and carpentry workshops along with catering courses. The kitchen of the school is used also by 9 families of Iraqi refugees hosted at the Centre. They spend their time waiting for a visa that seems a mirage. It’s the case of Majeed Al Janaf and Nisreen Zaki, husband and wife from Qaraqosh. Before Daesh’s arrival they led a peaceful life. “I lived on my television repairs job. Then came the threats to convert to Islam.

When I fled I renounced everything except my faith.

None of the 150 thousand Christians that fled in those days have converted. I’m hoping to emigrate with my family and I hope that my children will manage to overcome the tragic memories of Daesh and the psychological problems they unfortunately have now.” A few steps away, Ranna Sabah Shema, a young mother from Mosul, nods sympathetically. Seated on the bed of her small room, with her son in her arms, she doesn’t want to remember those days and inveighs against Daesh. Like all those hosted at the Zarqa Centre, also Ranna hopes she will leave. Father Hani looks at them and says: “we pray that the celestial mantle of the Holy Virgin will descend over all the people hosted in our Centre, as in Don Orione’s dream, that they may find security and a better future. Nobody should mourn the loss of an Angel.”

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