The conversion of St. Paul, according to Scripture, took place on the road to Damascus, now one of the largest cities in Syria.
One of the Catholic church’s most prominent saints also is said to have established several churches in Asia Minor and Christianity was brought to Iraq in the 1st century A.D. by the Apostles Thomas and Thaddaeus.
It’s fitting, therefore, that the church of St. Paul the Apostle in Burlington has taken the initiative in welcoming a family of refugees from Iraq, where Christians are being persecuted on a daily basis by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group, which has become more feared than Al Quaeda.
The Mardo family left Iraq because of the volatile political climate, arrived in Burlington on July 8 and is living in a townhouse rented for them with the help of a special collection taken up at St. Paul’s.
Father Wisham currently is looking for work of any kind while his wife Asmaham looks after their four children Linda, 9, Danny, 8, Dana, 6, and David, 3.
Wisam’s father Hiknat was shot and killed by rebels at the age of 66 in May of 2000. He was delivering food to the needy when his car was stop by the insurgents.
The Mardos had the roof of their home pelted with bullets during fighting between ethnic groups and there were explosions near the end of their street.
In addition, if they had stayed, Asmaham would have had to comply with a new law requiring even non-Muslim women to be completely covered from head to toe with their faces covered. While living in Iraq, Wisham worked as a sort of servant, making sure the manager of a bank had his coffee and tea regularly. In his spare time, he used to take children to the Chaldean church to prepare them for their first Holy Communion.
As part of his compulsory military service, he was a member of the Second Armed Cavalry Regiment of the Iraq Civil Defence Corps. Later, after the Americans arrived, he had a two-year contract as an infantryman with the U.S. Army.
The family first left for nearby Lebanon, where they lived for five years and two of the children learned the French language in school.
Mardo said that when he was alive Saddam Hussein was tolerant of Christians since he viewed them as good people who didn’t represent any threat to him. But in July ISIS terrorists destroyed churches, monasteries and statues and smashed the tombstone of the biblical prophet Jonah. The Sunni Muslim extremists have persecuted, raped and killed thousands of Christians.
Father Ed Henhoeffer, pastor at St. Paul’s, said the parish tapped into the relatively new Blended Visas Referred Program in which the government and the sponsoring organization split the costs of getting immigrant families established.
“It’s a great act of Christian witness and solidarity,” he said. “These people are seeking a better home and to escape tribulation and violence.”
Shortly after the family got settled in their new home, six parishioners from St. Paul’s visited the house unannounced to throw a surprise birthday party for three-year-old David. Father Henhoeffer and a group of parishioners also took the family on a daytrip to Centre Island in Toronto.
Fawzia Younan, an Assyrian Christian who was born in Baghdad, left her native land 35 years ago during another war, that one between Iran and Iraq, and now lives with her family in Waterdown.
Because she was only 17, she was not allowed to leave the country unless accompanied by her father and mother. But she took a bus to Jordan on her own, then a train through Turkey to Bulgaria, where she bought a visa for $800 (U.S.). She then took another train to Greece, where she reunited with her sisters who had been there for some time.
Another sister sponsored here to come to Canada and she flew here in 1981.
Younan recalls vividly the bombing of Baghdad, the wail of sirens and watching a burning Iranian aircraft crash to the ground.
“That night it was like fireworks,” she said. “I hope my kids never experience that.”
Three of her distant cousins actually were hanged because they were pushing hard to have the Assyrian culture better recognized.
“It’s not our fault we are Christians,” she said. “We believe in Jesus.
“When I was in school, Christians and Muslims were friends,” she said. “
Mardo said life became better after the Americans came to Iraq.
“It made it much safer and more jobs were created,” he said. “Everybody started working.”
However, President Barack Obama has pulled most of the U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Written by: Denis Gibbons