Franciscan launches new teaching mission in Iraq

Photo provided by Alex Mckenna

Margaret Peppiatt
Staff Writer

When most students hear about mission trips, they probably think of locations like Nicaragua or Haiti. Iraq might not be the first place that comes to mind, but Franciscan University of Steubenville now offers a mission to the Middle Eastern country.

Alex McKenna, president of student government, helped pioneer the program that gives students the opportunity to teach in Iraq.

“This is not a classic mission, if any mission can be considered classic,” said McKenna.

McKenna spent six weeks over the summer teaching at Mar Qardakh, a Catholic school in Erbil. He taught religion to 150 children across eight grades.

After a full day of instructing four to six classes from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., McKenna spent the evenings practicing Arabic, hanging out with friends or visiting local churches. He lived in an apartment complex with other Christian teachers.

“It was a completely new experience,” said McKenna. “I had no idea what the safety level was going to be. I found it to be extremely safe. The foreigners are generally very revered and respected in Iraq, so it wasn’t uncommon that people would be very welcoming because of that.”

From a spiritual perspective, McKenna said, “The love of the people, the fire of the people for the faith was so striking and gave me a new appreciation for Catholicism, a new appreciation for what it meant to live that I did not have going over there.”

The issue of the language barrier was better than he expected. The children McKenna worked with spoke English well, as did most educated adults.

One of the greatest difficulties was learning how to navigate the culture and figuring out “what was taboo and what was not, and what was considered polite and what was impolite,” McKenna said.

“I love Iraq and I can’t wait to go back,” said McKenna.

The proposal to expand the Iraq teaching mission to other students originated with Daniel Kempton, vice president of student affairs.

McKenna considered the idea while in Iraq. After returning from his trip, he spoke to Rhett Young, director of missionary outreach. Kempton had previously approached Young about the mission.

McKenna encourages students to participate and help fellow Iraqi Christians who are not suffering financially but lack assistance in other areas.

“They are hurting in terms of (the lack of care) about Iraq,” said McKenna. “Nobody thinks about Iraq as a place with Christians just like you or (me), Catholics just like you or (me), who deserve love and respect and more importantly deserve the educational materials and the nursing care to take them to the next level and to be the leaders for the Chaldean Church.”

As with any mission trip, students should expect to face challenges in Iraq, particularly the heat, getting enough sleep and conversing with the average person across a language barrier.

Living in Iraq might also call into question “the weird psychological element of being in a nation that historically every American thinks of as a third-world, terrorist state and realizing that it’s not, at least where we were,” said McKenna.

Despite the obstacles, McKenna said, “I can without a doubt say that I learned more and got more out of my experience in Iraq than I gave.”

McKenna said that the Iraq teaching mission has just three requirements: a love for Jesus, a willingness to go into a new environment with fresh eyes and ready to learn, and some grit.

Students who are interested in the Iraq teaching mission should contact the missionary outreach team or speak to McKenna.