Iraqi immigrant mother holds to faith, heritage in U.S.

Maureen Antwan is pictured with her sons, Anthony, left, and Kris, at Mar Abraham Chaldean Catholic Church in Scottsdale, Ariz., March 26. Kris was 4 when the family fled Iraq because of war and persecution. Anthony was born in Jordan, where the family first sought refuge. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

PHOENIX (CNS) — Chaldean immigrant Maureen Antwan wants two things for her children — for them to keep the faith and do well in school.

“To just be with the church, that’s the first thing,” she said. “The second thing, I hope they will study and get good grades.”

Although she has doubts about raising her children in the United States, none matches the fears she had before leaving Iraq 13 years ago.

The family was “scared for everything, even (our) religion,” she said of life in Iraq. “I don’t like for my kids to be born or live in a country where they don’t have a safe place.”

Christians began fleeing Iraq in great numbers following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. War and persecution drove an estimated 1 million from the country.

Maureen Antwan left Iraq in 2004 with her husband, Luay, and their then-4-year-old son. They spent a few years in Jordan, where Maureen gave birth to her second son, Anthony. In 2008, the family settled in the U.S.

They live in the Phoenix area and are among an estimate 300,000-400,000 Chaldeans in the U.S. They attend Holy Family Mission of the Mar Abraham Chaldean Catholic community.

Antwan said their Christian community in Iraq was small, simple and somewhat confined. Fear of violence kept people close to home.

U.S. communities are larger and more diverse.

“Here everything is open. (The kids) have a lot of freedom,” the mother told Catholic News Service, adding that she worries about outside influences on her sons.

She’s heard others ask her children, “Why do you believe in God?” She said she has to help them hold strong to their creed so others won’t “take my kids to their way” of thinking.

“We are Catholic, we need to do everything like Jesus (has) given it to us.”

Maureen said her boys never go to sleep without praying. And the family sings religious songs together in the language of the Chaldeans, a form of Aramaic.

“Like every Chaldean living in America, we’re going to the church a lot,” she said.

Although he enjoys driving, video games and hanging out with friends, 17-year-old Kris also is involved at church — teaching first Communion class and singing in the church choir with his mom.

He sees many possibilities here and wishes his mother would not worry so much about his future.

“My dream right now is to become a surgeon,” he said. “I have more opportunities here than I would have had in Iraq.”

He is quick to point out that he is steadfast in his beliefs and values.

“I tell my mom not to worry, because I know what to believe. I know what to do. I know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Asked if she ever would consider taking her children back to Iraq, Antwan quickly responded, “No.”

She has watched from afar Iraqi Christians being persecuted and killed for their faith.

“Everyone suffers from what has happened there,” she said. “We can only pray for them.”

She said they have no family left in Iraq. All have remade their lives in other countries.

Although Western influence surrounds them, Antwan is committed to raising her children with a strong Chaldean heritage and looks to the example of her own mother.

“I hope to be like my mom,” she said. “She did everything to make us happy. … She gives us a lot of love.”

Until this March, Antwan had been separated from her parents for 13 years. After fleeing Iraq, they had resettled in Australia.

“The good thing is my mom now came to America to live with me,” Antwan said. “That was a very beautiful gift for me for Mother’s Day.”