Conversation: Donna Mulhearn, human shield and crusader for kids - Back to Iraq with ‘lots of love, hugs and care’
Exposing yourself to danger by making a stand for peace and non-violence as a human shield during the war in Iraq would be seen by most people as a pretty strong statement.
But it is not enough for Donna Mulhearn.
She is going back there to help bring peace to the lives of Iraqi children who have been orphaned and made homeless by the conflict.
The 34-year-old Catholic Sydney woman and other protesters made headlines with their presence as human shields in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
In some media accounts Donna came across as an idealist and naive peace activist; but she says her decision was based on her solid personal commitment to the ideal summed up in the peace prayer of St Francis of Assisi.
Now reports from other former human shields who have returned to Iraq say that Baghdad is now home to hundreds of street children who eke out a living by begging from soldiers, journalists and foreign aid workers.
They are vulnerable to criminal gangs – there are reports of kidnappings for prostitution and child slavery – and some of the older children are turning to drugs.
Some of the street kids were orphaned by the war; others are former residents of orphanages and care homes who wandered off amid the chaos.
Donna and another human shield are spearheading a project, Our House, to care for children who cannot be accommodated elsewhere.
The state-run orphanage system is stretched to the limit, and some of the aid agencies interested in filling the gaps are pulling out because of security fears.
Donna is one of a group of 10 committed volunteers, mostly former human shields, who are ready to open two safe houses as soon as possible.
“Many of us have felt compelled to return to Iraq,” says Donna, who has had experience working with homeless youth in Sydney and in her home town, Maitland.
“Throughout my time in Iraq, the two months I was there, children featured prominently.
“And the way they befriended us and loved us made a real impact on me.
“A couple of aid agencies were ready to go with a 24-hour shelter for children, but they’ve withdrawn. We now are armed with information from their research and assessment.
“We’ll be working with Iraqi partners who operate a state run orphanage (Dar Al Hanam). They’re going to help us to rent houses nearby so they can help us.
“We’re going to take initially the most vulnerable and at-risk children. Eventually, as we get more volunteers and support, we’ll open up more houses.
“We’re getting great assistance from ordinary Australians and it will be funded totally from donations by the public.
“All staff will be volunteers so 100 per cent of donations will go to the running of the houses.
“We’ve all made a commitment to be there long-term.
“Many of us have had experience in emergency situations and with street kids; others have got other skills to bring such as psychology and counselling.
“But the main thing I want to give is lots of love and hugs and care. If volunteers don’t have specific skills it will be their job just to play with the children and give them lots of attention throughout the day.
“We’re going to talk to the children and play with them every day, give them their own bed, their own things, and meals and get them to a stage where they can feel that they are safe.
“We’ll send them off to school and try to make their lives normal again. As we get more volunteers and more support we’ll open more houses.
“The long term goal will be to have them reunited with their extended families if that’s possible.
“It will be a community thing and our houses will fit in with the local community activities, the local mosque and church and so on. I know the local Iraqis will want to help and will embrace the children as well.”
Donna admits it is a huge undertaking but she is also buoyed by excitement and the positive response she is receiving from people.
Since returning to Sydney from Baghdad she has spent much of her time visiting schools, parishes and other groups to share her experience.
With the help of Catholic Mission, Donna has been invited to speak at many Catholic high schools, most recently Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College, North Sydney, and Domremy College, Five Dock.
She was also the guest speaker at St Mark’s Parish, Drummoyne, on Social Justice Sunday.
“While I was a human shield in Iraq I was doing lots of interviews and it was a high-profile thing at one stage,” she says, “but I really love speaking to school and Church groups because there I can share openly that my motivation for going to Iraq, and for doing everything that I do, is my spirituality.
“I’m inspired by the prayer of St Francis, I pray it every day.
That was what led me to Iraq.
“That’s what I share with the students, that it wasn’t a political act, and I didn’t consider myself a peace activist, just an ordinary person with a spirituality trying to follow my Christian beliefs and wanting to do that in an authentic way.
“When I heard the call for human shields I knew I had to go, it was a way to physically express my beliefs.”
Donna heard the call on the radio while she was in the middle of a solo round-the-world pilgrimage.
She left her job as a ministerial press secretary and planned to take a year out before making a career sea change.
“I’d been in a pretty high pressure, stressful job and I decided to leave that in order to focus on teaching Christian spirituality full time and Christian meditation, which was quite a dramatic leap,” she says.
“This was supposed to be my year of transition, it was a sabbatical almost. So I decided to go around the world and visit sacred sites of the world to explore the mystical traditions of the world’s faiths while learning more about my own (Christian one).
“I was in the middle of this when talk of the war started to brew. I was praying: ‘Lord make me an instrument of your peace’.
“And now I was crying out to God: ‘How am I to do that literally? What am I supposed to do?’
“Then I heard on the radio a call to join the human shields in Iraq and as soon as I heard it I felt almost a sense of relief and I said: ‘Thank you, God. This is my path’.
“Within two weeks I was there.”
Donna will devote up to 18 months to getting the Our House project up and running but expects to have some connection with it for the rest of her life.
Then she hopes to finish the pilgrimage she embarked on last year before returning to teach contemplative spirituality.
Donna is writing a book on her experience as a human shield in Iraq and will dedicate it to the memory of a girl, Aryan, whom she met dying in hospital of leukemia without any pain relief available – a result of the economic sanctions.
“She opened her eyes and looked straight at me, right into my eyes and I was powerless to save her,” says Donna. “I never felt so powerless or helpless in my life.
“I just put my hand on my heart and reached out to her family and said: ‘I’m sorry on behalf of the western world that I’m partly responsible for your daughter dying.’
“And it was one of the most profound, devastating moments of my life.
“They embraced me and then she looked at me and did the most amazing thing; she tried to smile at me. I could see the pain it was causing her because her mouth was full of dried blood and she looked at me as if to say: ‘Hey. It’s OK, don’t despair.’
“The fact that she gave me the courage to move on that day is something I’ll never forget.
“The children gave to me so much, so I feel like I need to give something back to them, but I also realise they will give me the healing that I need as well. The children there will show me the way.”
Donna is organising a fundraising dinner for Our House on Friday, November 14, at Riverview College before she leaves for Baghdad.