Editor’s note: Photojournalist Don Duncan just returned from Erbil, Iraq, where he is reporting on refugees there for ONE magazine. Among those he met: the Yadago family. He profiles them below. We will have much more in the Autumn edition of the magazine, coming soon.
While Ghanem Yadago, his wife Waheeda and his two sons Wissam and Fadi were fleeing their home in northern Iraq under ISIS gunfire, Ghanem found he had a steady calm and was able to support and encourage hiswife to continue the passage out of danger. This is in part because Ghanem could not see the danger and chaos that his family could see around them as they fled: He is blind.
He lost his sight due to shrapnel in a battle during the Iran-Iraq war and since then he has been completely dependent on his wife and children. Their displacement from their hometown of Tel Usquf in the plain of Niniveh in northern Iraq occurred on 5 August. While the experience of displacement has turned the entire family’s life upside-down, Ghanem was hit especially hard.
“Back in our home, I could manage by myself because I knew the house intimately,” he says. “I didn’t need anyone to help me go to the bathroom, to shave, to get around. However, on moving to the tent [in the yard of St. Joseph’s Church, Erbil], it was very difficult for me. It was a new place for me, unfamiliar. I had to ask people’s help for everything.”
After a number of weeks living in the tent, Ghanem and his family were offered living space in a new facility for the sick and elderly that was set up by the Assyrian Church in Ananas Hall, normally a social function room in Erbil that has been re-purposed as a refuge for the sick and disabled. The hall has dozens of living quarters attended to by medical personnel. CNEWA donated wheelchairs, along with three showers adapted to the disabled.
Ghanem moved, but his family remained in the camp to benefit from the food and medical aid they needed there. For now, the family lives apart from him. Waheeda, his wife, makes the trip from the camp to Ananas Hall three times a day and stays with Ghanem there at night.
“I came here to the camp this morning, because I had slept at the hall last night,” Waheeda explains in her tent in Martha Schmouny camp. “I then cooked and fed my sons and then I went to check on Ghanem. I then came back to help my sons and later, I will return to the hall to spend the night with Ghanem.”
“I get physically tired from coming and going so much, and I myself have developed health problems,” she adds with a sigh.
Waheeda draws some paper slips from her bag: ECG scans she has had done in Erbil since her arrival. Her doctor believes she has developed heart problems from the shock and trauma of displacement. Worried about a possible heart attack, the doctor has put her on heart medication.
With the ECG scans, several flattened medicine packets fall from her bag: they are medicine for both her heart and Ghanem’s. He also has a pre-existing heart condition, one that is acute and needs to be managed.
“In the beginning, when we arrived, we used to buy all of the medicine he needed until some organizations came and decided to help us and to provide medicines to us,” Waheeda explains, “but not all the medicines are provided so we still have to buy some and some of the medicines are so expensive, we can’t afford to buy them.”
While the family is temporarily separated again and Waheeda does her back-and-forth journeys between the camp and Ananas Hall, Ghanem busies himself with getting the new family living space ready for his family to move into.
The walls have been made from carpeting nailed to wooden frames and the hall is divided into numerous sections, each of which will serve as a living space for each sick or old person and their family. In his family’s assigned living space, Ghanem has arranged two beds and has stacked foam mattresses. On the carpeted “wall” hang a few towels. There is a folded pile of clothes on the floor.
Sitting on one of the beds, Ghanem takes out a mobile phone and carefully fingers in each digit of his wife’s number. He checks in on her this way, throughout the day, but, he says, he does feel bad about the extra pressure his disability has put on her during their displacement.
“It is difficult for my wife,” he says. “She is the one who has to get the food supplements, the ice, and everything that might be distributed. She has to take care of all that I would normally do, herself.”
Back at Martha Schmouny camp in Erbil, Waheeda and her eldest son, Wissam, are preparing for dinner. She washes some pots and pans under a tap not far from the tent and he heads off to the camp’s food distribution area to see what he can find. With Ghanem’s heart condition, the family has had to pass up on much of the food that has been cooked and distributed to the displaced Christians of the camp by charities and NGOs.
“Ghanem has a special diet. He can’t eat meat, only chicken. He can’t eat fat,” Waheeda explains. “So, often, we cannot eat what is provided for us.”
The family’s youngest, Fadi, 15, is one of the many Christian teenagers whose studies have been put on hold by the ISIS violence and their subsequent displacement from Tel Usquf.
The Yadagos also have three daughters but they are all married and living abroad, one in Australia and two in the US.
While many displaced families are now beginning to seriously consider emigration as the only real solution moving forward, the Yadago family is keen on staying put.
“Given the fact that Ghanem is sick and I have a son who is 15 and is still at school, we are not so interested in going back to Tel Usquf and staying there,” Waheeda says. “We might return for a while but we have realized that we would prefer to stay in Erbil. We’d like to stay close to doctors so that if anything happens to Ghanem, we can find doctors easily and quickly.”
Please keep the Yadagos and families like them in your prayers. Thank you!