The Matti Family poses for a portrait in their refugee camp in Erbil. (photo: Don Duncan)
Fadia Matti shows her family album, containing memories of life in Qaraqosh before ISIS forced her family to flee. (photo: Don Duncan)
Mother of four and wife to Saaed, Fadia Matti reaches often for a roll of toilet paper that sits next to her. She uses the roll for tissues for her coughing or crying. Since arriving in the basement of an unfinished building in Erbil, she has developed respiratory problems, and a broken heart.
“I don’t believe what has happened,” she says of her family’s displacement from Qaraqosh in northern Iraq. She sits on one of the foam mattresses of the family’s new shelter, a small quadrant defined by plastic sheeting. “I cry once I remember [our home in] Qaraqosh: the churches, Communion, having parties and how we would sit with our neighbors and wait for Christmas and Easter. I am sitting here, but my mind is in Qaraqosh.”
Around Fadia sit her children: her daughter Inas, the eldest; 16-year-old son Nibras; 13-year-old daughter Aras; and Diana, 10, the youngest. Her husband Saaed comes into the enclosure, removes his boots and sits next to her.
Around them lie the accouterments familiar to refugees and displaced people the world over: piles of foam mattresses, plastic containers, basic gas stoves, plastic sheeting and imperishable foodstuffs.
The Mattis have ended up in perhaps the worst living conditions that Erbil has to offer for the arriving Christians. While others are housed in tents in the grounds of St Joseph’s Church or in temporary structures in social centers or on floors above where the Mattis now live, the Mattis’ own living space is in the poorly-lighted basement. The open sewer for the entire building is nearby. A constant smell of refuse and excrement lingers.
“My children get sick. I take them to the doctor. They get well. And then they get sick again,” says Fadia of the endless cycle of ill health that comes with living in such substandard conditions.
“I was comforting my kids, telling them that tomorrow would be better,” she says, “but now I am crying because I think of what we left behind: the churches especially, but also our memories, the childhoods of my children and everything we had.”
She reaches for the tissue roll, tears off a piece and dabs her wet cheeks.
More than three months have passed since that fateful night of 6 August, when the Mattis were having supper and then suddenly had to grab what they could and flee ahead of the unexpected advances of ISIS. They managed to bring only a few clothes and some vital documents with them.
“It took us 13 hours to travel from Qaraqosh to Erbil. It was so crowded. So many cars,” says Saaed Matti of the journey that normally takes an hour. “There was shooting and fighting while we were moving.”
The family arrived in Ain Kawa, to a packed St. Joseph’s Church, on the morning of 7 August. They spent 13 days there, sleeping in the churchyard without even a tent as shelter. Then they were moved to their current subterranean abode across the street from the church.
Almost all of what the Matti family has managed to collect around itself for a minimum of comfort — a fridge, an air cooler, some plastic containers — has come from church charities or NGO aid. The family has very few liquid assets and thus subsists on what aid is provided until their situation takes a turn for the better.
“We know nothing,” says Fadia. “We are just waiting for God’s mercy.”
While the Mattis wait, along with the other estimated 120,000 Christians who were displaced by ISIS, they are doing their best to stay healthy and in good spirits. The children get involved in group tasks around the building during the day.
“I volunteer to clean the basement with other young people,” says Inas Matti. “We try to keep the toilets and other places clean.”
As for Fadia and Saaed, they try their best to keep fear and anxiety from their children. Silently, though, they worry about what the future holds for them.
They do, however, have one solid source of comfort when the worry seems to become too much for them.
Buried deep under stacks of clothes, blankets, foam mattresses, cutlery and pots and pans, Fadia has hidden her most cherished possession that she managed to bring from their home in Qaraqosh: a photo album.
She excavates it — an endeavor that takes some minutes and much dishevelment of the living quarter’s order — and sits down quietly, smiling as she turns each page.
On one page, is a photo of Inas at a cousin’s wedding in Qaraqosh the year before; elsewhere, a picture of Diana and her cousins; a family portrait from a few years back; Fadia and her sisters wearing colorful dresses at a wedding years ago; studio portraits of each of the Matti children in new sets of clothes; Saaed playing the flute at a wedding party; a kindergarten graduation ceremony. Inas’ first Holy Communion. Easter. Christmas…
Sometimes Fadia’s mind is so deeply entrenched in the past, escaping the grim anxious present for the secure, halcyon days in Qaraqosh, that she simply forgets where she is. On giving instructions to her children to go do certain tasks, she frequently uses landmarks or references that relate to their house in Qaraqosh and not the basement dystopia where the family now lives.
“I love Qaraqosh. It’s my spirit. It’ss my soul,” says Fadia as she leafs through the album. “We hope we will go back and that Christianity will remain in Iraq. My hope is in God and in Our Lady. It is impossible that Christianity will disappear.”
A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.