Ghanem Yadago talks with Dominican Sister Nizak Matty in his new living quarters at Ananas Hall, Erbil. (photo: Don Duncan)
Waheeda Yadago and her eldest son, Wissam, prepare for dinner at the Martha Schmouny camp in Erbil. (photo: Don Duncan)
As Ghanem Yadago, his wife Waheeda and their two sons Wissam and Fadi were fleeing their home in northern Iraq, Ghanem found he had a steady calm to support and encourage his wife to continue the passage out of danger. This was in part because Ghanem could not see the danger and chaos enveloping his family as they fled. He is blind.
He lost his sight when he took shrapnel 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 Nineveh Plain 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 living in the tent for a number of weeks, Ghanem and his family were offered living space in a facility repurposed as a refuge for the sick and disabled by the Syriac Catholic Church. The hall has dozens of rooms attended to by medical personnel. CNEWA has donated wheelchairs, along with three showers adapted for the disabled.
Ghanem moved into the facility, but his family remained in the camp to benefit from the food and medical aid they needed there. For now, the family lives apart: Waheeda makes the trip from the camp to Ananas Hall three times a day, and remains with her husband at night.
“I get physically tired from coming and going so much, and I myself have developed health problems,” Waheeda says with a sigh.
She draws some paper slips from her bag: electrocardiogram scans performed 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 medication.
With the E.C.G. scans, several flattened packets fall from her bag: heart medicine for her and Ghanem. He has a pre-existing heart condition, one that is acute and needs to be managed.
“When we arrived, we bought all of the medicine he needed until some organizations came and decided to help us,” Waheeda explains. “But not all the medicines are provided, so we still have to buy some. Some of the medicines are so expensive, we can’t afford to buy them.”
While the family is temporarily separated again and Waheeda makes her back-and-forth journeys between the camp and her husband’s shelter, Ghanem busies himself with getting the new family living space ready for his family.
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 elderly person and their family. In his family’s assigned living space, Ghanem has arranged two beds and has stacked foam mattresses. On the carpet “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 on her in this way throughout the day, but, he says, he feels 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, the ice, everything that might be distributed. She has to take care of all that I would normally do, by herself.”
Back at Martha Schmouny camp, 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 aid organizations.
“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 United States.
While many displaced families are now beginning to consider emigration as the only permanent solution, 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 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 help easily and quickly.”
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.