From left, Gorgis “Mr. George,” Samira, Liza, Lilya and Hans Matani are Assyrian immigrants from Iraq seeking asylum in the United States. The federal government has denied their request so the family faces deportation. Photo by: Courtesy photo
In 2014, as ISIS fighters moved dangerously near their small Iraqi village 20 miles outside of Mosul, Gorgis Matani and his family saw a small window of opportunity and plunged through it. For a brief period, the Iraqi government issued temporary visitor visas and Gorgis, a school teacher, his wife, Samira, and their three adult children remaining in Iraq secured visas and headed to Columbus, where their eldest son lived with his American wife, Brittany Morgan Matani.
It was the beginning of a quiet, normal life, the family thought.
“In America, when you get up in the morning and go to work, you never think about whether someone is going to shoot you on the street,” said Brittany’s husband, who asked that his first name not be used because he fears it would endanger his family. “When you go to church, you don’t think about whether the church will be bombed. In Iraq, those are things you think about every day.”
In Columbus, surrounded and supported by their daughter-in-law’s family, Gorgis — Mr. George, as he is known here — and Samira settled into quiet retirement while daughter Lilya and son Hans, both college-educated, landed jobs at Walmart. Daughter Liza, a medical doctor back home, is working on earning certifications that will allow her to practice medicine in the U.S.
They are fitting in nicely, said Brittany’s mom, Valerie Sheffield.
“You would never know they have nothing because they are so generous and never complain,” Sheffield said. “They are so grateful to be here. They’re just incredibly gentle, humble people.”
Now, they may have to return to their war-torn homeland.
The family had applied for asylum on religious grounds. As Assyrian Christians, they found themselves particularly vulnerable. Since the regime change in Iraq, the Christian population, including the Assyrians, has dropped from 1.3 million to as few as 200,000 over the past 20 years, as extremists vent their anger at the West on Christians — Christianity being perceived as a Western religion in much of the Middle East.
The Matanis had escaped the gunfire and the bombs on Iraq.
But a bombshell of another kind arrived in the mail about a month ago.
It said that their application for asylum had been refused.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Brittany said. “They had been going through the process — 773 days as of Monday — and there wasn’t anything to make us think this would happen. But the letter said they had not provided enough proof that they had been persecuted in Iraq. We were all stunned.”
Brittany and her husband had relocated to Leesburg, Virginia, by the time the letter arrived. Sunday, they made a 16-hour drive to New Orleans for a hearing on the family’s status.
Because the family arrived on valid visas, they applied for asylum rather than refugees. Asylum may be granted to people who are already in the United States and are unable or unwilling to return their home country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website. Applicants have one year to apply for asylum after arriving in the U.S.
Raising funds for defense
A final decision will be made on Aug. 23 regarding the Matanis, but for the family another big obstacle looms.
“We have to hire an immigration attorney,” Brittany said. “In 10 days, we have to have $10,000 for the attorney. Up until now, my husband and I — my whole family, really — have been supporting them, but we’re reached the point where we just don’t have that money available. The family needs help.”
Brittany estimated the total cost of attorney fees and travel would be about $25,000. She opened a GoFundMe account on May 6 that has generated $1,380. Brittany said others have chosen to send checks directly to her, avoiding the fees the crowd-funding site collects.
In Columbus, friends have been quick to respond, Sheffield said.
“People have been wonderful,” she said. “So many people have given money and those who couldn’t are praying.”
Brittany’s husband said the idea of his family being forced to return to Iraq is unimaginable.
“It’s so corrupt and so much bad is happening there,” he said. “Here, we complain about the silliest things. But what if your freedom was being taken away? How often do we even think about that? For my family, it’s a real possibility.
“For my family, America is the final refuge, the city on the hill, the light that shines,” he added.
Contributions for the family can be made at https://www.gofundme.com/keep-the-martanis-in-america or mailed to Brittany Matani at 13543 Elysian Drive, Leesburg, VA. 20176.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.