For Iraqi refugees, Valley a place of loss, hope

0102refugees01021.jpgJohn Faherty/The Arizona Republic
There are common elements in all refugee stories. They almost invariably include hardship and fear, courage and sacrifice. The happy stories – the ones we like to hear – then evolve into tales of perseverance and success
But not every refugee story includes a happy ending. Or at least not one you can see from the beginning.

In August, Sabah Matti and his wife, Widad Matee, boarded an airplane that would take them to Phoenix.

The Iraqi couple and their two daughters would start over in a country they had only dreamed about.

Two months later, he was dead.

Now, the family members are trying to begin a new life in a place that is entirely foreign to them while they deal with devastating personal loss.

Their story has given the family special significance in the small, close-knit Iraqi community, which is trying to help the family make it.

It will not be easy.

The girls are in new schools. Money is tight, and Widad, 38, who had never had a job other than taking care of her family, is employed for the first time in her life cleaning rooms at the Comfort Inn at 17th Avenue and Bell Road.

On a table in the corner of their apartment on Thunderbird Road in Phoenix there is a small shrine to Sabah with his picture next to a portrait of Jesus Christ.

“He was a very nice person,” Widad said of her husband, through a translator. “He was a hard worker. He took good care of his family. He left a very wide, empty space in my life.”

Becoming a refugee

Four years ago, Sabah and Widad decided they needed to leave Iraq when Sabah’s best friend was killed because he was a Christian.

Sabah, also a Christian, was certain he would be next, so he, his wife and two young daughters fled Baghdad for Turkey.

After years of waiting, the family received the news it had hoped for. The family would be part of the first wave of Iraqis allowed into this country as refugees since the war began.

Sabah and Widad’s happiness was short-lived, however.

A tumor was found in Sabah’s brain. Doctors in Turkey removed the tumor, and eventually, the family left for the United States.

But Sabah, 47, collapsed on the flight to Phoenix on Aug. 28. He was taken by ambulance from the airport to a hospital.

Sabah died on Oct. 30, making an already difficult journey even more so.

“The refugee life is very challenging,” said Rosalind Rivera, executive director of the Arizona Refugee Community Center, which is helping some of the Iraqi refugees.

“It’s like pulling a tree out of the ground and trying to replant it.”

Fortunately for Widad and her daughters, there are other Iraqis who came before them during the 1990s.

Last week,Sabri Toma, who arrived in this country in 1991, took Widad and her daughter Noor to get their learner’s permits.

Ramzi Shamoon, who arrived in this country in 1998 with $75 in his pocket and now owns a trucking company, helped the family move in and routinely co-signs leases to get other Iraqis into apartments.

The family also receives spiritual help every Sunday at Mar Auraha Chaldean Catholic Church in Scottsdale, where many Christian Iraqi refugees attend services.

“We try to help the family as much as we can,” Father Poulos Ghozairan said. “We held the funeral for Sabah and have helped with furniture. Anything we can do.”

Hazem Olwan is a former Iraqi refugee who was hired by the International Refugee Committee in Phoenix when it became clear that more and more Iraqi refugees would be arriving in the Valley.

Olwan was at the airport waiting for the family when Sabah was taken from the airplane to the hospital.

“Losing him was a disaster,” Olwan said. “The mother and the kids were terrified about what would happen next.”

Community support

With the help of refugee agencies, other immigrants, the church and the kindness of some American families, the mother and daughters are slowly recovering from the initial shock of losing Sabah.

Tamaraa Matti is enrolled as a seventh-grader at Cholla Middle School in Phoenix.

Her sister, Noor, is a student at Moon Valley High School.

They are quickly learning English and slowly making friends.

Tamaraa has come to realize that she quite likes hamburgers, and the whole family enjoys Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Most nights, the family visits with other Iraqi refugees, many of whom live in the same apartment complex on Thunderbird Road. They talk and eat and remember their past in Iraq and try to envision their future in America. Widad wonders how things would be different if her husband were still alive.

She says he used to enjoy days off from work as a cobbler in Baghdad to take his family on day trips to the countryside.

Widad is frequently exhausted from her work at the Comfort Inn. There is not enough time in the day, she says, to enjoy the promise of a new country.

“I don’t have time for joy,” Widad said. “I am too busy.”

But like many refugees before her, she is never too tired to think her children will live a better life.

“Yes,” Widad said of her daughters. “I hope they will have time.”