June 26, 2010 7:15:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
It was just about 10 years ago that Iraqi-born Haney Matani escaped a bomb thrown into his office in Northern Iraq. A decade can make a world of difference.
On Wednesday, June 16, Matani, a Columbus resident since March 2006, was sworn in as an American citizen in a ceremony in Memphis, Tenn. -- an event that fills him with quiet pride.
Returning to his position as a customer support specialist with BTM Solutions in Columbus Monday, Matani shared part of his remarkable story: A story of persecution, threat, fear and clandestine escape during the reign of Saddam Hussein. But a story, too, of courage, faith, found love and hope.
"I was working for the international committee of the Red Cross in the northern part of Iraq," the well-spoken Matani begins. "Because my job involved tracing missing people and supporting and helping political detainees in detention centers, I was exposed to a lot of confidential information about people and places where they were being held and their treatment."
Matani, an Assyrian Christian, found himself under increasing pressure from local authorities and Iraqi intelligence to share information.
"They tried to force me to declare some of that information to them, to basically become a spy on my employers," the young man explained. "I refused, partly because of being a Christian; I didn''t want to betray my employers, who were not doing anything wrong."
When persuasion failed, threats and even blackmail were brought to bear.
"It was a blessing that I had to leave the office I was in charge of the evening before a bomb was thrown in the early hours of the morning," he quietly recounted.
The decision to leave the country to lessen the threat to his parents and siblings was difficult; the solution drastic. Matani relied on a human smuggler to escape his native land.
"I traveled by land, crossing borders, to Jordan, and remained there about a month," he shared. "The smuggler directed me to go to Thailand, and I stayed there about a month, too. I couldn''t go anywhere, couldn''t do anything without his direction; he kept my passport all the time. I just had to trust my life to this stranger that I didn''t know much about."
About two and a half months after the journey began, Matani surrendering to immigration officials in London Heathrow Airport in England, requesting asylum on political and religious grounds.
"I did not know what the next day, or hour or minute would bring. I had to trust God and surrender," he said.
For about five and a half years, Matani remained in England.
"I was very involved in the community, trying to help refugees integrate into society, people who called England their second home after being exiled from their home," he said.
A French connection
In demand as an interpreter for various immigration and law enforcement agencies, Matani wanted to improve his French, a multi-lingual endeavor that would eventually lead all the way to the Friendly City.
In a French chat room on the Internet, he met Brittany Morgan of Columbus, who was practicing her French for an upcoming trip to Paris with her church group. After months of communication, they met in England, where Brittany was born.
"I wouldn''t have dreamed of ending up one day in Columbus, Mississippi, but God planned for us to meet like that," said Matani.
Taking the oath
The Iraqi native''s four-year journey to citizenship culminated in Memphis in what he describes as an overwhelming experience.
"There were about 54 people, representing 23 or 24 nationalities," Matani explained. "I have always had a great respect for this country and the people. I had an overwhelming sensation that now I was becoming something totally different than what I was, like a new birth."
"Haney has been a tremendous asset to our team," said Angela Ferraez of BTM Solutions. "With all the talk about illegal immigrants in the news, it''s wonderful to know about someone who has been a productive employee and gone through the proper system in place to become a legal citizen of the United States."
"I feel a sense of responsibility and of ownership," said Matani, who along with his wife, is a member of Mt. Zion Baptist Church.
"We were ruled (in Iraq) by dictatorship for decades, marginalized because of our ethnicity and because of our religion. It''s a privilege to be part of a free society and community, where I can try and contribute. And I look forward to voting in November ... I''ve never had that opportunity in all of my life."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.