285 gulf refugees given warm welcome at BWI

September 16, 1990|By Peter Jensenand Rafael Alvarez David Michael Ettlin of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

To the strains of "God Bless America" played by a band fro the U.S. Naval Academy, the latest planeload of former hostages and refugees from Kuwait and Iraq stepped onto American soil yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Their chartered American Trans Air L-1011 jumbo jet touched down at BWI moments after 5 p.m., as a team of more than 150 volunteers from the state and federal governments and from community groups waited to provide assistance at a hangar turned into a flag-decorated reception center.

A medical emergency -- a pregnant woman on the jet complaining of stomach cramps -- briefly delayed the transfer of passengers, who began stepping down the ramp

from the airport's mobile transfer lounges at 5:45 p.m.

Many had tears streaming down their cheeks as they descended, some carrying small children. One elderly woman in a wheelchair because of arthritis was carried down by paramedics.

The plane carrying 285 people, 114 of them Americans, was the second evacuation flight to land at BWI since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the release of women and children on Aug. 28. Other flights have landed in Raleigh, N.C., and Charleston, S.C.

Among those returning to America was Thomas Hart Benton Ewald, 25, of Greenwich, Conn., whose mother had written a letter to Mr. Hussein asking for his release.

Mr. Ewald, who had started working for the Al-Ahli Bank of Kuwaitjust one day before Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of the oil-rich emirate, said he may be the first American who had been detained at a military installation to be released. Some of the hostages have been used by Iraq as "human shields" at strategic Iraqi sites.

Mr. Ewald said he had managed to escape once from Iraqi custody but was recaptured and interrogated with the muzzle of a Soviet-made assault rifle pointed at his face.

But that was the worst part of the experience, said Mr. Ewald, who told of being taken to a military installation in the Baghdad area. He did not know what that facility was but said that he and five other American men were treated by Iraqi soldiers as if they were in "a three-star hotel."

Amenities included chocolates and meals brought from the restaurant of their choice, with selections ordered from menus given the Americans in their four-room apartment.

"The Iraqis in general are pretty nice people. They were under strict orders to keep us as happy as can be," he said.

Mr. Ewald said that he was not sure why he was released but believes that the letter his mother sent to President Hussein was the key to his freedom. "The fact it was a note from my mom was a little embarrassing. In fact, it was a lot embarrassing," he said. "My friends are already ribbing me."

was greeted at the airport by his mother, Mary Ewald, who explained, "I'm a writer. It is the only weapon I had. It was a very long shot. It's a lovely story that in this huge world a letter can still get through to someone."

Most of the passengers were unwilling to meet reporters after the two-day ordeal of the journey from Kuwait to Baghdad and London.

"They are afraid for family members who are left behind, or they are emotionally drained," said Helen Szablya, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources -- one of more than 150 state and federal workers who volunteered to help tend to the needs of the released hostages and refugees.

None of those aboard the plane was a Marylander, said Ms. Szablya, who noted that one man -- a native of Sri Lanka -- was heading to Kensington in Montgomery County to stay with relatives.

Thirty or more families had nowhere to go after arriving at the airport. They were provided temporary shelter in area hotels until social workers and government agencies can investigate their legal status for residency in the United States and help find them homes.

Four families -- 11 children and seven adults who arrived Monday in the first group at BWI -- are staying temporarily at Sarah's House, a homeless shelter at Fort Meade run by Associated Catholic Charities.

Hostages had varying stories to tell. Some said they were treated well, and one woman from Dallas said she had had difficulty finding milk for her children, who were kept awake at night in Kuwait City by the sound of gunfire.

A 51-year-old San Diego man, who wanted to be identified only as Kais, said he was allowed to leave only because he was a native of Iraq. He said he decided to go when machine gun-toting soldiers surrounded the homes of fellow Americans nearby and cut the wires to their satellite dishes and their grasp on world events through Cable News Network.

"Eventually I think [President Hussein] will let everybody go. He is softening his stance," Kais said.

BWI officials expect another arrival this afternoon. A U.S.-chartered Iraqi Airways jetliner left Baghdad yesterday carrying 169 foreign evacuees from Kuwait to London, an official at Baghdad airport reported. He said 145 Americans were aboard.

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