POTOMAC -- Paiman Halmat cannot serve a meal to her family without feeling guilty.
She cannot put on nice clothes or even comb her curly black hair without a rush of guilt. And the feelings are so overwhelming, so painful, that she won't set foot in a grocery store anymore, instead leaving the shopping to her husband.
"I would see all this food," says the Kurdish-American wife and mother living in north Potomac, "and I want to cry in the middle of the store."
For Mrs. Halmat, 37, and other Iraqi Kurds living in the Washington area, the last several months have been filled with tears and frustration as they've watched their people -- in some cases, their mothers, brothers, cousins -- barefoot, homeless and crushed by hunger, disease and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's terror back in their homeland.
"We are devastated," says Mrs. Halmat's husband, Omar, 53, who left his Kurdish home for the United States in 1962 after being brought before an Iraqi military court and accused of being a rebel. "We don't know what to do to help out. I'm sitting here living comfortably, but I feel for those people because they're part of me. And they suffer."
"It has been very rough," says Najmaldin Karim, a Greenbelt neurosurgeon who has heard but not confirmed that two family members were killed by the Iraqi army. "Nobody has exact information."
And nobody knows what will be the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees crowded in campsites in the cold, rocky, mountainous regions near the northern Iraqi border.
For their relatives here, the Persian Gulf war and its aftermath have seemed like a violent roller coaster of raised and --ed hopes, one still speeding along even after allied forces have expanded and secured the refugee havens, making them off limits to Iraqi forces under an agreement worked out between Kurds and Mr. Hussein.
"I have mixed feelings," says Mr. Halmat, chief of audiovisuals and video at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "If they can come up with a deal where the refugees can go back home, it's better than sitting up in the mountains under tents for an indefinite time. But I don't feel comfortable dealing with Saddam. I don't trust Saddam."
Besides, he says, he's been disappointed before. "My hopes were very high at the end of the war. We were so happy we were jumping around. We had great hopes for the Kurds to
get their true autonomy. But that hope diminished."
The Halmats are among about 300 Iraqi Kurds living in the Maryland-Washington area, and among about 3,000 in the United States, says Robert Platt, president of the Washington-based Kurdish-American Society for Refugee Relief, a non-profit organization that has raised about $40,000 in the last two weeks for medicine and food to be shipped to the refugees.
"We just got a full grocery bag of checks," says Mrs. Halmat, whose husband is treasurer of the Kurdish-American Society. "And I started crying. I said, 'I love you guys.' I was just talking to myself opening the letters."
Even the Halmats' 10-year-old daughter, Tara, has started a fund-raising drive with other Kurdish-American children in the area.
Many of the local Kurdish-American families have started getting together every week to discuss how they can help the relief effort. "Every single Kurd in this area, whether they have family in Iraq or not, has been working hard, sending letters to the White House and to Congress," says Dr. Karim, spokesman for the Kurdish National Congress.
Such letter-writing, in fact, is one of the few activities that Mrs. Halmat -- who hasn't heard from her mother, brother or sister, all in Iraq, since last July -- will devote herself to.
She no longer tends her backyard garden, where she once grew Swiss chard, a Kurdish staple. "I'm afraid I'll miss something," says Mrs. Halmat, who came to the United States in 1979. And she declined an invitation to work as a day-care specialist at the Institute of Standards and Technology.
"I cannot put my head on anything else," the housewife says. "This is our life. We are watching TV constantly. I always want to stop the picture to see who's who, if I can recognize any family member. Then we see a depressing picture, and we start crying -- all of us.
"And we tape everything to later on pose a picture to see if we missed something, a face, something. And we start crying again."
She's been in contact with one of her brothers, a political activist in Iran, who attempted to look for family members along Iraq's border. After spending three days in his car along jam-packed roads, he reported that he had not found any.
Several weeks ago, hoping to connect at least spiritually with her relatives, Mrs. Halmat fasted for 24 hours and slept on the pavement outside the White House instead of in her large brick colonial home, with its lavish furnishings and such Kurdish touches as a silver yogurt bowl, worry beads and a colorful, beaded cap.