Iraqis in America can go home, but will they?

Challenges of rebuilding a war-torn county inspire some but deter others

War In Iraq

April 12, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

As they celebrate the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi-Americans are letting themselves dream the unthinkable.

"At last, I can go home," said Nasir Ali, a Rosedale resident who teaches languages for the Titan Corp. in Annapolis Junction. He has not seen his seven siblings since he fled Iraq in 1999.

Ali says he was a doctor in Iraq who once treated the national sports teams. Now, he watches television images of bombed buildings in Baghdad and says he realizes his country needs people like him more than ever. Yet, as he looks around his home and listens to his three children talk excitedly into their cell phones or study their books, he also realizes there is only so much he can do to help his native country.

"We have to return back to help people and train the next generation; this is a feeling we have in our blood. Even if you have lived here 20, 30, 40 years, your thoughts are still with Iraq," Ali said. "But I have to think about myself and my children. Our life is here."

There are relatively few Iraqi-Americans in the Baltimore area - 529 in Maryland and 1,841 in Virginia, according to the 2000 Census. But their thoughts reflect conflicts felt by Iraqis across the United States.

Hussein's departure gives them a chance to go home. But, with that opportunity comes a difficult choice. Do they forsake their comfortable American lives to help rebuild Iraq? Or do they stay in America and hope that others will do the job?

"They would still rather live here, but they want to do something to help the Iraqi people. But it's a matter of details and trying to overcome some of the political maneuvering, which could be extremely difficult," said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.

"I would like to go back because I'm homesick, but I don't really know what's going on there," said Rahman Aljebouri, who lives in Washington. "Also, I would like to think I haven't changed, but I know that's not true. I've lived here for so long."

That sentiment was obvious on a recent evening in Ali's Baltimore County living room. Several Arab-Americans gathered to watch al-Jazeera, an Arab satellite news channel, chat and drink Iraqi-style coffee, a thick, sweet version of espresso that is so strong it is often chased with water. "Take small sips," Ali warned a visitor.

Ali's three grown, unmarried children live at home, as is the custom in Iraq, and they flitted in and out of the room talking in a mix of Arabic and English.

The group was riveted by the images of Hussein's horses running free in the streets of Baghdad and graphic photos of dead Iraqi soldiers, but almost all said they couldn't imagine returning to Iraq.

"I always knew this day would come, and Saddam would be gone," said Mohammad Alkahakani. But Alkahakani said he would only return to Iraq to visit friends and family. "My life is here," he said.

Ali's youngest daughter, Nadeen, a 21-year-old student at the Community College of Baltimore County, agreed. Although she said she had a "very nice" childhood in Baghdad, she can still remember seeing U.S. warplanes and hearing bombing during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

"I'm still Iraqi, but everything is easier here in America," she said.

Ali smiled. "Young people never saw freedom because they only knew Saddam," he said. "How could they go back to a place once they have tasted freedom?"

While Iraqi-Americans are not expected to return to their country in large numbers, experts say those that do go back could play an important role. Since Hussein's Baath Party took over in 1968, most of the country's intellectuals and middle class have fled the country, experts say. Some estimate that as many as 4 million of the best and brightest Iraqis live in exile.

"There's been a tremendous brain drain because critical thinking was just not encouraged," Al-Marayati said.

Ali is acutely aware of the void in his home country. "Look at the Iraqis here in the United States. Most are doctors, lawyers, intellectuals," said Ali, who says he fled the country after the Iraqi government accused him of being a spy and tortured him in 1999. "For the last 20 years, children have not gone to school properly," he said. "Who is left to rebuild the country?"

But some doubt that it will be easy for Iraqi-Americans to help the next government. "It's not like you will be able to go back, and there will be a job waiting for you, and people will say `Here, organize us,'" Aljebouri said.

Others worry that it will be some time before it is safe to return. U.S.-led forces are still fighting with Iraqi troops in the north, and, for now, disorder prevails in much of the country.

"I would love to go back and visit, but I think it's going to be a while," said Anas Shallal, who owns five restaurants in the Washington area and has not been to Iraq since the late 1960s, when his family fled. "When I look at al-Jazeera and see mobs of people running around and stealing things, it doesn't look good.

"I don't know of anyone who's buying their airline tickets," Shallal said.

Ali says that Iraqis have been badly scarred by Hussein's rule and the war. He watches al-Jazeera television almost constantly. He sighs when he sees images of dead Iraqis but become visibly angry when he sees Iraqis looting stores and Hussein's palaces.

"The most painful part is not what happened in the fighting but what happened afterward," he said. "It's not good for the Iraqi people."

Despite the ghastly television images, some Iraqi-Americans are still nursing the possibility that they can help by returning to their homeland.

"Iraq is a work in progress that maybe we could make a difference with. I'll go for a year to see if I can help. If I can, I'll stay," said Aljebouri, who is married but doesn't have any children.

"I do have two cats, though. That could make it harder," he said.

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