Since Jan. 14--just before the Persian Gulf War erupted--a 43-year-old Iraqi woman living in Burbank has had no contact with her family in Baghdad. Her concern for their safety heightened after hearing news reports of relentless bombing missions over her homeland.
On Monday, heartened by the cease-fire, she visited the Glendale-Crescenta Valley chapter of the American Red Cross, trying to learn the fate of her four cousins, who were drafted into the Iraqi army after the invasion of Kuwait, and her brother, a physician who had already served for five years during the Iran-Iraq war.
"I don't know whether they are killed; I don't know whether they survived," said the woman, nicknamed Beeo, who asked that her full name be withheld. "I sleep on the couch in front of the TV and just watch what's happening."
Beeo joined a growing procession of anxious Middle Eastern immigrants who have visited Glendale's Red Cross office in recent weeks, taking its small staff by surprise and taxing its modest resources. Their thirst for news about Iraqi prisoners of war is far in excess of that reported at chapters elsewhere in the United States.
Early this week, national Red Cross officials said the Glendale chapter was leading the nation in requests to trace captured Iraqi soldiers.
By Monday, the Glendale chapter had processed 79 information requests regarding Iraqi prisoners of war. The far larger Los Angeles Red Cross chapter had received only 12 such inquiries, spokeswoman Carol Tokarczyk said.
Rosana Olaya, program manager in the American Red Cross international social services department in Washington, said that as of Tuesday the Glendale chapter had sent in more than half of all the information requests her office had received regarding Iraqis detained by the allied forces.
National Red Cross spokeswoman Ann Stingle said it will likely take several months before the thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war are released. International Red Cross representatives are still registering the prisoners and determining whether they wish to return to Iraq or join family members elsewhere, she said.
Though the war has ended, communications remain unreliable. As a result, the Glendale office is bracing for even more calls.
"I think I am going to be deluged," said Norge Seward, director of emergency services at the Glendale office. "The hostilities have ceased. Now, families are going to want to know about the well-being of family members and friends who are not in the military."
Social service representatives have had difficulty getting exact figures, but they believe the Glendale area is home to more than 30,000 Middle Eastern and Armenian immigrants, including many from Iraq.
"I've been told there are about 5,000 Iraqis living in the Glendale area," said William Dutton, executive director of the Glendale Red Cross chapter. "My assumption is that many of them are Armenians who were born in Iraq and are now living in the United States."
The Glendale chapter's first prisoner-of-war inquiry came on Feb. 4.
"Our first client came in after she was notified by our International Red Cross in Geneva that her son was a POW with our allied forces," Seward said. "What they told her was that she had to come to her local Red Cross chapter and start an inquiry."
Seward said the mother explained that her son had been educated in the United States. But he returned to Iraq several years ago to care for his ailing grandfather. While there, he was drafted and forced to fight against Iran.
That war ended, and the son began making arrangements to return last year. "He had all his papers ready to come back to the United States when they drafted him again," Seward said.
Glendale Red Cross workers sent the mother's inquiry to the Middle East through the International Committee of the Red Cross. A letter from the prisoner to his mother arrived at the Glendale office on Monday.
"She was elated just to know he was OK," Seward said.
Since that first inquiry, dozens of other Iraqi families have sought help from the Glendale Red Cross chapter. Seward said only four have been notified that a relative is a POW in allied hands. The remaining families have simply asked the Red Cross to check its records to determine whether their loved one has been captured.
As the inquiries poured in, the small Glendale staff became swamped with paperwork. So Seward asked some of the Iraqi mothers to pitch in.
"I told them I was having a heck of a time in here, not being conversant in their culture," she said. "I suggested that instead of sitting at home and worrying, they should come in and help out.
"We've had an overwhelming response. Now my office is coming back to normal."
The Glendale Red Cross has been aiding people from other Middle Eastern nations, and staff members have had to be careful not to mix clients who have cultural conflicts. At one point this week, immigrants from Kuwait, Iraq and Iran were in the office at the same time. But no fireworks erupted.
Seward said the immigrants appear to respect the political neutrality of the Red Cross and the informed, non-judgmental manner of its staff. "If ever a Mideast expert were to be created out of crisis, I'm one," she said.
Most of the Iraqi families seeking aid from the Glendale Red Cross chapter declined to be interviewed, saying they feared for the safety of family members still in the Middle East.
Beeo, who contacted the Red Cross about her brother and cousins, said Iraqi immigrants in the Glendale area have been keeping quiet about their nationality.
"They are saying they are Armenians, not Iraqis," she said. "I say I'm an Armenian from Iraq. I can't deny I was born there. I studied there and graduated from there. I'm an Armenian Iraqi. I am proud I am from Iraq."
Beeo, who worked as a secretary in her homeland, was vacationing with relatives in the United States in 1980 when the Iran-Iraq war broke out. She was unable to get back to Baghdad, and her government job was given to someone else.
Today she is office manager for a Burbank company that exports computers. She recently passed her American citizenship test and expects to be sworn in later this year.
Beeo's mother visited for the first time last summer, but left abruptly when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. "My mom could not stay here," the Burbank woman explained. "She said, 'Whatever is going to happen to my sons, I want to be there.' "
Since mid-January, Beeo has been unable to reach her family in Baghdad by telephone.
She hopes Red Cross representatives will succeed where the phone lines failed. "They were very nice and very helpful," Beeo said. "I was just looking for somebody to give me some good news about my family."