A Family Unsettled by Peace
Ahlam Almissouri got the summons she had been waiting 12 years for last month.
Her husband, Tariq, a former colonel in the Iraqi army who had returned to the Middle East to help the U.S. oust Saddam Hussein, telephoned their home in this San Diego suburb and told her to start packing.
“Get ready to come back,” he said. Hussein was finished. The Kurdish family’s long exile was finally over.
Hope and joy light Almissouri’s eyes at the thought of going back -- living again near her mother at her old home in Dohuk, in northern Iraq, near Turkey. Then she looks at her children, chattering across the room in the argot of the Southern California suburbs, and her face falls.
All six of them, now teenagers and young adults, were born in Iraq. They burn with hatred for Hussein. And seared into their memories is the family’s terrible flight from his army in 1991, through the rugged mountains to Turkey. During those bleak, snowy days, the youngest daughter was left behind (they were later reunited) and the oldest daughter -- 8 at the time -- was plagued by a bullet wound to the wrist that needed medical attention.
But as they recount those frightening times, these kids could be any of their El Cajon peers, except for the details: “Oh, yeah, HEL-LO,” says Beri, now 20, referring to the terror she felt in the mountains. She doesn’t dwell on the topic, though, and the children’s conversation slips easily from the long-ago journey to school, to music and to war.
How could these American children pack up and move back to Dohuk? their mother wonders. How could she feel at home in a place where her children don’t feel comfortable?
“I am in the middle,” she says in the family’s living room a few days after receiving her husband’s news. Watching her children eat ice cream and fight over the remote control, her genial expression crinkles into a worried frown. “I am so confused,” she says. “It is so hard.”
As the family gathers in front of the TV, switching from the satellite transmissions of the Arabic channel Al Jazeera to CNN, the situation weighs on everyone.
“My dad could come back,” says Beri, who has bleached blond hair and perfectly painted toenails and wants to be a dental assistant. “I was not looking forward to the war,” she adds matter-of-factly, “because I knew this time would come, and it’s something we all don’t want to have to deal with right now.... It’s tough, dude.”
The family lives in a rented house with plush carpet and bright picture windows overlooking Granite Hills High School’s sports fields and the hills beyond. In the yard, Ahlam has planted herbs with seeds that her mother sent from Iraq.
She loves to sip her evening tea as the sun sets, clucking over her plants and listening to her children’s jokes. Twenty yards away is a new trampoline, where the children like to bounce their 45-year-old mother in her traditional Kurdish robes as she shrieks and giggles. It’s comfortable, but it’s a far cry from the sprawling pink house with the gardener and the maid in Dohuk.
Ahlam was brought up in that city, raised to revere the men in her family who fought the Iraqi regime and dreamed of a Kurdish state. At 18, she became a primary school teacher. One day Tariq Almissouri, an engineering graduate, strode onto campus to visit his sister, a teacher there also.
He was immediately smitten with Ahlam, but she refused to talk to him -- it wasn’t appropriate for young women to speak to strange men. He dropped by again. She sent him a message: “Don’t come. It’s bad for my reputation.”
But he persisted, eventually winning permission from Ahlam’s father to marry her. In 1979 they wed. The next eight years brought them their six children.
Tariq was drafted into the army. Eventually, family members say, he rose to the rank of colonel.
It was difficult to be a Kurd in Hussein’s army. For hundreds of years, Kurds, who number about 25 million and describe themselves as the largest nationality on the planet without its own state, have been dominated by powerful empires and nations: Turkey, Iran, Iraq. In the late 1980s, Hussein turned his army on the Kurds in an “ethnic cleansing” campaign, killing an estimated 180,000, including 5,000 who died in chemical attacks in Halabja, a northern city near the border with Iran.
Ahlam Almissouri lost nearly half a dozen relatives there. Meanwhile, she said, her husband had managed to walk a fine line, rising in the army while maintaining secret contacts with relatives who were Kurdish guerrillas. But he tossed his lot in with the rebels in 1991 and rose with them against the Iraqi regime after that year’s Persian Gulf War, according to their oldest son, Peter, 22.
The decision upended life for Ahlam and the children, who fled Dohuk to stay with relatives elsewhere. The Iraqi army was advancing, crushing the Kurdish rebellion.
At 1 a.m. on a spring morning in 1991, Ahlam awoke with a start when a bomb crashed down a block away, shaking the house where she slept and stirring up huge clouds of dust. Peter and his brother Shivan were with her husband in another town.
The younger children were with her, except for Delene, then 3, who was at her mother-in-law’s house. Terrified, Ahlam grabbed Beri, 8; Zeen, 5; and Ayad, 4, snatched up a few provisions and ran out into the frigid night.
Beri was in no shape for the journey that would follow. She had caught a bullet in the wrist when someone fired a gun at a recent gathering. Though she was not seriously hurt, she was in pain. But a visit to the doctor would have to wait.
For three days, the four, accompanied by dozens of members of their extended family, trudged over snowy mountain passes toward Turkey, their hunger growing. At night, they slept huddled together in vain attempts to stay warm.
“It was snowing, and it was so cold. So cold I cannot describe it,” Ahlam says, drawing her arms around herself at the memory. “And we walk and walk and walk. It was so hard to walk in the snow.”
On the third afternoon, she heard a shout and recognized her husband’s voice calling her name. She turned and there he was, with Peter and Shivan each clutching one of his hands.
“I have been looking all over for you,” her husband said.
Ahlam cried for joy. “I was so happy,” she recalls.
Finally, the family reached a refugee camp on the Turkish border. Ahlam, tormented by thoughts of Delene, the daughter left behind with relatives, sent her husband back home to find her.
He discovered she was still in Dohuk, and when the fighting stopped, the child was delivered to the camp by relatives and reunited with her family. Now a long-haired teenager with dimples, Delene laughs at the story of her separation from the family, though her mother still cannot.
In the refugee camp, the family was granted U.S. residency. Officials sent them to Phoenix, but they moved to El Cajon within a few months, drawn by its large population of Iraqi exiles.
That community now includes about 8,000 Kurds, many of whom arrived in the mid-1990s. There are also large numbers of Iraqi Catholics and Shiite Muslims from southern Iraq.
“First, when we came, oh my God, it was so hard,” Ahlam says. The children felt ostracized. They didn’t speak English, and they had no idea how to dress. Peter, now a hipster in jeans who has recorded his own rap song, still cringes at the memory of wearing tuxedo pants -- his nicest item -- to school.
At home, their mother felt equally out of place. Knowing that her heavy Kurdish dress and cotton head scarf would draw stares, she would change into clothes bought in the United States to run to the store.
She volunteered every day in Delene’s preschool classroom and eventually was hired as a teacher’s aide. And each evening, Ahlam, who spoke little English but had studied it, would sit her children on the floor and drill new words into their heads.
“She taught us the alphabet,” says Peter, who was dropped into fourth grade at age 11.
“We got into fights,” he says. Other students would make fun of him and his siblings. “Oh, you don’t know how to speak English,” they would tell him. “Go back to Iraq.”
“That’s how I learned English,” he recalls with a laugh.
Slowly, the family began to fit in. They acquired a taste for pizza. The girls, who keep a pile of fashion magazines in the bathroom, learned to paint their toenails. The boys threw themselves into school sports. Varsity letters, prom pictures and other symbols of American high school life dot their home. And Ahlam Almissouri has a prize of her own: She proudly shows off a certificate in early childhood education from nearby Cuyamaca Community College.
It was more difficult for Tariq to find his place, family members say. Accustomed to commanding troops, he now drove a taxi, ferrying tourists around San Diego. “He thinks it’s kind of like a slave job, because he picks up luggage,” Delene says.
But he saw no other option. Until recently.
Last fall, as the buildup to war began, Tariq, 47, was approached, like many others in El Cajon, by organizers of the Free Iraqi Forces, a U.S.-funded group that hopes to become the nucleus of Iraq’s new army. Would he go to Hungary to train, then lend his language skills and knowledge of the Iraqi military and terrain to U.S. forces in Iraq?
Government agents came to the Almissouri home, members of the family said. Ahlam put out cookies and tea, and listened as they asked her husband what kind of government he wished for Iraq and whether he would like to see Hussein removed.
Tariq answered the call -- talking, as he prepared for departure -- of holding a position of responsibility again and of being reunited with friends and family.
Ahlam understood. But then her husband did something that nearly broke her heart: He signed up her beloved second son, Shivan, 21, to go with him. “She went crazy when she found out,” says Beri.
Since graduating from high school a few years before, Shivan had drifted a bit, his siblings say. Some of his friends drank, and the family was worried that his life was not headed in the right direction.
Tariq felt that a stint helping the U.S. Army would do wonders for Shivan. Peter, who attends community college and wants to become a doctor, could stay in California, watch over the family and take over his father’s cab business.
In February, father and son left. The house felt empty.
Ahlam was sick with worry about what might happen to her son; she knew her husband could take care of himself. And with the family breadwinner gone, making ends meet was even more difficult than it had already been on a taxi driver’s earnings. Peter started driving his father’s cab on weekends. Beri chipped in some earnings from her job in a coffee shop.
Whenever the telephone rang, the whole family ran for it. Shivan called, saying he had left Hungary but couldn’t tell them where he was. He called again a few weeks later to say he was fine, and happy; his mother should not worry.
A letter arrived from Tariq, posted from Hungary, full of dreams for the future. Then, when the major fighting stopped, came his call with the news that he would not return. Ten days later, he called again. He had been to Baghdad. He hoped for an important role in Iraq’s reconstruction.
In El Cajon, the TV flickers constantly with scenes from the foreign land that the Almissouris still, reflexively, refer to as home. Although they live for the times the phone rings with news from afar, the calls present an unexpected quandary: What happens to a family when they can’t agree where home is?
“We are all confused right now,” says Peter, who is nevertheless proud that his father wants to help rebuild Iraq.
Tariq, Peter says, “was a military man. He wants to have that back. He wants to have us follow him. He thinks it might be something we have been waiting for all this time. But really, he’s been waiting all this time.”
Beri doesn’t want to go back. “That’s not where I belong,” she says.
Delene, who has almost no memory of Iraq, says she would like to go for a long visit. Zeen, 17, and Ayad, 16, echo that.
Their mother listens, her anxiety rising. She wishes that her children wanted to move back. She wishes that Iraq could offer them the opportunities they have here. She wishes Shivan would come home.
“I feel confused and trapped,” she says.
“If I didn’t have my kids, I would go back. But if I’m not with my children, I don’t have a home.”