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United in marriage, separated by red tape

Dozens of weary passengers made their way down the long hallway to baggage claim at LAX. I peered anxiously through the clear glass doors, searching every face. Then I saw him.

He wore a name tag around his neck -- like a kid who might get lost. He clutched a white plastic bag with big blue letters: IOM. International Organization for Migration. He looked happy, but tentative. I must have looked the same.

We hugged awkwardly and made polite chitchat about his 48-hour journey from Baghdad, about the jet lag and the airplane food. The trip was his first by air. He’d rarely been out of Iraq. Now he was a refugee who would make his home in America.

We loaded up his suitcase and headed down the 405 to start our new life together.

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My brother-in-law Ali and me.

When I married an Iraqi I’d met on assignment in Baghdad, I knew I would help his brother start a new life in this country. I just never imagined I’d be doing it alone.

::

The phone jarred me out of my sleep.

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“Good morning, habibi. Did I wake you?” My husband’s familiar voice and Arabic endearment instantly soothed.

For nine months we’d been awaiting word on his application for refugee status. Saif was eligible to apply because his work as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times put his life at risk. He had also applied on behalf of his younger brother, Ali. They both received provisional approval from the U.S. State Department, but the wait for final security clearance felt endless.

Now, in late February, Saif was calling to say the State Department had given an Iraqi colleague permission to resettle in the United States and a departure date. I tried to feel happy for our friend.

“Just kidding!” Saif said, his voice gaining excitement. “It’s me! I’m coming! I’ll be there March 4!”

I didn’t care that it was early morning and my whooping and hollering might wake my neighbors.

I fired off e-mails to spread the news and began a round of jubilant calls.

“Saif is coming!” I told a good friend, trying not to shriek. “He’s coming! We got the call! We got the call!”

No further explanation was needed.

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In the midst of my next conversation, the call waiting beeped.

Saif’s voice had a strange tone. Government officials had called again. “They said they made a mistake. They meant to call Ali.”

I hung up the phone and wept.

“It felt like being told you’ve won the lottery, only to realize that you checked the numbers wrong -- and hadn’t really won after all,” I wrote in an e-mail to friends and family. “I don’t think I’ve ever in my life had such a swing in emotions from elation to disappointment.”

But there was little to be done and no time to waste.

Ali would arrive in 10 days.

--

I first flew to Iraq in December 2007, at a time when I was rebuilding my life after a bad breakup. Unencumbered by a relationship or responsibilities at home, I took an assignment I previously would have pushed aside. The two-month rotation in Baghdad would be my first as a foreign correspondent. Love was the furthest thing from my mind, which felt crammed from reading dozens of newspaper articles and books on Iraq and the war.

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The Times bureau took up an entire floor of a heavily guarded, all-suite hotel, surrounded by concrete blast walls. One unit had been converted into a newsroom, with several computers and a bank of televisions tuned to Arabic-language news channels. Correspondents lived and worked out of their rooms, the doors wide open. The floor felt so much like a college dorm that one two-bedroom suite shared by a few of the Iraqi staffers had been dubbed the “Frat House.” Some nights, the guys played Wii or rocked out on an electric guitar to keep from going stir-crazy.

With car bombs and falling mortars still a daily occurrence, reporters strayed outside only an hour or two a day -- if we were lucky. Leaving the compound required an armored car, a second chase car, an interpreter and a guard.

Colleagues back home had told me much about the tight-knit group of Iraqi staffers and urged me to arrive bearing chocolate and coffee to make a positive impression. Someone urged me to break the ice with Saif by cracking a joke, using a derogatory nickname.

Saif -- who I later learned hated the label -- snapped at me, stormed out of the room and didn’t speak to me unless he had to.

But the tight quarters made it hard to avoid each other. His silence ended when he confided to me about failed romances and fears that the war was stealing the best years of his life. I shared my heartbreaks. Soon Saif, who worked until midnight, would appear at my door each night after his shift and keep me company while I waited for my bosses in Los Angeles to edit my stories.

We watched reruns of “Saturday Night Live” and “King of Queens.” We sipped bad red wine and talked about love and friendship and war and religion. He brought me Iraqi delicacies. I baked him cookies. It seemed like we had known each other for years.

On my last night in Baghdad, he told me that I was more important to him than anyone else who had passed through the bureau. Then he kissed me chastely on the cheek and said goodbye.

As I drove to the airport early the next morning, an immense sadness washed over me -- not relief to be leaving a war zone. Safely out of Iraq, I collapsed in exhaustion on my king-sized hotel bed in Jordan and cried for two days.

I felt confused and overwhelmed. Later, I recognized my grief was, in part, heartbreak over a man whose hand I’d never even held. Would we ever meet again?

--

In the weeks and months to come, Saif and I continued to talk daily, often for hours, over Skype and other Internet chats. He asked me to send dispatches and photos from my daily life -- like the e-mails he knew I had sent home from Baghdad. A pocket video camera became my constant companion, and through e-mailed video journals Saif met my friends and discovered my neighborhood.

No errand was too trivial to be recorded. Saif, a food lover, found the grocery store endlessly fascinating. Imagine looking at a Ralphs from the perspective of Baghdad. “You have that many kinds of soup?” Saif asked, incredulous. “And the cheese! Mamma mia!”

His reactions made the mundane interesting. My life felt richer and more vivid.

We made plans to reunite in Turkey, one of the few places where Saif could travel with ease. We said it was as friends but knew that we were heading down a path fraught with complications. We were in too deep; neither of us could turn away.

In late September, 10 months after our first meeting, we planned a second trip to Turkey, this time to be married. Wary friends and family gave their blessing, their minds eased by the knowledge that we are both highly rational and rarely spontaneous.

We spent two frantic weeks in Istanbul navigating the bureaucracy of three countries -- mine, his and Turkey’s. We wed in an Istanbul marriage hall festooned with bright red bunting. Our interpreter, a last-minute substitute, arrived sweaty from rushing to the scene.

Flustered by the multilingual ceremony and the rapid-fire pace, I flubbed my important line -- answering “Yes” instead of “I do.” Saif grinned at my goof. We celebrated with friends at a restaurant overlooking the moonlit Bosporus, a night so picturesque and perfect it felt straight out of the movies.

Less than 48 hours later, I kissed my groom goodbye and boarded a plane home. Saif returned to Iraq, bound by the same security and travel restrictions as other Iraqis. Hopping on a flight to the United States was not an option, not even to visit his wife.

We placed our hopes for a speedy reunion on the refugee process.

--

After everything Saif and Ali had lived through, they had little faith in Iraq’s future. Even before we met, Saif had become desperate to leave. His options were limited. Only a few neighboring countries would even permit Iraqis to enter on tourist visas. For those who managed to flee, finding employment was nearly impossible.

When Saif applied for permanent residency in Canada, where one of his sisters lived, the reply e-mail said the process could take until 2015.

To apply for U.S. refugee status, he would have to move to Egypt or Jordan and wait in jobless limbo.

Then, in May 2008, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program opened an office in Baghdad, paving the way for Iraqis still in the country to apply for resettlement.

Only certain Iraqis qualify, including those who worked for the U.S. military, the U.S. media or a nongovernmental organization, and their family members. Applicants have to demonstrate that their jobs caused them serious harm or put their lives at risk.

Saif, 30, was a pharmacist before the war. He then worked for a democracy-building nonprofit, the International Republican Institute. But in 2006, the organization received threats. Saif considered them so serious he decided to quit. His association with The Times was equally risky, and Saif kept the job hidden from almost everyone he knew.

Ali, 26, a recent medical school graduate, also worked briefly for both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. His short tenure with the two newspapers did not make Ali eligible on his own, so he asked to be included in Saif’s application. We completed all the paperwork and tediously answered nearly 75 questions: Were you personally threatened? What is your opinion of Saddam Hussein and the Baath government? Have you at any time knowingly collaborated with the insurgents?

Next was a series of interviews and medical exams that stretched over months. After the final medical test in January, there was nothing to do but wait.

As other Iraqis in the Times bureau got word that they had been approved, Saif’s e-mails grew dejected: “I’m feeling beaten up. I don’t have any energy. . . . This is not fair. I need to be with my wife.”

--

On the day Ali arrived in Los Angeles early last month, I rushed around trying to figure out ways to welcome him.

No one we had appealed to at numerous government offices could explain why Ali had been cleared to enter the U.S. but his brother hadn’t. But now that Ali was here, I was determined to make him feel at home.

I made chocolate cupcakes from scratch and decorated them with red, white and blue stars and American flag toothpicks. I put them on a shiny red platter on my dining room table, near a sparkly patriotic centerpiece.

When we walked into my apartment that night, he barely gave them a second glance. I told him they tasted only so-so. He didn’t take a single bite.

The first of many comparisons to my husband crept into my mind, uninvited. Saif would have appreciated this, I thought.

But Ali, I learned only after baking a decadent chocolate cake and a batch of Cooks Illustrated’s chocolate chip cookies, doesn’t like chocolate.

How was I supposed to know this -- or anything, really -- about my new brother-in-law’s preferences and quirks?

In our first days together, Ali and I assured ourselves that Saif would be following soon.

Ali said he felt frozen, that on some days -- even with the beach at his doorstep -- he couldn’t bring himself to walk outside.

I found this odd for someone who had been shot at and felt the blast from car bombs. But then it made sense. I, too, felt racked by indecision: Should I take Ali sightseeing or wait for Saif? Should we move into bigger quarters or wait until Saif could help decide?

Every activity felt like I was cheating my husband out of a new family experience.

Back in Baghdad, Ali’s sudden, unexplained departure was creating headaches for the family, who had kept Saif’s newspaper job secret for fear that the wrong people might find out he was working with Americans. They lied to relatives, saying Ali had gone to Jordan to seek asylum. Saif, as far as most extended family knew, remained in northern Iraq, working for a pharmaceutical company.

Ali left his friends without a word. His Facebook page remained quiet. He posted no photos of his picnic in Palos Verdes or his tour of American fast food chains. Nobody could know of his move until Saif had safely left the country.

“People keep asking me how it feels to be in the United States,” Ali told me one night. “But I can’t say. I feel like I am 20% here and 80% still in Baghdad with Saif.”

One recent Saturday, Ali said he wanted to buy a bike. Good idea, I told him, pleased at his initiative. He needed a way to get around, and this might encourage him to explore the neighborhood.

As we picked out a new bicycle and he hopped on it for the first time -- laughing and zooming down the street -- I tried to smile but couldn’t stop thinking about Saif. For months, he had been telling me how much he wanted a bike, that it would be one of his first purchases in the U.S., a symbol of his newfound freedom and safety.

When we were back home, I logged on to chat with Saif.

“Ali bought a new bike,” I wrote. “He is so happy.”

For a minute, there was no reply. Then: “That’s nice.”

“Are you OK, habibi?” I asked, using the Arabic endearment that had become part of my vocabulary.

“No,” he answered.

Rage and despair and sadness washed over me. But I couldn’t let Ali see any of this -- not now, in his moment of joy. “I miss you so much,” I wrote to Saif. “I love you.”

Then I wiped away the tears before Ali could see.

--

I last saw Saif almost four months ago, when I returned to Iraq for four weeks, an assignment that I jokingly called my “honeymoon in Baghdad.” Since the wedding, I’ve spent more days with Ali than my husband.

Each night my brother-in-law climbs into his makeshift bed -- my living room couch -- and I fall into a sleep that is rarely restful.

My BlackBerry sits beside me on my pillow.

I’m praying for it to ring just one more time in the middle of the night.

--

kimi.yoshino@latimes.com


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