Leedoosh Nersesian fled Iraq in fear when she was 20 years old.
Nearly 30 years later, she decided to return to her native Baghdad, using her skills in English, Arabic and Armenian to translate for the U.S. forces in Iraq.
Nersesian said she took leave of her Glendale family, including two teenage boys, out of what she felt was an obligation to help the country she loves to stabilize the country she knew as a child. It has proven to be a difficult journey.
"Initially, I was very excited with happy tears going back after 30 years, since I had spent most of my childhood time in that country surrounded by my family and friends," Nersesian wrote in an e-mail. "But when I arrived there…and saw the chaos that words can't describe, my eyes were full of sad tears. The country went backward instead of forward, in my opinion, they are living in the Dark Ages."
At the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, Nersesian's parents worried their Christian faith would expose them to violence or exploitation.
In January of 1981, Nersesian was the first to escape to Italy, where she worked for the World Council of Churches, helping others to emigrate, while waiting for her own family to reunite. In small groups, her parents, brother and three sisters all made it to Ostia di Lido, a suburb near the main airport in Rome.
"She is why we are in the states," Nersesian's sister, Rita Muradian, said. "She is the bravest person in the family."
In October 1981, the family relocated to join relatives living in Glendale. Nersesian helped raise her younger siblings, attended Glendale Community College, got married, raised two sons and worked with disabled adults. Then she learned of the opportunity to serve as a civilian translator and linguist for the U.S. Army. After extensive training in the states, she shipped out last October for what is expected to be an 18-month stint.
Nersesian said security reasons prevent her from revealing much about her work, but she said it is often risky.
"There is no safe time or place here," she wrote. "Interactions with Iraqis expose us to lots of danger."
She said she often attends meetings in Baghdad's "red zone," the area outside the perimeter of the protected base, or Green Zone, in Baghdad.
Raffi Najarian, a family friend of Nersesian who has served in the Middle East, said translators are key to the success of coalition forces.
"The relationship you have with the translators, you are very dependent on them," Najarian said.
Najarian is a dentist, as well as a lieutenant colonel in the California Air National Guard. He helped oversee a hospital in the United Arab Emirates in 2003, supporting combat efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"You are relying on them not only for the translation of words, but also how the mood is or the feeling is. There often are cultural sub-meanings or nuances you need to know," he said.
Nersesian said she spoke Armenian in her Glendale home and English in daily life, though she had spoken Arabic as a girl in Baghdad. She needed to brush up on her Arabic for the job, and has taken advanced linguistics courses and studied Iraqi tribes and ethnic groups.
Her sister, Rita Muradian, a chiropractor, and other relatives agreed without hesitation to help care for Nersesian's boys.
"She had been there for me since I was a young girl until I opened my practice," Muradian said. "She means the world to our family, we pray every day for her safe return."
The U.S.-led combat mission in Iraq ended in August, although 50,000 troops and many civilians, including Nersesian, still have work to do.
Nersesian is scheduled to visit Glendale in the coming months, and plans to present the Glendale City Council with an American flag that flew over her base in Baghdad on Sept. 11, 2010. She expressed gratitude that she and her family have gained the opportunity to thrive in the United States, rather than face an uncertain life in war-torn Baghdad.
"Being part of this mission is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a worthwhile journey that is making me see life in different aspects," she wrote. "Most of all, it is making me a stronger person every day."