Saturday, March 20, 2004 -
Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Refugees in Northwest straddling 2 worlds
Seattle Times staff reporter
It may be crippled, dismal
and still deadly, but Iraq, one year later, is open to visitors.
So Sabah Al-Dhaher of
Seattle grabbed his camcorder and gifts, and, with a decade's worth of
anticipation, went home.
His reunion with his family
in Nasiriyah, Iraq, captured on video, now plays on his computer back home in
Seattle. It is heartbreaking to watch. Nonstop embraces with his black-clad
mother, who hadn't seen her son in more than 12 years. She clasps his face,
buries her head in his shoulder and wails.
But for U.S. Iraqis, such
visits inevitably lead to one distinct mood upon their return: guilt.
For some, fleeing Iraq meant
being spared the horror of two wars. And it wasn't until this past year that
Iraqi refugees, now with an opportunity to visit the country, were made so
keenly aware of what their relatives have endured.
"They would tell me
story after story," Al-Dhaher says of his trip this winter. "So many
times, I couldn't take it anymore. I wanted to keep strong. I don't even allow
myself to grieve."
Since the ouster of Saddam
Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has organized returns
to Iraq for about 4,500 refugees. An additional 50,000 to 100,000 Iraqis have
returned, according to the U.N. agency. And 500,000 Iraqi refugees now living in
several different countries may return to Iraq over the next several years, the
But there are no statistics
available on how many people have visited. The U.S. government continues to
strongly warn against travel to Iraq, but now that it's possible, local Iraqis
say, no one wants to wait.
"When I go to bed, I
think about Iraq," says Mustafa Al Katrany, 40, who leaves today for his
He is an artist, seated now
at a small dining-room table with Al-Dhaher, 36, a sculptor, and Saad Al-Maleki,
36, a social worker. Every few weeks, these three men get together to talk
politics, family and Iraq. Theirs is a friendship cemented in knowing what it's
like to straddle two nations.
"I went back home for
two months," says Al-Maleki, the first of the three friends to visit. He
traveled in August. "I missed here. When I came back here, I missed there.
I'm never going to be home."
To understand the impact of
the ongoing, epic chapter in Iraq's history is to meet these men and hear their
Like their birth country,
their lives are in limbo, minds constantly asking, "Now what?"
The trio recently got
together at Al-Maleki's home in Lynnwood, where they dined and then stayed up
all night to watch videos of his trip. Nine Iraqi cities; five hours' worth of
"I see Saad's movie. I
see Sabah's movie," says Al Katrany. "I think, I am not going to cry
(when I get there)."
"You will see,"
On this evening, they are in
Al-Dhaher's Eastlake home, dining on fried eggplant, fried tomatoes and thick
wedges of potatoes, a meal cooked by Al Katrany.
He is the best cook, they
explain, because unlike the other two, Al Katrany doesn't have sisters. So years
ago, when he was a young man living in Iraq, he learned to cook from his mother.
"Mother" — that
word becomes a refrain as they talk about here and there, the past year and the
Each man lost his father
since coming to the United States. But their mothers live in Iraq, so to ask the
men about the country is to hear them talk longingly about their moms.
"My next goal is to
bring my mother here to live for six months," says Al-Maleki, who wears a
ring that his mother gave him in 1982.
"Whenever I spend money
(here in Seattle), I think, 'Maybe I should save this money for her,' "
The men used to eat together
in typical Iraqi fashion, cross-legged on the floor. But they have learned to
appreciate sitting in chairs, which is what they do tonight.
says Al-Dhaher, about the injuries he attributes to being tortured by Saddam's
Al-Dhaher and Al-Maleki have
been friends for more than a decade, since meeting in a Saudi refugee camp in
1991. The pair met Al Katrany in 2000 in Seattle, and since then, eating
together has become a routine.
"I wish they close the
borders," says Al-Maleki, blaming the continued violence on
"outsiders" — not Iraqis — who he says do not want a democratic
"The first thing is to
build a wall."
"Like the Chinese
wall," chimes in Al Katrany.
"To keep everyone
out," Al-Maleki continues. "No visitors. No one coming in or coming
out. I guarantee, in six, seven months, everybody would be fine in Iraq."
The men eat family-style and
without utensils, dipping pieces of bread into assorted plates, scooping up
vegetables. They sip glasses of a yogurt drink called laban.
The evening is a warm one,
windows wide open, nearby Interstate 5 traffic sounding like the ocean.
The news from Iraq, on this
day, happens to be positive: the signing of an interim constitution.
"It's a big
moment," Al-Maleki adds.
But they're used to a roller
coaster of emotions that news reports on Iraq always bring. Just six days
earlier, simultaneous suicide bombings in Baghdad and Karbala killed about 200
people and injured hundreds of others.
After the bombings, Iraq's
Interior Ministry and news reports said some 1,000 Iraqis had died in suicide
bombings and other attacks since President Bush declared major combat over on
Al-Dhaher returned to Iraq
right before Christmas, stuffing his luggage with drugstore purchases: socks,
scarves, bath products.
But when he arrived and saw
the rubble, the sewage, the bare shelves at a neighborhood pharmacy, he
regretted not having brought more practical items.
"They think their life
is so normal, but it's not when you come from Seattle, when you can't get even,
like, headache medicine.
"I was trying to be
strong there," he says. "I wanted to be more optimistic. But I came
here and processed all the stuff, the images. Now I find myself a little more
depressed and worried about where it's going to lead."
Al-Maleki looks out the
"Especially the sunsets
remind me of home," he says.
Seattle Times news
researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report. Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916