Saturday, March 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Refugees in Northwest straddling 2 worlds

By Florangela Davila
Seattle Times staff reporter

TOM REESE / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Saad Al-Maleki, left, Mustafa Al Katrany, seen in mirror, Sabah Al-Dhaher, right, and his son, Noor Al-Dhaher, share a meal in Al-Dhaher's home. The three men left Iraq as young men and later became friends, meeting to talk about politics, family and their homeland.

 

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 agency predicts.

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 homeland.
 

 

 

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 stories.

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 tape.

"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," says Al-Dhaher.

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 future.

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,' " Al-Dhaher says.

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.

"Back problems," says Al-Dhaher, about the injuries he attributes to being tortured by Saddam's Baath soldiers.

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 Iraq.

"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 beautiful," Al-Dhaher says.

"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 May 1.

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 window.

"Especially the sunsets remind me of home," he says.

Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report. Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or fdavila@seattletimes