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Iraqi Refugee's Ordeal Eased by Release, Reunion With Children

Law: Woman was held nearly two months as a security threat. Her husband is a leader of anti-Hussein group, but she says she is apolitical.

May 25, 1997|SHARON BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a spare Tarzana apartment, her five children seated around her on folding chairs, Mehdia Alzubydy did not look like a threat to the security of the United States.

A black hejab, or veil, covering her hair and shoulders, the 43-year-old flung her arms around a neighbor and cried. She spoke of her children, and cried again.

Alzubydy, the wife of a prominent Iraqi dissident, was released on bond last week from the Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center in San Pedro. She was sent there nearly two months ago, on the same day that her children won the right to settle in the United States as political refugees.

For eight weeks, she was the only Iraqi and one of only two Arabic-speaking women in the all-female detention center. She was not allowed to wear her veil or her joba, the long, black caftan donned by some devout Muslim women when in public--not even to cover her orange jail jumpsuit when alone with her attorney, a man.

"The most horrible part was they didn't allow me to cover my hair, and made me wear jail clothes. The most bad feeling was at that point," Alzubydy said Friday.

"Being innocent," she added, "I never had any guilt."

According to the INS, Alzubydy and 12 Iraqi men being detained in Southern California are potential security threats. INS officials declined again last week to elaborate on their reasons for detaining Alzubydy and the others.

The families of those who are being held say that it was the U.S. government who brought them here in the first place, with promises of political asylum as thanks for helping the Central Intelligence Agency in failed efforts to unseat Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Initially, the INS detained 59 of the 6,500 Iraqis who had been airlifted to safety last fall in a massive effort to save anti-Hussein activists and their families from the encroachment of the dictator's forces. After a week in custody at the Mira Loma jail near Lancaster, most of them, including Alzubydy's children and the wives and children of a dozen others, were released. Twenty-five remained in custody, with 13 of them considered security risks.

Alzubydy, whose husband is a top official of the Iraqi National Congress, a U.S.-backed anti-Hussein group, was loaded onto a bus bound for the San Pedro detention center. She could see her children in the bus ahead of her as they headed to freedom in Glendale, where they briefly shared a home with other Iraqi refugees before finding their own apartment in Tarzana.

INS officials had been questioning her at Mira Loma for nearly a week about her activities in Iraq. They wanted to know what her job was. They did not believe that she was not interested in politics, that to her the anti-Hussein cause was little more than an annoying adjunct to being the wife of a man passionate in his beliefs.

"I said I never worked, I never went to school," the Baghdad native recalled. "I was a housewife. Nothing more. Nothing less."

Her 20-year-old son, Haider, begged the officials to keep him in jail in exchange for his mother. She had never been separated from her children, he said.

The INS has said it intends to present classified information about Alzubydy and the others at a hearing tentatively scheduled for July 2 in U.S. Immigration Court.

Hearings on the case have been closed to the public. An immigration judge is taking testimony on whether the INS can deport the Iraqis based on the technicality that none had visas when they entered this country--even though they were airlifted here by the U.S.

Alzubydy's attorney, Niels Frenzen of the not-for-profit firm Public Counsel, said he expects the judge to have no choice but to rule against his client and order her deported because, like the others detained, she did not have a visa. He said he expects to file an appeal.

Deportation to Iraq, he said, would mean certain death because of the political activities of her husband, who remains in northern Iraq.

Frenzen worked for several weeks to secure Alzubydy's release on bond, arguing that her psychological condition was deteriorating because of her separation from her children and her relative isolation in jail. The other 12 alleged security risks awaiting word of their fate, all men, are being held either at Mira Loma or a jail near Bakersfield.

After a judge granted Alzubydy temporary release last week, money had to be raised for her bond. The $3,000 seemed like a fortune for a family only recently resettled, scraping by mostly on donations.

Alzubydy's son-in-law, Allah Alzubydy, has found work as a craftsman. He is married to her eldest daughter, 22-year-old Najlaa. The rest of her children--daughter Aber, 21, and sons Haider, Ali, 18, and Hussein, 14--are enrolling in school or English classes.

The Iraqi National Congress came up with the bond money, which was wired late Wednesday to Los Angeles from the organization's office in London.

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