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A Family Unsettled by Peace

Kurdish exile returns to Iraq, where he wants his wife and children to join him. But to the fully Americanized kids, California is home.

May 09, 2003|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

EL CAJON, Calif. — Ahlam Almissouri got the summons she had been waiting 12 years for last month.

Her husband, Tariq, a former colonel in the Iraqi army who had returned to the Middle East to help the U.S. oust Saddam Hussein, telephoned their home in this San Diego suburb and told her to start packing.

"Get ready to come back," he said. Hussein was finished. The Kurdish family's long exile was finally over.

Hope and joy light Almissouri's eyes at the thought of going back -- living again near her mother at her old home in Dohuk, in northern Iraq, near Turkey. Then she looks at her children, chattering across the room in the argot of the Southern California suburbs, and her face falls.

All six of them, now teenagers and young adults, were born in Iraq. They burn with hatred for Hussein. And seared into their memories is the family's terrible flight from his army in 1991, through the rugged mountains to Turkey. During those bleak, snowy days, the youngest daughter was left behind (they were later reunited) and the oldest daughter -- 8 at the time -- was plagued by a bullet wound to the wrist that needed medical attention.

But as they recount those frightening times, these kids could be any of their El Cajon peers, except for the details: "Oh, yeah, HEL-LO," says Beri, now 20, referring to the terror she felt in the mountains. She doesn't dwell on the topic, though, and the children's conversation slips easily from the long-ago journey to school, to music and to war.

How could these American children pack up and move back to Dohuk? their mother wonders. How could she feel at home in a place where her children don't feel comfortable?

"I am in the middle," she says in the family's living room a few days after receiving her husband's news. Watching her children eat ice cream and fight over the remote control, her genial expression crinkles into a worried frown. "I am so confused," she says. "It is so hard."

As the family gathers in front of the TV, switching from the satellite transmissions of the Arabic channel Al Jazeera to CNN, the situation weighs on everyone.

"My dad could come back," says Beri, who has bleached blond hair and perfectly painted toenails and wants to be a dental assistant. "I was not looking forward to the war," she adds matter-of-factly, "because I knew this time would come, and it's something we all don't want to have to deal with right now.... It's tough, dude."


The family lives in a rented house with plush carpet and bright picture windows overlooking Granite Hills High School's sports fields and the hills beyond. In the yard, Ahlam has planted herbs with seeds that her mother sent from Iraq.

She loves to sip her evening tea as the sun sets, clucking over her plants and listening to her children's jokes. Twenty yards away is a new trampoline, where the children like to bounce their 45-year-old mother in her traditional Kurdish robes as she shrieks and giggles. It's comfortable, but it's a far cry from the sprawling pink house with the gardener and the maid in Dohuk.

Ahlam was brought up in that city, raised to revere the men in her family who fought the Iraqi regime and dreamed of a Kurdish state. At 18, she became a primary school teacher. One day Tariq Almissouri, an engineering graduate, strode onto campus to visit his sister, a teacher there also.

He was immediately smitten with Ahlam, but she refused to talk to him -- it wasn't appropriate for young women to speak to strange men. He dropped by again. She sent him a message: "Don't come. It's bad for my reputation."

But he persisted, eventually winning permission from Ahlam's father to marry her. In 1979 they wed. The next eight years brought them their six children.

Tariq was drafted into the army. Eventually, family members say, he rose to the rank of colonel.

It was difficult to be a Kurd in Hussein's army. For hundreds of years, Kurds, who number about 25 million and describe themselves as the largest nationality on the planet without its own state, have been dominated by powerful empires and nations: Turkey, Iran, Iraq. In the late 1980s, Hussein turned his army on the Kurds in an "ethnic cleansing" campaign, killing an estimated 180,000, including 5,000 who died in chemical attacks in Halabja, a northern city near the border with Iran.

Ahlam Almissouri lost nearly half a dozen relatives there. Meanwhile, she said, her husband had managed to walk a fine line, rising in the army while maintaining secret contacts with relatives who were Kurdish guerrillas. But he tossed his lot in with the rebels in 1991 and rose with them against the Iraqi regime after that year's Persian Gulf War, according to their oldest son, Peter, 22.

The decision upended life for Ahlam and the children, who fled Dohuk to stay with relatives elsewhere. The Iraqi army was advancing, crushing the Kurdish rebellion.

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