Iraqi Americans Taking Their Stories to U.S. Military Bases
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 23, 2004 Dr. Ali Alattar has some compelling stories to tell, and he believes U.S. military service members and their families need to hear them.
The Iraqi-born physician knows Americans have heard countless tales of weapons of mass destruction and mass graves in Iraq. But, he contends, most have never heard these stories straight from someone who has seen people suffering disfigurement, burns and hopelessness because of exposure to chemical weapons. And most have never heard directly from someone who has seen the mass graves, indeed, even has family members buried in them.
"I want you to imagine with me and picture with me a woman buried alive sitting in a minivan in her street clothes and her infant on her lap," Alattar said, in describing a scene he saw this year at a mass grave site in Iraq. "They are still in that position for the past 12, 13 years.
"This is the kind of a man Saddam was," he said, "and the kind of regime that we dealt with. Imagine if this guy had the opportunity to come and have the fate of the Americans in his hand -- what could have he done?"
Alattar left Iraq in 1980 when his Shiite Muslim family was sent into exile because his father was involved with human-rights work. Today he is a physician in private practice in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., and he's one of countless Iraqis living in exile who have returned to the country of their birth to help with reconstruction since Saddam was removed from power.
Pentagon officials are working to get some of these individuals, as well as Americans who have done reconstruction work in Iraq, to travel to military bases in the United States to talk to servicemembers and their families about the progress being made in Iraq and their hopes for the country's future.
A group of these individuals visited the Pentagon Sept. 22 to speak with family-policy and public-affairs experts about the program. They explained why they feel it's important for them to reach out to U.S. troops and their families.
"This is the best thing I've ever done in my life," said Bob Goodwin about his 11 months in Iraq working to re-establish the country's health system. He acknowledged the security situation is a concern, but said Iraqis are making tremendous progress in their ability to deliver essential services, such as healthcare, education and water.
"From what I've seen Iraq has a bright future," he said. "And people need to know that."
Stories from American soldiers about working with Iraqis inspired Scott Erwin to seek a different job from his position creating spreadsheets and databases while ensconced in the relative safety of central Baghdad's Green Zone that includes the Iraqi interim government organizations and the U.S. Embassy.
"Most people see the United States Army in Iraq and think of fighting first and foremost, but what I heard were (stories of) troops building relationships with the Iraqi people, building schools, passing out soccer balls, and really winning the hearts and minds," said Erwin. "And I was jealous. I wanted to be a part of that. That's why I had gone to Iraq in the first place."
Erwin began work as a liaison between Iraqis and coalition members working for the Ministry of the Interior and ran a program teaching the tenets of democracy to university students in Baghdad.
As he was returning to the Green Zone one day in early June from his last session with the university students, the car Erwin was riding in was attacked. The two Iraqi police officers with him were killed, and an Iraqi translator saved Erwin's life by pulling him out of and behind the car to shield him from small-arms fire. Eventually other Iraqi police officers were able to get him to medical attention inside the Green Zone.
Erwin was shot four times in the attack. A surgical scar is evident low on his left forearm, and he still wears an elaborate splint on that arm. But, he said, he holds no animosity toward Iraqis. He prefers to focus on those Iraqis who saved his life.
"Some people have asked me, 'Why would you ever want to go back? Do you hold ill will toward the Iraqi people for what they did?'
"How can I?" he said he replies, "because the Iraqi people are the ones that saved my life. And yes, I would like to go back if given the opportunity and then try to stay as involved as possible."
Erwin said that speaking to military groups allows him to feel like he's still contributing. He keeps in mind the 5- and 7-year-old children of a driver he befriended while in Iraq. He said the work of all Americans and Iraqis involved in reconstructing Iraq helps to ensure all Iraqi children will have a brighter future.
"That's what the Iraqi people are striving for," Erwin said. "And that's what we, as Americans, are assisting them in doing. And it's a noble cause."
Pakeza Alexander left northern Iraq when she was 10 in the mid-'70s, walking and running for 21 days through the mountains until her group reached Iran. On her trek, Alexander recalls seeing death, hunger and fright among the people and planes dropping bombs.
She said she remembers that on her 19th day on the run, "I looked up and said, 'God, is no one out there to help us?'"
She swore that she would someday do something to help the people of Iraq or any people who went through what she did. Alexander fulfilled that promise last year, when she returned to Iraq to work for the Iraqi Reconstruction Development Council.
Alexander said she signed on for the project to visit military bases to thank U.S. troops for what they've done in Iraq. "My hope," she said, "is to go face to face to thank them as a U.S. citizen and as Iraqi born, to thank them for representing the United States, my country, (for protecting our) freedom, and at the same time to thank them for helping my people in Iraq."
Tamara Quinn and Mahdi Sundukchi, both Iraqi-born Americans who have worked in Iraq over the past year, shared similar sentiments about speaking to U.S. troops and their families.
Quinn came to the United States in 1973. Saddam was de facto ruler of the country then, and harassment of university students, particularly women, was being stepped up. Quinn's family helped her travel here when she was 19, and she feared she'd never see Iraq again.
"I was afraid to go back in case they kept me there," she said. But, she added, she was compelled to return to Iraq after the country's liberation. After working for the Iraqi Reconstruction Development Council for nearly 10 months, Quinn needed to return to her regular job at the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Still, she felt she needed to help in some way and began spending time with a local military-reserve unit preparing to deploy from Cleveland, Tenn., teaching them basic Arabic and telling the soldiers and their families what life in Iraq is like.
She said this program is a natural extension of her work there. "I thought, 'Well of course I will do this,'" she said. "'There is no question in my mind that I will do this.'"
Sundukchi left Iraq in 1982 to work on a graduate degree and now works for the U.S. Census Bureau. He said he felt he needed to stay here to financially support his extended family back in Iraq. Noting that all of his siblings have college degrees -- two of them are even engineers -- Sundukchi lamented the fact that they often earned only $2 or $3 per month in Iraq.
Sundukchi had been active in Iraqi groups in the United States seeking Saddam's ouster and returned to his home country in March 2004 to help plan a census there. "The damage was way beyond my imagination or my calculation of what I have even read in the paper and what I have heard from my family members and friends," he said. "Schools were disasters. Most of the faculty members left the country, and students have not even enough seats for them. They used to share chairs or stools."
He said he wants to visit U.S. military bases to "tell the parents of the men and women in uniform how wonderful job they did over there."
Members of the group are planning to visit various military bases in teams of two, said Leslye Arsht, who is helping coordinate the program for DoD's Office of Military Community and Family Policy and who herself spent nine months working in Iraq with the Ministry of Education.
Arsht explained the venue may vary at each location. "The installations themselves will decide what the venue will be and how to invite people to listen to these first-hand stories about what has happened in Iraq and personal stories about hopes for the future," she said.
All the participants said they feel it's important for military members and their families to be exposed to positive stories from Iraq to balance the negative stories that often dominate media reports.
"Iraqis paid dearly to get rid of (Saddam), and the only way was to call on the help of the Free World to help them," Alattar said. "And we should be very proud that the United States answered that call. Everybody should be proud, and especially the men and women in uniform and their families, that they contributed to the freedom of the Iraqis."
All Americans and Iraqis need to understand that the "path to democracy is not easy, but we need to stick it together," he said. "We should not let the forces of darkness and the enemies of Iraq and the enemies of freedom and the enemies of democracy prevail. They should not, and they will not."