March 16, 2013

Iraqi man, family make new life in U.S. after escaping the turmoil of war

War has many pieces. Warriors who fight, politicians who talk, warriors who are wounded or killed, families who suffer. And refugees.

War has many pieces.

Warriors who fight, politicians who talk, warriors who are wounded or killed, families who suffer.

And refugees.

Qaies Al-amood escaped from Saddam Hussein’s death squads in Iraq after the Gulf War ended in 1991. He lived in a cramped refugee camp in Saudi Arabia for nearly two years before coming to the United States two decades ago.

Six years later, Eman, a childhood friend from their hometown of Basrah, joined him in the U.S., and they were married.

Now U.S. citizens, Qaies, Eman and their four children live in Wichita.

He has worked at Cessna for 13 years as an avionics technician. They own their home in southwest Wichita. Al-amood coaches the soccer teams for his two oldest children, Mehdi, 12, and Hassan, 10, who are in gifted programs in school.

Ten years ago this week, U.S. troops invaded Iraq and soon brought down Saddam’s regime. But even today, 15 months after the American military withdrew, the country remains violently torn by sectarian feuding among Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Iraqi Kurds, and rebuilding the infrastructure has been slow.

Al-amood and his family are physically far removed from the turmoil. And for that, he’s grateful.

“I feel safe, my children are safe,” said Al-amood, 39. “This is a better life for us and the kids.”

It’s not always rosy.

“There are always cultural differences because my Islam belief and western culture don’t agree on a few things. That’s always difficult,” he said. “But we have the freedom to practice our faith and to pray.

“Here, you’re not forced to do anything. If you want to be a scumbag, you can be. If you want to make something of yourself, you can. For the most part, you have a chance.”


Riyad Al-amood operated several small markets in Basrah in southern Iraq. He also was involved with a group trying to fight against Saddam long before the Americans arrived.

He was arrested and thrown into one of Saddam’s prisons in 1984. Qaies, his oldest child, was about 10 at the time. He would soon follow in his father’s footsteps.

Saddam had Russian-made AK-47 assault rifles distributed to high school boys, including Qaies Al-amood. Each Thursday, Qaies and the other boys brought their rifles to school so they could learn how to clean their weapons and train by firing blanks.

“We were supposed to defend the country against the Americans,” he said.

After the Gulf War, Al-amood put live rounds in that rifle and used it in the revolution against Saddam’s regime. But Saddam broke the revolution, regained control and put together death squads, which went house to house searching for anyone who had opposed him.

Al-amood was on that list to be killed.

“They had a lot of spies,” he said. “They knew who was against the regime. There was no trial. They’d just come to your house, take you out, and you’d get shot right there.”

Al-amood, his mother, sister and three brothers moved to a different city and then escaped across the nearby border and into Saudi Arabia. They lived in a camp in the desert that was surrounded by barbed wire and contained about 7,000 refugees.

“It seemed like about the size of a football field,” Al-amood said, “but I suppose it was bigger. It was pretty rough.”

For two years, the family lived in a tent. They were given food and water and nothing else. Armed Saudi guards made sure they didn’t leave the camp.

In 1992, Saddam released some of the older political prisoners, including Riyad Al-amood, as a gesture to gain public support. But Riyad couldn’t reach his family and would remain in Iraq for almost a year.

In May 1993, a U.S. church brought 19-year-old Qaies Al-amood, his mother, sister and brothers to Roanoke, Va. A year later, they moved to Wichita, where they knew other Iraqi families had settled.

After waiting tables at restaurants for a while, Al-amood enrolled in Wichita Technical Institute and learned avionics skills. He later earned a certificate in airframe and powerplant mechanics at Cowley College.

Reunion at Mid-Continent

Thousands of Iraqis are eligible for resettlement to the U.S. because they risked their lives to help the American war effort as interpreters, cultural advisers and other support staff.

But of the legislated allotment of about 25,000 “special immigrant visas,” just 4,669 have been approved since 2008, and the program is scheduled to end in September.

Advocates for Iraqi applicants say the resettlement process has been slow and complicated.

In the 1990s, well before 9/11, it was much easier for Al-amood and other Iraqi refugees to reach American soil.

Eman came to the U.S. – and Wichita – in 1999 on a marriage visa. Their marriage had been arranged by their fathers.

“I sponsored her,” Al-amood said.

Meanwhile, his father also found a way out of Iraq. He obtained a fake passport to Denmark and came to the U.S. in 1995, sponsored by his own family.

When Riyad Al-amood arrived at Mid-Continent Airport, it was the first time Qaies had seen his father in more than a decade.

“I don’t know if I can put into words what it was like,” Al-amood said. “It was almost a weird, anxious feeling. We hugged, we had tears.”

Putting broken pieces together after wars and dictators have torn families apart is difficult.

“It’s almost as if we had to learn to be around each other,” Al-amood said. “I was a man now. I’d lived all those years without him.”

Gradually, most of his family has moved to Dearborn, Mich., where there is a large Islamic settlement. His parents and teenage sister, who was born in the U.S., moved to Dearborn about two years ago.

All the men – except Qaies – drive over-the-road semis.

Riyad Al-amood has a close relationship with his 14 grandchildren, including the seven who live in Wichita. Last week, he pulled his semi into Wichita to spend a couple of days here.

“It’s like he’s trying to make up for the relationship he couldn’t have with me,” Qaies Al-amood said.

9/11 backlash

Adjusting to life in America was difficult at first for Al-amood.

“Language, culture, values – everything I grew up knowing changed,” he said. “In the society I grew up in, I couldn’t even talk to a girl.”

In Iraq, he said he was also forced to pray and fast.

“Now, I can do it because I want to,” Al-amood said.

For a while after the terrorist attacks destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he felt a backlash from Americans.

“In the heat of it when it first happened and because my wife wears a veil, we’d get some strange looks in public,” Al-amood said. “People would turn and look at us as if they were saying, ‘What are you doing here?’

“But in the Midwest, it wasn’t as bad as in Dearborn. Mosques were trashed, windows broken. But here, after about a year, it was OK. People realized, ‘It’s not you guys.’ It was all Saudis (involved with the terrorist attack on the towers). Osama bin Laden was Saudi.”

Al-amood is very clear about his views of the U.S. invasion 10 years ago.

“There was no legitimate reason,” he said. “There weren’t any weapons of mass destruction. The people who destroyed the towers didn’t live in Iraq.”

He and his wife have kept a close eye on what has happened to Iraq since that invasion. The civil war that raged a few years ago has cooled off some, but frequent suicide bombings are a reminder the country is far from unified.

He ponders whether Iraq is better off now than when Saddam ruled with an iron fist.

“It’s a hard question,” Al-amood said. “Is it better because Saddam is gone? Yes. Is it better off with all these organizations? No.

“At least when Saddam was there, he had them under his thumb. I didn’t agree with him. He was a dictator.”

He said the split between the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites are driven by al-Qaida influences outside of Iraq, often setting Sunnis and Shiites against each other.

“They want to drive the country into three large states,” said Al-amood, a Shiite. “That’s not good. Sunnis, Shiites, we all pray to the same God, use the same Koran. I have Sunni friends.”

He knows Iraq could become a great country.

“We have all the resources – oil, agriculture,” Al-amood said. “We’re a rich country. But we can’t take advantage of it, because every time someone builds something, they blow it up. There’s no unified leadership.”

For that unification to come, the answer has to come from someone who wants to give the country’s children a better life, he said.

“We need someone to care about the country instead of themselves,” he said.

Return to Iraq?

Members of his wife’s immediate family – mother, four brothers and two sisters – still live in Iraq. Eman’s father died seven years ago.

Her mother came for a monthlong visit about a year ago, the first time they’d seen each other in more than a decade. They stay in touch through Skype.

Al-amood hasn’t been back to Iraq since he left, but he may take his older children to visit there this summer.

“I want them to see where I grew up, where I hung out,” he said. “I want them to see where their family originated from.”

He is raising his children to understand the Iraqi culture, to follow the Muslim faith. He estimated the Islamic community in Wichita has grown to 5,000 to 7,000 people.

Al-amood wouldn’t move his family to Iraq.

“My wife and I could adapt,” he said. “I feel Iraqi. But my kids, I don’t think they could adapt. They’re better off here.”

Here, their days are filled with learning and soccer.

“Soccer is what we live and breathe in Iraq,” Al-amood said. “As soon as you can walk, you kick a ball.”

Here, his children have opportunities they wouldn’t have in Iraq.

“All you have to do,” Al-amood said, “is want to take advantage of them.”

Contributing: Hannah Allan of McClatchy Newspapers

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