A Homeland Thought Lost Now in Reach

Two generations of Iraqis in Phila. long to go back.
By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

The bus he was about to board would carry him, heart pumping, past dozens of checkpoints with a fake student ID and $7,000 in cash.

Imad Alabudi had never before left Basra, his birthplace in southern Iraq. But that day four years ago, he said goodbye casually, as though he expected to return soon.

He kissed his mother on the cheek. And with a brisk handshake for each of his brothers, he set off to ford a river on the Turkey-Iraq border in the company of a smuggler who charged $7,000.

“I was hopeless to see my family again,” said Alabudi, 28, now a truck driver living in Northeast Philadelphia. “I never believed the government of Saddam Hussein would collapse.”

For him and other Iraqis who ended up in the United States, leaving was not emigrating. It was going into exile.

But now – even for some who arrived a generation ago and have American-born children, mortgages and citizenship here – the toppling of Hussein has opened a door to reclaiming a homeland they thought they had lost.

The Pentagon is flying an elite sliver – about 150 – of the 90,000 Iraqi-born U.S. residents back to play official roles in their country’s reconstruction. Nouman Shubbar, a Philadelphia police sergeant, is among them. He was to have departed yesterday for military training on the way to Iraq to help rebuild the nation’s police force.

But for most, the homecomings will not carry the official seal of the U.S. government. Theirs will be intensely personal journeys – finally fulfilled reunions without a precise plan.

“I would like to finish my life there,” said Amar Alkaysi, 46, who fled in 1981 rather than fight in the Iran-Iraq war. “Thanks be to God, I have a good life here, but I wasn’t very happy, because I was away from my home.”

Alkaysi was working in Kuwait as a mechanical engineer in the early 1980s when his father warned him that Iraqis abroad who had ignored Hussein’s call to arms were being forcibly repatriated. Some had been executed. Others had been imprisoned. It was time, Alkaysi’s father told him, to leave.

Apart but also alike

Two decades separate that farewell from Alabudi’s. And the two men, who work for the same auto-parts company, occupy opposite ends of the spectrum for immigrants here.
Alkaysi owns the trucks that deliver the auto parts. Alabudi, because of Alkaysi’s help, drives them.

Alkaysi is a U.S. citizen. Alabudi is in limbo, appealing his denied claim for political asylum.

Alkaysi is married, with three children all born in the United States. Alabudi is single.

The gap between them mirrors one in their community – between the refugees who came after the Gulf War and the better-educated, older guard who preceded them.

Less than four miles separate Alkaysi’s and Alabudi’s apartments in Northeast Philadelphia. They hang out at the same coffee shop, al-Manar, in a Palestinian hub of North Philadelphia. They worship at the same Shia mosque in Delran, Burlington County. And both have a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, the cleric who spearheaded Iran’s Islamic revolution, hanging in their living rooms.

‘I left my whole life behind’

There is a common thread of persecution – and of longing for home – in their stories.
Alabudi, too, left because he did not want to become a soldier for Hussein. A diesel mechanic in Basra, he pretended to be a student to avoid serving in the army. In addition to carrying the fake ID, he hauled books to his car every day for three years to fool informants.

In the year before Alabudi left, Hussein cracked down on those who dodged military service. If found out, Alabudi’s ears would have been lopped off, his forehead branded, and his family’s rations cut.

“The reason I came here to the U.S. has disappeared,” Alabudi said April 20 at al-Manar, where talk of a brain drain and the duty to return was as plentiful and supercharged as the cardamom-spiced coffee. “I left my brothers, my friends. . . . I left my whole life behind.”

‘Where is home?’

Alkaysi’s life – at least a big part of it – is here.

His wife, Linda, grew up in a small village in the Welsh mountains. She has never stepped foot in Iraq. She is not Muslim. And she speaks little, if any, Arabic.

His 12-year-old, Adam, reads a chapter of the Koran in Arabic every night. But he’s also crazy about Allen Iverson. His basketball is almost an appendage.

And when Alkaysi recently asked Jennah, his 3-year-old habibi, or darling, “Where is Grandma?” the exchange was revealing.

“Home,” she said.

“Where is home?” Alkaysi prodded.

“Feeel-adelphia,” she replied.

“Of course, [the children] are going to be a little confused,” Alkaysi said. “It’s not going to be easy, but I would like them to grow up there.”

“I’m not going to force them to stay,” he said. “I don’t know myself if I can stay after all these years.”

Still, at al-Manar – amid al-Jazeera TV images of Iraqis in the streets clamoring, “Where is the democracy?” – it seemed clear to Alkaysi that he had to return and help answer that question.

“The prints of those years are still in my heart,” he said of pre-Hussein Baghdad, where bars did not proliferate; the rhythm of life hewed to the Islamic worship schedule, with Fridays off; and devout men and women did not listen to music.

Tomorrow, he leaves for a monthlong vacation in the United Arab Emirates. While there, he plans to finagle his way into Baghdad, if possible.

But, like Alabudi, he will wait to make sure the country does not spiral into civil war before booking a flight for a permanent return.

Linda Alkaysi smiled when told this.

“Living there? Full time? I have to take it one step at a time,” she said. “I’ve never been there. I know nothing, really.”

Amar Alkaysi, meanwhile, just wants to lay eyes on his 76-year-old mother in the country he has not stepped foot in for a quarter of a century: “This time, inshallah, I hope to see her again – there.”

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