The Good Life 

With Saddam gone, Iraqi Kurds and Shias think of going back. Will they be accepted?

The uprising was three hours old when Ali Almaliky’s suddenly limp body fell to the hot ground. At first, there wasn’t any blood, but soon Ali was nearly drowning in a lake of it. The bullet entered Ali’s neck and traveled along his collarbone, fracturing bone and piercing muscle as it burrowed into his shoulder. Ali would have died there, in Basra, had his brother not noticed him choking on his own blood, unable to move because of the crushing momentary paralysis of the right side of his body.


Even after Ali was dragged to a makeshift ambulance and transported to an opposition hospital, the prognosis wasn’t good—he’d lost too much blood, and he was still bleeding internally. Doctors told Ali’s brother that the former Iraqi army geologist, who was unarmed and was running to help free political prisoners from an underground jail when he was shot, would die in the morning.


“It was a matter of luck whether you died or not,” Ali says.


He was lucky, of course. A good friend of his was not; he died much the same way Ali was supposed to. In a hospital room just above his, Ali’s friend bled to death. In some ways, though, Ali was hardly fortunate. Now marked as an enemy of Saddam Hussein, he and his brother, who was shot in the knee while Ali recovered in the hospital, fled to Saudi Arabia in 1991. Eventually granted war-refugee status and allowed to emigrate to the United States, Ali hasn’t been back to Iraq since he took a bullet for the short-lived Shia revolution that followed the liberation of Kuwait.


“There’s something called the Iraqi Dream,” Ali says, “and that’s to see Saddam removed from power, and when the opportunity comes, you have to take it.”


Ali watched the dream unfold this spring on cable TV from his Salt Lake City apartment. He says he’s a big fan of the U.S. strike on Iraq and hopes that democracy, with free and open elections, will flourish there. But like many of Utah’s expatriate Iraqi community, whether Shia or Kurdish, Ali isn’t planning on going back. The reasons are varied. For one thing, Ali’s comfortable here—he works with autistic children and drives a Jaguar. He dresses like he just stepped out of a J. Crew catalog. For another, he doesn’t feel like he would belong in his homeland anymore, or that his country would accept its Americanized cousin.


“The Iraqi people there have an attitude toward exiles,” he says. “We’re not well-liked over there—by my family yes, but nationwide, no. They have an attitude that we had a good life here, that we didn’t suffer enough.”


Saeed Sindy sits in a east-side, five-bedroom brick bungalow, watching satellite TV with his family. He drinks a Pepsi while a Kurdish channel broadcasts grainy footage of pesh merga—Kurd freedom fighters—firing mortars at Saddam’s army sometime during the 1970s. On the living-room wall is the flag of Kurdistan and a tapestry of Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party—decorations that were banned in Iraq. The house has central heat and a wide porch that Saeed sits on when the weather is nice. The entire 15-member family lives there, pooling resources to make sure the bills are paid and the cupboards stocked.


Life here in Salt Lake City is good, comfortable really, Saeed says through his son Soud, who translates from Kurdish. But in some ways, Saeed is in hell.


“Everybody likes his own country,” Saeed says, smiling.


Soud adds that his father, who is almost 60, wants to go back home. The Sindys have technically never truly had a home—Kurdistan only exists, for now, in dreams and in living rooms in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and America—but Saeed wants to go back to the mountains of northern Iraq with his wife, where they have brothers and sisters, land for farming and a tea house they operated before coming to America in 1995.


“We have everything there. That’s why they want to go back,” Soud says. “It’s too hard to live here. He doesn’t have job, doesn’t have language.”


Soud adds that while there are several hundred Kurds living in the Salt Lake Valley, his father feels isolated.


“In Kurdistan, if my dad comes to home after lunch, he goes to bazaar, sees a lot of friends, sees cousins, sees everybody, talks to everybody. Here, he stays in house all day because he doesn’t have anywhere to go. Sometimes he goes to Smith’s to buy something,” Soud says. “He has three or four friends here, but they can’t drive and he can’t drive.”


When tempers cool in Iraq, Soud says that perhaps his mother and father will return. He says they will be welcomed there—as a former pesh merga who fought Saddam in the ’70s, seeing first-hand Saddam’s chemical bombs, Saeed will always be accepted by his fellow Kurds.


But Soud and his brother Masud, both of whom served as armed guards for U.S. personnel following the first Gulf War, have no intention of going back. Soud wants to go to college and raise his one-year-old daughter in America. Masud, who co-owns a Murray auto shop with another Kurd refugee, fought for freedom in 1991 as part of the Kurdish uprising and now he has found it, albeit across the globe.


“Nobody makes any problem for us. You’re free to do what you want, no matter what you are. It just depends on your brain,” Masud says. He adds that he would consider going back to his hometown near the Turkish border on one condition: “If my city or Kurdistan is doing well, and it’s separate from the Arabs and Turks, yeah, no problem. I did go back there last year for two months. It was OK. Actually, not very good.”


Kamal Bewar is already back in Iraq. A Kurd who came to Salt Lake City a decade ago after he fled fighting in northern Iraq, Kamal returned to the Middle East a month ago to work as a temporary translator for reconstruction crews. But Iraq isn’t his home anymore, and when he says “our country,” he’s not even talking about Kurdistan—he’s an American now, even though as a 21-year-old pesh merga in 1991, he would have given his life for his people.


“We were just protecting our land and our identity. Saddam started a genocide against Kurds, and we just wanted him to respect us. It wasn’t our goal to establish a free Kurdistan. We wanted federal integration of Kurdish people,” he says.


Any notion that Kamal didn’t suffer because he escaped to America would be ridiculous. While he rotted in a Turkish refugee camp, his father died. In 1994, a year after coming to America, he says two of his brothers were killed by Saddam’s intelligence agency.


“One of them was 17. I’ve lost cousins, too. My uncle, too,” he says. “Three of my family members passed away, and I wasn’t there. It was really hard.”


Life in Utah hasn’t exactly been a box of chocolates, either. When he arrived, there wasn’t an established Kurdish community, and he says he was basically dropped off in a poor Salt Lake City neighborhood and told to fend for himself. He was haunted by the torture he was subjected to prior to the Gulf War for refusing to join the Iraqi army. And even though he didn’t speak the language, when his government assistance ran out after three months, he had to find work. He worked as a dishwasher and then for a candy company, where he put chocolates in boxes. He now works with refugees as a case worker.


“It was hard. It took me two or three years to get used to it [life in Utah],” he says. “But I’m used to it here. I’m enjoying this type of life and the freedom. If I could have the same thing there [in Iraq], I would. This war will change things, hopefully in a positive way.”

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Shane McCammon

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