Family leaves violence behind
Transplanted Iraqis make the new their own and hold on for a better future.
Alaa Salih and her husband Ceasar Ahmed with their daughters Talida, 1, and twins Zubayda and Shahynaz, 5, in their Glendale home on Monday, February 21, 2011. Ceasar and his young family moved to the U.S. from Iraq last year to find a better place for them to grow and go to school. The twins, who didn't know a word of English, are practicing the alphabet together with flash cards. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer) ((Tim Berger/Staff Photographer))
Anti-government protests in Iraq last week led to the deaths of at least 11 demonstrators who clashed with security forces — a familiar scene across the Middle East as demands for democratic reforms spread from the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But Ahmed left any sense of hope behind in Iraq when he moved his family to Glendale.
When he speaks of the people in Egypt and in other Middle Eastern countries fighting for reforms, he asks, “How? And who’s next? In Iraq, there was one party. The Baath party.”
Now there are more than 30 political parties.
“It really worries me — the whole thing about democracy and reforms — it takes years and sacrifices,” Ahmed said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
But neither will his transition to a new life here.
Although he spent much of his youth in the U.S. — his father was an Iraqi diplomat in Washington, D.C., and at the United Nations — his family moved back to Baghdad in 1991 under Saddam Hussein’s regime when his father’s mission ended.
“When I went back, it was a totally different atmosphere. We had the economic embargo. Sanctions. Iraq was isolated. No one could leave the country,” Ahmed said. “It was strange for me.”
Six years later, Ahmed finished medical school. He worked 15 hours a day as a doctor and then translator for the Los Angeles Times’ Baghdad bureau, but the security situation was too perilous, forcing him to move his family into six different houses within the span of six years.
The hope for a new life and stability that Ahmed and his wife, Alaa Kadim, had in 2003, when Saddam’s regime fell and when the pair first met, was gone seven years later.
After a three-year stay in Cairo, Ahmed’s wife and daughters returned to Baghdad in 2009. He took the family out to dinner at a recently opened restaurant. The next day the restaurant was bombed.
“We missed it by one day,” he said.
It was a brutal reminder that despite years of upheaval and military intervention, their security situation had not improved.
“The Americans came and they got rid of [Saddam Hussein], which was a really good thing, but there was chaos everywhere — until the point where we lost our country,” Ahmed said. “My country’s gone. We were taken backwards in so many ways.”
That’s when he and his wife decided to pack up their twins, age 5, and their 1-year-old daughter and leave.
“My kids reached an age where they had to go to school,” Ahmed said. “Me and my wife had to make the decision to come here. I didn’t want to die and leave them alone.”
He stayed for a bit with a Los Angeles Times editor he knew from his work at the Baghdad bureau before finding his apartment in South Glendale.
His new home here is a far cry from the property the family last had in Iraq, with its two hours of daily electricity, backyard rats and cold household water in frigid winters. On a recent Sunday, Ahmed and Kadhim sat with tall glasses of orange juice and thick slices of chocolate bread. Their twin daughters, sporting “Dora the Explorer” shoes and matching haircuts, rattled off the English alphabet.
They have excelled in school, earning “Student of the Month” recognitions from John Muir Elementary, and have taken to feeding the ducks at Elysian Park.
Kadhim and Ahmed are intent on finishing school here as each of their college degrees — his in medicine, hers in business — do not transfer over. Kadhim is enrolled in an English course at Glendale Community College’s Garfield campus and Ahmed is preparing to become a medical assistant.
In the meantime, they seize on the familiar and make the new their own.
Kadhim and Ahmed said the locals have been kind on the street, although when some approach they speak Armenian. Laughing, Ahmed said many have also tried to talk to him in Spanish.
In the summer at a market near their home, Kadhim found her familiar date syrup made in Kerbala, Iraq. She stores it unopened in her cupboard, bringing it out to show visitors.
“Look what I found,” she’ll say.
Kadhim often speaks to her Iraqi friends living in other parts of the world, all displaced from Iraq.
“It’s hard for all of us,” she said. “Every day we call each other and support each other.”
And they hold on to the promise of a better future — finish school, land a job, save and buy a house.
Not too long ago, when Ahmed and Kadhim posted a photo on Facebook of the family in front of the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, he said his friends and relatives could only reply: “You’re in heaven! Stop complaining!”