US & World

Violence Overseas Touches Iraqi-Americans in Southern California

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As part of KPCC's coverage of the fifth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, Frank Stoltze spoke with two Iraqis living in Southern California. They talked about how the violence overseas is affecting them.

Frank Stoltze: During her childhood, Ilham Hussein would walk with her family along the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad. She remembers eating tasty white fish cooked on date palm leaves and lingering to listen to street musicians perform. That was in the 1960s. She hasn't been back since before the war. But she talks regularly to her sister, who until recently lived along the bloody highway that leads from Baghdad to the airport.

Ilham Hussein: Couple of times when I was talking to her on the phone, she said "Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god," screeching, screaming, telling her grandchildren and her children to run for cover because there was a suicide bomber, or a car parked, it's a foreign car.

Stoltze: Any unfamiliar car, any stranger, could signal an attack.

Hussein: If she's to go to the top of the roof where they usually sleep, she would say "I found a head of a person there," and it freaks her out, because the body parts just flying all over the place.

Stoltze: Hussein's sister finally fled to Northern Iraq. Hussein, a psychotherapist, lives in the San Gabriel Valley. She's one of an estimated 50,000 Iraqis living in Southern California.

Hussein: When we do get together, either we enter into a life of avoidance, and denial. We don't want to talk about what's happening over there, and yet the survival guilt. The luxury in which we're living in the United States, the guilt that you have it and your family don't have it.

Stoltze: The Ahlul Beyt Mosque occupies an old swimming pool supply store next to a McDonald's right off the 10 Freeway in Pomona. Most of the worshipers are Iraqis, like Ameer Shamara.

Ameer Shamara: My uncle about a year ago was kidnapped, and there was a ransom asked for his head, 100,000 dollar, and then we negotiated.

Stoltze: Shamara says his family talked down the ransom to $40,000, but not before his uncle suffered severe beatings. Shamara works in real estate. He left Baghdad with his family 31 years ago.

Shamara: My country is really beautiful. It's really beautiful. Within three hours, you can go to the mountains, you can do skiing. Just like California. Incidentally, Iraq and California is the same latitude.

Stoltze: Shamara opposed the initial U.S, invasion of Iraq. Now?

Shamara: You cannot pull out right now. If you pull out, it's going to be a chaos.

Hussein: United States has led a heroic move at the beginning with intention of liberation.

Stoltze: Ilham Hussein says the United States made many mistakes in Iraq. Sudden withdrawal is not the way to correct them.

Hussein: I truly feel super angry when I hear candidates running for election saying "bring the troops home." Are we going to leave them halfway and say, "Too bad, we dismantled your country, go fix it yourself?" That's not the American spirit. I don't think it is.

Stoltze: Fewer people have died in Iraq in recent months than before. But the violence has touched just about everyone. Hussein strains to imagine a positive future, even though her nephew is among the civilian dead.

Hussein: I want to hold onto that hope. I believe in the bravery of the Iraqi. I believe in our commitment to achieve the goal of democracy. I want to hold onto that.

Stoltze: It's not easy to do, she says, as she considers the three-month old daughter her nephew left behind.