An American life reflects sorrow, hope in Iraq

BAGHDAD — These are some of Tania Aziz's memories:

The white dress with the red ribbon that her grandmother gave her for her eighth birthday on March 16, 1988. The headdress with the gold filigree that her grandmother was wearing on the day she died, when Iraqi troops gassed the village of Halabja on the orders of Saddam Hussein. The month-long trek that got her out of Iraqi Kurdistan, into Syria and then to the United States.

Aziz returned to Iraq years later as an adult, an American with a smart, short haircut working as a private contractor in the U.S. Embassy, advising the Iraqi commission that investigated Saddam's crimes. Saddam was a prisoner, soon to die, but still, when she looked him in the eye, she trembled.

Now she's learning the limitations of her American citizenship.

An effort to get a brother to the United States to be treated for a heart condition failed when he couldn't get a visa. He died in September. "I was finally in a position to help," she said, closing her large brown eyes. "But the security restrictions . . . ."

Now she'd like to get his four daughters to the United States. She's hoping that they won't be turned away, too.

"We never lived like other children," she said of herself and her brothers. Her nieces, who range in age from 1 to 13, "are really smart and they deserve opportunity."

Aziz's tale is one of those stories that one stumbles across in Iraq that cuts through the interminable Washington debate about policy and politics. It isn't about reconciliation among sects or training security forces or the American troop surge. It's a human tale of tragedy, struggle and hope — hope that some kind of redemption will come at last.

Aziz's childhood ended on the day she turned 8. That's when a lethal stew of mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX descended on Halabja. She remembers her grandmother wrapping her in a coat to protect her as they fled.

She remembers seeing the headdress stuck to her grandmother's head and the way her grandmother's skin fell off in sheets. Then she passed out.

She doesn't remember who pulled her away, but when she woke, her child's mind went to her dress. She looked down to see if she'd soiled it. Her grandmother had warned her not to ruin it before the party.

"She was such a beautiful woman," Aziz said.

Two and a half years later, she and a brother, Ezat, were smuggled into Syria. Her parents and four other brothers stayed behind. For eight years in Syria, she went to school and her brother worked. Then a Mennonite church in Atlanta sponsored the pair, and they moved to the American South in 1999.

They knew no English, but her brother got a job as a mechanic, and she worked at an Office Depot until 2002, when she was hired to do translation at Fort Polk in Louisiana. After the U.S. invaded Iraq, she returned to Iraq, and for the last three years she's been working for a private company as an adviser at the U.S. Embassy. When she goes home to Georgia, she wants to take her brother's children with her.

"Those kids deserve to have a life," she said.

Kaziwa, her brother's 7-year-old, writes poetry. Aziz rifles through her purse and smooths out a piece of white paper. The poem is titled "Looking for Death." Kaziwa, which means "the stars in the sky in the first week of spring," wrote it the day after her father died.

It reads:

"In a district of the city of Sulaimaniyah between the neighborhoods I loved one heart

"I loved you

"You the purest human being with the purest heart.

"A human with a pure life, it was only you.

"God, how many times have I prayed do not take my father?

"Please don't take him before you take me."

Aziz plans to have the poem framed and to give it to Kaziwa when she's an adult.

Aziz doesn't know how high the hurdles will be to bring the girls to the United States.

She's working with a lawyer in Sulaimaniyah, in Kurdish northern Iraq, to be named the girls' guardian, a step she says her brother's widow endorses. But Aziz is a single woman in Iraq, where men are considered the family heads.

Even if Aziz is granted guardianship, she may not be able to get U.S. visas for the children. The four girls must qualify as orphans under State Department guidelines, and their mother is alive.

Still, Aziz, who often searches stores she passes for a dress like the one she wore on the day her grandmother was killed, is determined to try. She said she won't leave Iraq without them.

"I lost so many years with my family," she said. "If I don't get them, I'll be destroyed, I guess."