Gravely wounded in Iraq, Kurdish refugee completes journey to become U.S. citizen


Karzan Mahmoud, a Kurdish man who survived an assassination attempt, was sworn in as a citizen at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Fairfax. Mahmoud is congratulated by his mother-in-law, Nashmeel Khudur, after the ceremony. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
June 25

In the spring of 2002, Karzan Mahmoud was working as a driver and bodyguard for a Kurdish political leader in the city of Sulaymaniyah, in northern Iraq. It was a time of rising political tensions and violence. Dictator Saddam Hussein was in the final throes of repressive power, and the Bush administration was preparing to go to war.

As Mahmoud waited for his boss to emerge from a meeting, a taxi pulled up, and a passenger greeted him in Kurdish, then opened fire with an automatic rifle. Five other guards died instantly. Mahmoud, barely alive, pitched into a dirty puddle, his arms, legs, head and abdomen bleeding from more than two dozen bullet wounds.

“I fall down, I feel blood on my face and pain in my legs,” Mahmoud, 36, now a resident of Centreville, Va., said in an interview Monday. “I look at the sky, and I see darkness and flashing. Then I see nothing.”

On Wednesday, at a government ceremony in Fairfax, Va., Mahmoud gingerly raised his wounded right arm and dutifully held it aloft as he recited the oath of loyalty to the United States, along with 50 other immigrants. TV news cameras zoomed in on him, and officials welcomed him as a VIP.

After years of surgery, mountains of paperwork and help from many American friends, the diffident Kurdish refu­gee had survived to become a U.S. citizen.


Karzan Mahmoud. (Courtesy of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services)

“I love American people; I feel safety here, home here,” Mahmoud said shortly before the ceremony, as he painstakingly signed the citizenship form with his left hand. Narine, his 18-month-old son, ran up and down the waiting room; Arine, his infant daughter, dozed in a car seat.

Mahmoud’s odyssey stands out, even for someone from a country racked by years of repression and wars that left hundreds of thousands dead, led to a catastrophic U.S. invasion and sent thousands of exiles fleeing to the United States.

In part, this is because of his extraordinary medical recovery, which required a series of operations in Iraq, Turkey, Canada and the United States. It is also because of his personal charm and determination, which won over everyone he met and asked for help. And playing a role, too, were his close relationships with several American journalists, who met him while covering conflicts in Iraq, and later told his story in articles and books.

One was Kevin McKiernan, a longtime network TV news correspondent, who visited the Kurdish region many times during his career and often worked with Mahmoud and wrote about him in his history of the Kurdish people. Another was Christopher Chivers of the New York Times, who described Mahmoud’s ordeal in his book on war and guns.

In the beginning of 2003, McKier­nan returned to Sulaymaniyah to wait for the looming American invasion. One day Mahmoud came limping into his hotel room and asked for his help. The doctors in Iraq had kept him alive, but he was still suffering with constant pain and infections.

“Of course I went to work on it immediately,” McKiernan said this week from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. He said he sent photographs of Mahmoud’s X-rays and medical charts to doctors back home, and guided him in applying for political asylum in the United States. “Karzan is a bit of a rascal, but he is also loyal and gracious, and he’s able to talk people into doing things for him.”

In March 2003, just as the U.S. military was launching its invasion of Iraq, Mahmoud landed at Dulles International Airport with a bad limp, terrible English, a passport that bore a picture of Hussein and a story that initially made immigration officials suspicious.


Karzan Mahmoud, a Kurdish man who survived an assassination attempt, was sworn in as a citizen at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Fairfax. The new citizens, including, Mahmoud, wave their flags after being sworn in. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“I am coming from Iraq, and people in America are scared of Saddam,” Mahmoud recalled with a laugh. “They ask me a lot of questions. . . . I have platinum sticks in my arms, and they set off a buzzing in the machine.”

Finally allowed to pass, he was welcomed by Iraqi friends and put on a train to Boston, where he would undergo more months of surgery. His shattered right arm and left hip were carefully reconstructed. Private donors helped pay for the treatment; prominent doctors donated their skills.

One of the Americans on whom Mahmoud made a lasting impression was Michael Brabeck, a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Brookline, Mass., who coordinated his treatment. The patient ended up staying at the home of Brabeck and his wife, Mary, for months.

“When he arrived, he was a desperately sick kid who could hardly stand or speak,” Brabeck said in an interview Tuesday from New York. “We had nothing in common. But over those months, he brought a richness and a dimension to our lives that had never been there before, trying to make a broken man into a whole one. For us, Karzan’s story will always be a story of hope and miracles.”

The long-standing political ties between the Iraqi Kurds — fiercely independent and famously victimized by Hussein — and the United States added appeal to Mahmoud’s plight and helped secure him official support in the United States. After his recovery, he said he worked as a driver for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq; he now has a job with a private defense contractor.

Mahmoud’s boss in Iraq at the time of his shooting was Barham Salih, a veteran Kurdish political leader. Salih, whom Mahmoud described as his “big brother” this week, survived years of partisan strife among Kurdish factions. He went on to become prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government and deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. Salih’s father and brother, both living in the United States, helped Mahmoud after he arrived.

Mahmoud was somewhat hesitant to discuss the current conflict that is embroiling his Kurdish homeland, where extremist Sunni militants attack town after town. He said he was especially worried about the partisan rivalries that continue to divide and weaken the Kurds, even as they come under siege from outsiders.

“If the Kurdish people have one heart and one eye, not so many division, all is okay,” he said.“Before, America helps and all Kurdish like America,” he said. “Today nobody is safe. We need America again, so no die people.”

Mahmoud, who met and married Chopi, a Kurdish teacher, while visiting home in 2006, said he plans to settle permanently in the United States.

“You have everything here,” Mahmoud said while he waited to take the oath. “You have freedom, you have law, you have good doctor and police. My life is saved here; now my life is here.”

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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