By Amy Orndorff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
It was 1996 in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein was in power. U.N. inspectors were searching for weapons of mass destruction, and U.N. sanctions were on. U.S. jets screamed overhead in no-fly zones. Rival Kurdish factions battled openly. And the Babani family regularly stacked giant bags of powdered milk against the windows of their home in northern Iraq to protect against stray bullets.
Sona Babani was 10 years old at the time. She played hopscotch with her neighbors when she wasn't in her basement hiding from gunshots. Yesterday, Babani, 20, dressed in her Marine best and became a U.S. citizen.
Babani was surrounded by 24 men and women from 14 countries in a ceremony at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, where she led those in the room in the Pledge of Allegiance. Twelve others in the group were also members of the U.S. military. They joined about 26,000 other "green card" service members -- noncitizens serving in the U.S. military -- who have become citizens since September 2001.
"I am an American. I am a citizen of a country I am fighting for," Babani said, explaining her desire to become a citizen. "It's kind of personal. I have loved America since I was little."
Babani, an administrative clerk at Quantico, faces the unusual prospect of returning to the chaos of a place she and her family fled as refugees.
"We don't hate it over there -- we just want it to be better," she said. "One day we hope it will be anything like America."
The Babanis are unusual in another way: They are among a handful of Iraqi refugees who have made it to the United States. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 2 million Iraqis have fled their homes for other parts of Iraq in recent years and another 2.2 million have fled the country. Some countries, including Sweden, have taken in thousands. Since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the State Department estimates it has given refuge to about 800.
Sona Babani was the middle of three daughters in an Assyrian family. As Christians, they worked with U.S. missionaries to deliver powdered-milk bags, which doubled as shields, to neighboring villages. Her family hosted Bible studies at which some 300 people crammed into their cement home, crowding into her bedroom and spilling upstairs onto the roof.
But Iraq wasn't safe for Babani and her family because they worked with Americans, and they eventually fled as part of Operation Pacific Haven, a 218-day evacuation of 6,600 mostly Kurdish people that the U.S. government considered to be in danger. They were sent to Guam, where they went through an expedited asylum process.
Babani remembers the soldiers and Marines who helped her family members, who were able to flee with only the clothes they were wearing. They gave Sona her first teddy bear and clothes to replace the ones she had to leave behind. "An image like that tends to stick with you," she said.
After a brief stay in Guam, the family settled in Denver in 1997.
"It was the first time we felt some kind of freedom that we had never tasted before," Sona's father, James, said from Denver. "For the first time, we could sleep without fear of what would happen tomorrow."
In Colorado, Sona quickly took to her new life as a self-proclaimed tomboy, wearing knee-length basketball shorts, bluejeans, T-shirts and silver-striped tennis shoes.
"Being raised there gave me so much love for this country," she said. "It makes you not want to take for granted the little freedoms."
Sona was a sophomore in high school when the war in Iraq started. Her mind again flooded with memories of the military members who helped her family leave Iraq. Nearly fluent in Arabic and familiar with Iraqi cultures and customs, she thought she could help.
Her family was worried. "As a father, I was afraid in the beginning. But since I found that she would love that, I said, 'Fine, go ahead,' " her father said. "Now the whole family is backing her up."
James Babani, 51, works for the Army as a civilian in California, helping to train soldiers before they go to Iraq. Once he passes his physical, he hopes to help the United States by going to Iraq, just like his daughter.
At Quantico, a glossy photo of President Bush and Laura Bush hangs on the wall of Sona's cubicle. The sound of her father singing in Arabic, their native tongue, floats out of her computer speakers. Sona often sings for an audience, too -- only she is more apt to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."