Asmar and Isic Mami left Iraq four years ago, political refugees fleeing a government they describe as a "tyranny." For more than a year they have lived in Leesburg, quietly and anonymously, in fear of fellow countrymen who the Mamis say seed revenge against dissidents like themselves.
Soon the Mamis will move to a northern state where two of their sons have found work.
Recently, the Mamis agreed to tell their story, of the terror that has haunted them as critics and rebels of a government they cannot support, of the agonizing decision to flee their homeland.
A few years ago Asmar Mami was a woman without a country, an Iraqi refugee who wanted to live almost anywhere except the United States. Now the slight, 60-year-old mother of eight says she would willingly die for the United States.
Mami is a political outcast, who fled her homeland in fear. But she came to the United States reluctantly.
"We were told by the Iraqi government that the United States was a place where everyone was hungry, everybody used marijuana and the people were killing each other in the streets," says her son Joseph. "We had no way of knowing." e
The 13 months Mami and her famly have lived in the United States, in Loundoun County, have renewed her hopes. But the years of her family's tenouous and often frightening existence in Iraq are burned in her memory, as vividly as the purplish scars her husband Isic, 69, carries from the hot irons his family says were used to torture him in Iraqi prisons.
In recent weeks, the Mamis have spent much of their time before the television set in their modest Leesburg home, watching reports of the Iraqi-Iranian war. Because Asmar and Isic Mami do not speak English, their son Joseph interprets.
But the images on the telvision screen need no interpreting, and Asmar watches with a worry-worn face. One of her seven sons is a commando with the Iraqi army; another drives a tank, much like the one that comes across the television.
Asmar and Isic already have heard one report, which they later learned was false, that their eldest son was killed in a raid on Iran. On such days, Asmar cries in fear. Everyday she prays that another report won't come -- one that is true.
The Mamis have lived with fear for most of their lives. At first, they say, it was because of their ethnic background, Assyrian-Babylonian, and their religion, Catholism.
The real terror began 12 years ago when Isic, then a house painter, was arrested without his family's knowledge. The Mamis, speaking through Joseph, freely admit that Isic was helping Kurdish rebels who opposed the current ruler, Saddam Hussein Takriti, during his rise to power. When Isic disappeared, his family assumed he had been killed while fighting with the rebels.
"We had no idea what happened to him," Joseph said. "We all thought he was dead."
Soon after his father disappeared, Joseph said, and Iraqi soldier painted a red mark on his family's front door. "Everyone who had the paint was sent away to the desert."
Their new home was a mud-brick flat that Joseph compares to hovels depicted in biblical stories. He is convinced the government never expected the exiles to return. "It was almost impossible to live there," he said. "the water was dirty, no electricity and no doctors. The government wanted us to die."
Eight years later, in the mud home in the southern Iraqi desert, Asmar Mami answered a knock on her door. Standing outside was a thin and haggard man she did not recognize. It was Isic, freed from prison. "None of us knew him at first," Asmar says as Joseph interprets. "He looked older, terrible, very weak."
When the government asked the Mamis to sign a pledge supporting Saddam Hussein's government, the Mamis decided to flee Iraq.
Joseph went first, in 1976, on a student passport to study in Greece.
Later that year, his parents and two of his brothers obtained passports and joined him. The cost, the Mamis said, was $500 a piece in bribes to Iraqi officials.
For two years, the Mamis lived in Greece, taking menial jobs while they waited with 7,000 other Iraqis for permanent asylum in another country.
Finally, a U.S. official offered them refuge in the United States.When he asked the Mamis where they wanted to settle, Asmar blurted out, "Virginia." The decision was made because of an Iraqi cigarette label Asmar had seen: "Made from the best Virginia tobacco."
Once the Mamis decided on Virgina, international refugee groups went to work to find them a sponsor. The Catolic Diocese of Arlington already had a church in Purcellville, St. Francis de Sales, that wanted to sponsor a refugee family. There was only one catch.
"We were all psyched up for a Southeast Asian family," said Chuck Appel, a church member who was on the committee that voted to have the church sponser the family.
The Mamis were just as bewildered about Virginia. "We thought everyone had horses, few cars and walked around with guns on their hips," laughed Joseph, recalling the Old West image his family had of Virginia.
Asmar now admits she was a little disappointed when her family landed at the glass-and-steel of Dulles Airport instead of a western ranch.
But the disappointment was soon over, as St. Francis members helped the family find a home and jobs for their three sons.
The Mamis still live with fear, and their health is not good. Asmar is blind in one eye and has diabetes. Isic is partially paralyzed as the result of a stroke. They also are diffident about telling a reporter exactly where their eight children are. Four sons are in the United States, they say, although the will give you the names and locations of only two, Ben and Joseph, who live in Leesburg. Two sons are in Iraq; the other son and their daughter live somewhere in the Mideast.
But the Mamis are not without hope. They have found good friends among St. Francis members and recount the kindness and generosity that greeted them when they arrived in Leesburg. They are pleased that two of their sons have married American women they met in Leesburg, and are looking forward to the move north with Ben, Joseph and their wives.
As for their homeland, Asmar Mami has no doubts: "Iraq is the darkness. America is the light. I would die for America because of what the people here have done for us."