For the engineer from Reston, taking a job in Iraq this year meant carrying an AK-47 for protection. It meant working 12-hour days, sweltering through nights with no air conditioning and enduring terrifying, window-rattling bomb explosions.
He couldn't wait to go back.
Ezzeldin Ezzeldin is one of dozens of Iraqi Americans from the Washington area who have been returning to their homeland to work on its rebuilding. Business people and engineers, journalists and professors, they are trying to lend their U.S.-honed skills to a country ravaged by war.
Some have returned from their trips to Iraq disillusioned with the slow pace of reconstruction and their reception by Iraqi and U.S. authorities. But others said their journeys were worth the risk and the time away from families in the Washington region.
"You can never forget where you came from," said Ezzeldin, who returned to the United States in June after six months of work in Iraq. "I feel like I did something over there. I brought something new to the country."
About 2,400 Iraqi natives live in Virginia, Maryland and the District, according to the 2000 Census, and many were thrilled at the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Although few are willing to move their families to a war zone, about three dozen or more have returned to Iraq on temporary contracts, local Iraqi leaders said.
They are people such as Ezzeldin, who has built a comfortable life in Northern Virginia, working in technology and driving a Mercedes-Benz. People such as Wail Jamil, a network engineer from Springfield who immigrated five years ago to wed an American; and Raya Barazanji of Arlington County, who has spent years helping Iraqi refugees in the United States.
Until recently, Ezzeldin had never imagined going back to Iraq. He decided to flee Baghdad one horrible day in 1994, when government agents came to his family's home and put three bullets in his father's head, apparently mistaking him for a dissident, Ezzeldin said.
"My father got killed for Saddam. That's why I left," the 40-year-old engineer recalled as he sipped soup with his mother and 8-year-old daughter one recent evening at a French cafe in Reston. For years, Ezzeldin tried to forget his native land as he built a new life, first in Germany and then in Virginia.
But his hopes soared with the U.S.-led invasion. When he was invited to join a Pentagon-sponsored program that recruited Iraqi Americans to help with reconstruction, Ezzeldin jumped. He arrived in Baghdad at the start of this year.
"I wanted to do something. We were supporting the war from the beginning," he said.
Like many of the returning Iraqi exiles, Ezzeldin was stunned to see his homeland. The buildings and infrastructure had deteriorated over the years because of economic sanctions, the war and widespread postwar looting. And suddenly, most Iraqi women seemed to be veiled, a startling sight in Baghdad, which had been staunchly secular.
"I was like, 'What's going on?' " Ezzeldin recalled.
Then came the professional challenges. Ezzeldin was trying to set up the computer system for the Iraqi Governing Council, a body appointed by U.S. authorities. But all the job candidates sent to him were relatives or friends of council members, and they knew little about information technology, he said.
"For them, browsing the Internet was top of the line," he scoffed. But he was told he had to hire such people because they could be trusted.
For some Iraqi Americans, the greatest surprise in returning home was the constant danger. Jamil, 44, also went to Iraq through the Pentagon program known as the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council. He arrived in Baghdad in February to help with advisory councils, part of the governing system set up by U.S. authorities.
Jamil soon realized he could be a target, like numerous council members who were killed for working with the Americans. So, during his four-month stay, the engineer was careful to vary his routine and check under his car for bombs. He told people he was employed by an Iraqi company. He hid his Department of Defense identification card in his sock.
"If I got caught with it, I'd be on TV with a sword over my head," said Jamil, referring to the fate of some foreigners kidnapped by anti-American groups. Jamil had deeply missed his culture since leaving Iraq in 1999. But he said, "In my wildest dreams, I didn't think one day I'd go to Iraq and have to be undercover."
The danger has claimed the lives of some Iraqi immigrants. Mohamad Hanon, 41, a consultant from Alexandria, was working for a nonprofit group in Iraq in January when he got a devastating phone call. His brother, Majeed, who had also returned to Iraq, had been shot dead in the southern city of Basra.
Hanon said his brother, a Michigan resident, probably was killed either because he was helping U.S. authorities or because he was combating corruption at the Basra port, where he had gone to work under the Pentagon-sponsored reconstruction program. To his dismay, Hanon said, his brother wasn't even taken to a U.S. military hospital.
"He was dropped in a hot local hospital, the morgue," Hanon said with disgust. "I said, 'Is this what's going to happen to me, even though I'm a U.S. citizen?' "
It was the last straw for Hanon, who already was frustrated by what he saw as U.S. authorities' arrogance and failure to listen to the returning Iraqi exiles. He went back to Northern Virginia.
"I completely still agree with the principle of what we're doing. I have problems with the implementation," Hanon said.
In fact, many of the returning immigrants encountered disappointments. For some, it was the slowness of the reconstruction. For others, it was the Iraqi politicians, who did not always take kindly to being shown U.S. methods. Several immigrants said they were startled at how closed-minded they found old Iraqi friends, who had been cut off from international news during Hussein's rule.
"I think [Iraqi Americans] had high hopes that they would go there and everything was going to be easy and hunky-dory. But it didn't turn out to be that way," said Barazanji, who works at the Iraq Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Northwest Washington that tries to help Iraqis in their homeland and abroad.
Still, she said, many of the returning immigrants had joyous family reunions and did rewarding work. Barazanji, 39, spent four months in Iraq last year participating in a U.S. government-funded project to provide teacher training and refurbish primary and secondary schools.
"The schoolteachers we worked with were so happy and eager to learn. They were very appreciative of the fact we went there, and gave them the attention they were deprived of all these years," Barazanji said.
And many of the Iraqi Americans felt they had made an important contribution by mediating between U.S. forces and local people, and explaining one culture to the other.
"I think it's vital for us to go there and try to defuse these situations" of tension between the two groups, Jamil said.
Ezzeldin was so gratified by his experience in Iraq that he signed up to go back to do computer work for a California company, Environmental Chemical Corp., which has a U.S. government reconstruction contract.
He said he knows he will miss the comforts of American life and time with his wife and daughter. But he is incurably optimistic about Iraq's future and believes he can do something to help solve its numerous problems.
"There is something good that is going to happen for this country. No dictator, no regime -- everything will start from scratch," said Ezzeldin, with a confident grin. "I know the Iraqi people. They are good people."