Mejdi Alkhateeb's visit to Iraq this summer was to have been an uneventful two-week stopover to see family members en route to a business meeting in Taiwan.
For his daughter Nasreen, age 9, this visit to her father's native land was to have provided the chance to learn a few words of Arabic.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait wreaked havoc on those plans. For nearly a month, father and daughter were stranded in Iraq, uncertain if or when they would be allowed to return to the United States.
When they finally returned to their two-story brick home in Great Falls this past weekend, it was filled with friends and neighbors bearing floral bouquets and other gifts of welcome. But Alkhateeb said his thoughts remain filled with the nightmarish adventure just behind him.
"We were very, very lucky to get out of there," said Alkhateeb, 50, who said he travels every second year to the Middle East.
"I felt bad for all the other Americans there who were not allowed to leave, some of them with infants and children," he said. "I, at least, could speak Arabic and had family I could stay with."
Alkhateeb and his daughter arrived July 14 in Kirkuk, a small city about 200 miles north of Baghdad, where they visited his mother and other relatives. Alkhateeb said he planned to leave his daughter with his family while he traveled to Taiwan for a few weeks, then fly back with her to the United States in late August. But on Aug. 2, a few days before his departure for Taiwan, Iraq invaded Kuwait.
"We heard about it over the radio," he said, "and we immediately began to look for ways to leave the country."
The closing of the Iraqi airport left only two overland possibilities: a three-day walk to Iraq's border with Turkey, or an arduous bus ride through the desert to Jordan.
Opting for the latter, Alkhateeb and Nasreen made the 15-hour journey from Baghdad with about 60 other passengers, mostly Egyptians and Westerners.
"When we finally got to the border it was complete chaos," said Alkhateeb, who emigrated from Iraq in 1962 and became a U.S. citizen in 1975.
"There were already about 500 small cars and 20 buses loaded with people who were also waiting to leave. Some had been waiting there for three days," he said.
He said there was no restroom, no food, no water and no relief from the desert heat.
Worst of all, he said, was that on that very day Iraqi border guards received orders to deny Westerners permission to cross the border.
Amid the confusion, Alkhateeb said he was often called upon to translate for despairing Westerners.
"One Italian passenger became very angry," Alkhateeb said. "He said that he entered Iraq legally, of his own free will and that now he wanted to leave the same way. The guard there threatened that he would beat him if he wasn't quiet," Alkhateeb said. "After that all the passengers got scared and went back to the buses and left again for Baghdad."
Only once was he able to communicate by phone with his wife, Sharifa, at home in the United States. The call was only long enough to assure her that he and Nasreen were fine.
"But I didn't believe it. I thought he was just saying that so that we wouldn't worry, and as it turns out, he was," said Sharifa Alkhateeb, who said attempts to get more information from the State Department proved futile.
Back with his relatives in Kirkuk, Alkhateeb said he "tried as much as possible to keep a low profile," as the situation for Westerners in Iraq worsened.
"We tried to avoid being with Iraqis, because the government had issued a warning that anyone found with a foreigner would be executed," he said.
Because his daughter does not speak Arabic, he was afraid someone would discover they were Americans.
"I thought we could teach her to pretend that she was a deaf-mute for those days," he said, "but she's a very talkative child, and I think it would have been too hard for her."
He said he had resigned himself to spending many months in Iraq, and had begun making plans to send his daughter to a local school.
When the Iraqi government began rounding up foreigners, he felt it necessary to report to the local authorities that he was visiting family members. That, it appears, opened the door for his eventual departure.
After interrogating him about his ties to the U.S. government and his business as owner of a computer import-export firm, authorities gave him permission to leave Iraq.
"They said they were letting me go so that I could explain to the American people the Iraqi point of view," he said.
Alkhateeb and his daughter took a plane to Jordan, where they waited three days for a flight to Frankfurt, and days later arrived in Virginia.
"I would like to think that I'll be able to go back there to see my family some day," he said. "But with the situation the way it is, who knows if that will ever be possible?"