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Sherri Richards, Published May 18 2012

Meet Mrs. M: Widow of Iraqi man who assisted US troops finds peace in America

FARGO - Generous spirits across the Red River Valley were taken with the story of “Mrs. M,” the Iraqi widow whose husband was killed by Saddam Hussein loyalists after he aided North Dakota National Guard troops.

Countless individuals, including the state’s congressional delegation, soldiers, media members and anonymous donors, worked tirelessly to bring her and her seven children safely to Fargo in 2005.

The community donated clothes, household goods and money to the family, never knowing their names or seeing the faces, their identities shielded for their protection.

Today, Fatima Al-Kaabi feels safe, safe enough to share her story. Her children have flourished. And she is thankful for her life here.

If she had stayed in Iraq, she says, she surely would be dead.

Life in Iraq

Fatima, now 41, says her childhood in Iraq was not difficult. She went to school, though later worked – doing “everything,” she says, such as sewing and working in stores – so her siblings could attend school.

She first met “Mr. M,” Majid Al-Abase, when she was 17. He was a friend of her brother, Ali Al-Kaabi. They were in the army together. “I saw him. He’s a very handsome guy. I loved him; he loved me,” she says.

They married May 22, 1989. Fatima left her family to live with her husband’s family.

The two came from different cultures, she says. Majid’s family placed more restrictions on women and girls than her family.

Because Fatima was Shiite, a group suppressed under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Majid was often questioned and jailed, for days, weeks or months at a time, she says. His family wanted him to divorce her.

“He said, ‘No, I can’t divorce her. She’s my wife and I love her,’ ” Fatima says.

Maj. Grant Wilz, who helped spearhead efforts to bring the family to safety, says Majid openly refuted some of the regime’s policies, which led to his frequent questioning.

Majid welcomed Wilz and other members of the Valley City-based 141st Engineer Combat Battalion into their home, a farmstead in the desert near Samarra. He’d make them food, and tell them which places were safe and where improvised explosive devices were.

Fatima was happy for the presence of troops in Iraq. With Saddam out of power, no more would Majid be taken from her and their children.

But Majid knew he was putting his life at risk, Fatima says. He asked the soldiers to look out for his wife and kids if anything happened to him.

On Jan. 16, 2005, Majid was pulled from his pickup and shot repeatedly. Their son, Omar, saw the killing, and a $10,000 bounty was later placed on his head.

Fatima says she knew no English when the soldiers came to her home after Majid was killed. She says she told them “Baghdad,” as that’s where her family was. She gave them a number for Ali, who was living in the United States. Serving as a translator, Ali told the soldiers Fatima was scared, she says.

After months continually moving around the desert to avoid being found, the family was moved into the secure Green Zone in Baghdad. Before leaving the country, then 2-year-old Asra’s eye was severely injured by shrapnel from a car bomb, and Fatima gave birth to their youngest child prematurely.

Flying first into New York, the family arrived in Fargo on May 20, 2005. Fatima notes how close the date was to her wedding anniversary.

Wilz says when Fatima arrived on American soil, she told him through an interpreter that it was her birthday. When Wilz wished her a happy birthday, she explained it wasn’t the birthday of when she was born.

“It was first day of rest of life,” he says.

Settling, struggling

The past seven years have been marked by successes for the family as they’ve adapted to a new culture, but not without struggle.

Fatima and her family were brought to the U.S. under a “significant public benefit parole” status, which prohibited the family members from working or receiving public assistance. So they relied completely on generosity to survive.

Rocky Schneider worked in Rep. Earl Pomeroy’s Washington, D.C., office as Pomeroy worked to get the family here, and moved back to Fargo around the same time the family settled here. His wife, Shelli, helped teach Fatima English and tutor the kids. They’d go over a couple of times a week to help the family as they assimilated.

“When you have seven kids in a new country, you have to rely a lot on other people to figure things out,” Schneider says.

After a couple years, Fatima and her kids received asylum status, similar to being a refugee, says Darci Asche, community liaison for New American Services with Lutheran Social Services. They now have their green cards and can become American citizens in a couple years.

Fatima worked cleaning rooms at the Holiday Inn. She and her family received a Habitat for Humanity house in West Fargo in 2008. Fatima’s brother, Ali, who had moved his family from Seattle to Fargo in 2005 to be near his sister, now lives in the adjacent twin home.

But then Fatima became ill. She would faint and be rushed to the emergency room, Schneider says. Doctors discovered a problem with her heart, which likely would have gone untreated in Iraq.

She had surgery in which she received an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator to treat her irregular heartbeat. She now receives disability payments.

Wilz says Fatima’s medical condition means she won’t be able to return to laborious work. Any job she’ll be able to do will require an education.

Fatima realizes how important an education is, especially to learn English. She’s taking a conversational English class through Fargo’s Adult Learning Center. She wants to be able to help her kids with their homework, and perhaps one day receive her GED and even go to college to study fashion design.

Fatima notes giddily that though she’d be considered old in Iraq, in America, she’s “very young.”

“She continues to struggle,” Asche says. “It’s a different kind of struggle. She’s been a good inspiration to her kids of what it means to be a survivor.”

“I think anyone would have a struggle raising seven kids or moving to a new country or having heart trouble or losing a husband, and she’s done all of them and keeps a good outlook and smiles and laughs,” Schneider says.

Growing up American

Eldest son Omar, 20, and daughter Nour, 19, have graduated from high school, and will attend Minnesota State Community and Technical College this fall. They both work as mechanics now. Nour graduated high school a semester early, and has talked about becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

Omar has already taken some college classes but took time off to provide for the family. “He’s the dad now in the house,” Fatima says.

Ahmed, 18, and Zuheer, 16, are high schoolers and work at McDonald’s. Zuheer will be captain of the school’s soccer team, and has been scouted by colleges and national teams.

Thaair is 12, Asra is 8 and April is 7. April was named for one of the North Dakota Guard specialists, a medic who had cared for Fatima while pregnant.

Shelle Michaels Aberle, an avid troop supporter, lived in Grand Forks when the family moved here. She helped collect clothing for the children twice a year for four years. After Fatima’s medical issues, she would pick up four of the seven kids and bring them to Grand Forks for the weekend to give Fatima a rest.

Michaels Aberle says she’s seen the kids’ personalities come out. “All the kids are really proud of who they are,” she says, adding they are quite Americanized. She’s not sure if that’s good or bad.

Wilz shares that concern. “I think they are becoming typical American teens in some senses, and every now and then I try to remind them where they came from,” he says. “I do believe they’re going to be people that contribute, whether it be to their city, their community, our society as a whole, in the future.”

Fatima says her family practices Islam, but they also celebrate Christian and American holidays. She decorates a Christmas tree, makes a turkey at Thanksgiving and colors Easter eggs.

While she occasionally listens to Arabic news, wanting to know how things are for her family in her home country, she keeps the television tuned into American news. This is where they live now.

Those who surrounded Fatima’s family with support when they first arrived have stepped back, in some cases quite purposely, to let the family find their own way, make their own mistakes and be self-sufficient.

Wilz reminds the children that they need to contribute to the household. After-school jobs can’t be about cellphones and clothing. “It’s about survival, much like you survived in Iraq,” he says. “I told them from get-go this is not going to be easy.”

But for Wilz, Fatima’s story today is a promise fulfilled. He says being interviewed for this article was like “knowing that the handshake I had with Mr. Majid over seven years ago has come to fruition.”

His wife and family are alive and well.

“Now I feel safe in beautiful North Dakota,” Fatima says.