Image: Hadeel al-Shalchi,center face to camera, embraces a relative in Baghdad, Iraq.
Khalid Mohammed  /  AP
Hadeel al-Shalchi,center face to camera, embraces a relative in Baghdad, Iraq in on Aug. 8. Al-Shalchi who born in Kuwait and raised in Canada, went to Iraq for the first time in her life this year on assignment with The Associated Press. It also gave her a chance to reconnect with her relatives.
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updated 8/23/2009 7:47:55 AM ET 2009-08-23T11:47:55

The last time my aunt saw me, I was 6 and sitting on a bed, curiously watching her change her son's diaper.

Nearly 23 years later we are embracing in the shabby lobby of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. Her body has grown rounder and softer, her face has drooped, and her eyes tell of things I don't understand. As we hug, she sobs softly into my shoulder.

My uncle — her brother — leans down to kiss me. The last time I saw him, I was 10. His tall frame and the skullcap on his thinning hair are the same as I remember, but his face is worn from more than just age.

I went to Iraq for the first time in my life this year, as a 28-year-old journalist and Iraqi-Canadian.

My father believed that Iraq wasn't going to have a bright future in our lifetime, so he chose to leave. I was born in Kuwait, and later moved to Ottawa to become one of nearly 11,000 Canadians of Iraqi origin.

Western-Muslim identities
I grew up grappling with Western-Muslim identities and name that sounded strange to Canadian ears. I knew my parents' country only through the Iraqi Arabic we spoke at home, hazy stories and the green night-vision images of wars on TV.

I understood I had relatives who were seeing those wars firsthand. But it felt very far away.

I had not seen my mother's family since childhood visits to Kuwait, where they lived. After the first Gulf War, they were forced to go back to Iraq and we stopped visiting them. My mother connected with them only through phone calls. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night to my mother shouting — "HELLO!? ANYONE THERE?"

Now, selfishly, I wanted to deal with my own guilt feelings for being in the "lucky" family that escaped three wars and sanctions. While I was getting a Western education, living in the green suburbs of Canada and learning that the world was my oyster, my cousins were battling anger and depression about war and a bleak future. This thought was always with me when I heard the word Iraq in the news — in the eight-year war with Iran, the 1991 Gulf War, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq — or when we tried to make one of those phone calls over shaky, crackling lines to my relatives.

Now we sit sipping Pepsi and waving away flies as my uncle tells stories. I have heard them before — in our news reports and from people interviewed on TV. This time I'm hearing them from someone who sneaked me out for ice cream before dinner and made me screech with joy as he threw me in the air and pretended to forget to catch me.

Kidnapped and blindfolded
My uncle points to the side of his face, where he was hit by the men who kidnapped him in 2006. Blindfolded and reeling with pain, he was thrown into the back of a pickup truck and driven to an unknown location. He spent a sleepless night on the floor of what he said felt like a bathroom.

Later, when they removed the blindfold, he saw feces and dried blood on the tiles around him.

He said he eventually made out that it must have been a Shiite militia because of the prayers blasting from mobile phones, praising the Shiite saints Hussein and Ali. My uncle, a Sunni, was questioned about why he went to his mosque so often.

"It was the only place with air conditioning in the neighborhood!" he exclaimed.

The militia eventually decided he wasn't worth their trouble — a man in his early 60s and obviously harmless. He was thrown out to make his way home.

Once athletic and independent, he now doesn't leave his apartment. "You know how they have Islamophobia in Europe," he leans in to tell me. "I have militia-phobia!" He cracks up. We laugh uncomfortably.

My uncle is among the lucky ones. An unknown number of Sunnis and Shiites have been kidnapped as part of Iraq's brutal sectarian warfare or for ransom, particularly in 2006 and 2007, when thousands of people were found executed.

The stories keep coming. Another aunt was randomly shot in the leg at a Shiite market. A family friend had his brains blown out as he sat drinking tea outside his shop one evening. My uncle had bullets come through his living room one morning. They killed his bird in its cage.

My relatives don't ask much about life in Canada. They just want to tell their stories to fresh ears, tell me what it's really been like and have me take it back to my family in the suburbs. But I do not feel resentment from them, and this calms me.

I open my laptop and show them recent photos of my mother, sisters and nieces. We go through them in silence. My aunt exclaims that my niece seems as mischievous as her mother at that age. She brings a handkerchief to her eyes and quietly wipes them. Her nose turns red, betraying her sorrow.

They gasp softly when a picture of my mother — their sister — pops up. The age they read on her face reminds them of the years that have separated them — siblings forced to live different lives because of fate and war.

Obviously still hard to live here
They talk about getting used to the situation, but it's obviously still hard to live here. Besides the haunting memories, good health care is almost unknown in Iraq, electricity is hit-and-miss, and safety is still an issue.

They don't talk much about the relatives they have "outside" and they won't be telling their friends that they came to meet me, a Western journalist working for an American agency.

We've had more tea and something to eat, and now my uncle is getting restless. He wants to leave.

Our goodbyes are warmer than our greetings, now that the ice of more than 20 years has cracked a little. The distance of miles and life experiences between us is still there. The wars have made sure of that.

But as my aunt blots her eyes once again at our departure, I realize that the one thing the wars and sanctions haven't taken away from us is the legacy of their love for me as a child. That will be passed on through the generations with me and my own nieces back home — in Canada.

More on: Iraq

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