The first tears fell as the elevator opened.
Twenty-three years after fleeing Iraq at the close of the Persian Gulf War, Abdullah “Abe” Alkhuzai welcomed his ailing parents from their homeland to Pittsburgh on Sunday.
“My sons, my sons,” cried his mother, bouquets and balloons forgotten. Abe and his younger brother, Salah, flung themselves at Khamees and Hayat Alkhuzai at the arrivals gate at Pittsburgh International Airport.
“Alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah,” they all said. “Praise be to God.”
The reunion is a sweet turn in the saga of a family torn apart during decades of dictatorship and war.
Alkhuzai, 43, a craftsman from Braddock, is the second of 14 children born into a close-knit family in the oil- and date-rich desert of Nasiriya in southeastern Iraq.
He said his Shiite Muslim family long opposed the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. They knew that opposition could have deadly consequences.
“Don’t think. Don’t paint. Don’t create. Don’t ask questions. Why you do this? What leads you to do this?” Abe said from his plush, crimson living room. “I grew up. I knew I had to fight that, to fight what was wrong.”
Alkhuzai sued Saddam and his henchmen before the dictator’s capture in 2003. A federal court judge in Pittsburgh awarded Alkhuzai an unprecedented $88 million judgment, although no one ever paid.
The judgment was the long-awaited result of a violent uprising in Nasiriya in March 1991 — the last time Abe saw his parents — when top regime officials captured him during a patrol.
Starved and tortured with electricity, he was kept for 30 days in the infamous Abu Ghraib and Al Harthia prisons in a series of windowless stone rooms with hundreds of other inmates. Captors there denied their victims food, facilities and room to sit. Many men collapsed from the heat and died, he said. Some were crushed under steamrollers. One was set into concrete that hardened from his knees down. Another man — boiled alive by Saddam officials — died in Abe’s arms.
At his release, he fled on foot to Saudi Arabia where he stayed in the Rafha refugee camp for three years. In 1994, he took his first steps on American soil.
“He should have died so many times. But God kept saving him,” said his wife, Christine, 46, whom he met a few years after moving to Western Pennsylvania.
Abe considers himself lucky. Three of his brothers died in related conflicts.
The family identified the bullet-riddled body of his brother Jaffar, 18, in 1995 from a tattoo their grandmother had etched on the boy’s arm 10 years prior. Infallible identification, she told them.
“I was asking her, ‘Why you do that?’ I was little,” Abe said, thumbing the outer plane of his left bicep where she long ago penned his nickname, Abood, in Arabic. “She said, ‘Honey, you don’t know. … This country, a lot of people, they die. … This is how we will identify you — with your tattoo.’ ”
A second brother, Sabah, 22, stepped outside for a cigarette in 2007 at the Nasiriya hospital where he worked. A roadside bomb propelled shrapnel into his lung. Friends told Abe that he died slowly.
The Alkhuzais lost another child in June.
Coats pile up in the Braddock entryway where Christine points to a small glass memorial for Falah Alkhuzai, 25, posing in Army green. The two-star general died while commanding 5,000 soldiers on the front lines in Tikrit in combat with what the world now knows as the Islamic State.
“I didn’t think of him like a brother, but more like a son,” said Salah, who immigrated to the United States eight years ago. “I helped send him to the military. We wanted him to stay in Iraq for our parents, but losing him — I will feel that pain forever.”
Salah, 36, of Dormont became an American citizen Friday in a ceremony Downtown.
“My parents, they are caught between two families — one in Pittsburgh, one in Iraq,” he said. “It is a hard thing to come; it is a hard thing to go.”
Since Falah’s death, his parents’ health has deteriorated. Otherwise treatable conditions such as diabetes worsened with stress, and Iraqi doctors lacked medical supplies to help.
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle’s office confirmed the family talked with a small team of Pittsburgh doctors who plan to treat Khamees’ dangerously swollen and gangrenous feet.
Doyle, D-Forest Hills, in August urged the Citizenship and Immigration Services to expedite visa applications for Khamees and Hayat. The agency approved both last week.
“I can’t put my happiness in words,” Khamees said in Arabic, embracing long-talked-about grandchildren and friends.
“My heart has always been in two places,” Abe said. “Today, we are whole.”
Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or [email protected].