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From Iraq to America: Airman finds freedom, purpose in United States

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Clinton Atkins
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
The once quiet Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya in northern Iraq was turned into a mad frenzy in the middle of the night in April 1991.

On that night, Airman 1st Class Zana Hikmat learned the value of freedom and security that he later found in the U.S. and hopes to safeguard them as a U.S. Air Force servicemember.

Airman Hikmat, then 7 years old, was sound asleep in his bed. All of a sudden, he was stirred awake by his mother -- danger was lurking in the dark.

Leaving all of their belongings behind, Airman Hikmat and his family rushed to their car to flee to the Iranian border. Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards were coming to take control of the city.

The cries of people screaming pierced the night sky, while the sight of destruction and dead bodies, littered the streets that were illuminated by burning buildings and vehicles.
As the Kurdish family drove toward safety in the nearby mountains, the sounds of people shouting could be heard, "There's a helicopter coming!" Then, the horrible sound of the helicopter's gun thundered upon them. The unarmed civilians had no choice but to flee back down the mountain.

Airman Hikmat's father stopped the car on the side of the street to seek shelter with his family inside a crater made from a previous explosion, as bullets whizzed by their heads as they held each other.

Finally, the helicopter left and the family returned to their home without injury.

"The things that happened in my childhood really taught me the value of freedom and democracy," Airman Hikmat said.

The years that followed were filled with civil wars throughout Iraq.
"It was a scary life," Airman Hikmat said. "You never knew what was going to happen each day."

Little did the family know that an opportunity would present itself that would rescue them from a life of terror.

Airman Hikmat's older sister worked for an American company that was in the process of moving their equipment and employees, along with their family members, to the United States.

Airman Hikmat said his family "leaped at the chance" to go to the United States to have a better life. The company sent his mother and sister, who left before the rest of his family, to Guam where they waited for about three months for the paperwork to be completed for them to enter the United States.

"Imagine you're 14 or 15 years old and your mom isn't around," Airman Hikmat said. "It was hard on all of us."

His mother and sister went to Baton Rouge, La., where they prepared and saved money to bring the entire family to the U.S. It would be more than two years before they were reunited.

When preparations were finally completed, Airman Hikmat, then 15 years old and some of his family left for the United States but some stayed behind in Iraq. "I miss my family [in Iraq]," he said. "It's hard, because I was used to seeing them everyday."

While living in the United States, Airman Hikmat couldn't help but think about the rest of his family back home in Iraq. When he graduated from high school in Virginia in 2002, he said he wanted to join the Air Force, but was forced to wait until he got his green card.
"It took forever for me to get my green card, because of the [Sept. 11, 2001] attacks," he said.

"I wanted to join the Air Force so I can finish my education and make a difference in the War on Terror," Airman Hikmat said. "The U.S. helped my people, and I want do something good for this country in return."

In the meantime, Airman Hikmat attended Northern Virginia Community College, while working at a retail store.

He received his green card in 2005 and went to Basic Military Training in May 2006.
"Basic training was an eye opening experience for me," Airman Hikmat said. "It kept me in shape, [it] teaches people discipline and values.

When choosing a job in the Air Force, he chose the path of a personnelist and found himself serving at Hanscom with the 66th Mission Support Squadron. "I have very nice co-workers here and they're all very supportive," he said. "They're always there if I need something."

Now 22, Airman Hikmat looks to the future, hoping to fulfill his dreams.

One of his dreams is that one day, he will go back to see the rest of his family again in an Iraq that is free from terror -- he fights for that dream today as a member of the U.S. Air Force.

"Bringing 'peace to the Middle East' may sound cliché," he said. "But it's a dream that I share with many.

"Iraq is my home," the Airman said. "I am proud of who I am and where I'm from, and I will do anything to help out my [native] country."

Even though Airman Hikmat is ready and willing to deploy, he will still need to wait until he gets his security clearance, which will happen after he gets his U.S. citizenship. "I can't wait until I go," he said. "Nothing else would give me a greater sense of purpose then to go back to my [native] country wearing the Air Force uniform."

Airman Hikmat said he understands what it is like to have freedom stripped away and to live in fear.

"I want everyone in Iraq to have the same freedoms and a chance to live to the fullest as I have done," Airman Hikmat said. "No one should have to live in fear."