Assyrian-Iraqi by birth, American by choice

7/26/2007 7:22:00 PM
Marine Lance Cpl. Sona Babani answers questions shortly after becoming an American citizen yesterday.

Sona Babani was 10 when her parents risked their lives to get her and her two sisters out of Iraq.

So her announcement eight years later that she was joining the U.S. Marines--and potentially going back to the war-torn country of her birth--understandably made her family nervous.

"They flipped," said Babani, now 20 and stationed at Quantico, where she handles separation and retirement benefits for Marines. "They were just scared. They know what it's like in Iraq. They don't really want their daughter to go back."

Babani, a lance corporal who is fluent in Assyrian, is matter of fact about the possibility.

"If they need me, they'll send me," she said.

And if she goes, she'll be returning to Iraq as an American citizen.

Yesterday, Babani joined 25 other foreign nationals at a citizenship ceremony in Washington, where she led the group in a pledge to the U.S. flag. The group, representing 13 countries, included six other military members stationed at Quantico.

"I've always wanted to be a citizen," said Babani, who's looking forward to voting for the first time. "Now it's official."

A decade ago, Babani's parents worked for an American Christian organization, handing out food, clothes and Bibles in Kurdistan and hosting Bible studies in their home.

"Our family was persecuted for that," said Babani.

At one point, she said, they moved from house to house every few nights, trying to stay ahead of Iraqi police.

Her father spirited the family into Syria, where they stayed for a few months. But then he heard about an American-led effort to evacuate families like his from Kurdistan. It meant taking his family back into Iraq, but he risked it.

"Staying in Syria was not a solution," said James Babani, who now lives in Colorado and trains Army soldiers on Iraqi customs. "It was a temporary solution to run away from death."

In the fall of 1996, the family was whisked out of Iraq as part of a massive effort aimed at rescuing U.S. government employees, volunteer-agency workers and Iraqis who opposed Saddam Hussein's rule.

In all, the military-led operation pulled about 6,500 Kurdish refugees out of Iraq, holding them briefly in Guam before resettling most of them in America.

Sona Babani remembers stepping off a plane at a military base in Guam, where U.S. soldiers lined the walkway.

They smiled at her and her sisters and reached out to shake her parents' hands.

One of them gave her a white teddy bear.

For the first time in a long time, her family was safe. Babani said that initial contact with the U.S. military influenced her decision to enlist in the Marines just before she finished high school in Colorado, where her family had settled.

American troops had been in Iraq more than two years by then, and her parents, she said, were nervous about her decision. But that changed when they saw her in uniform.

"The day I graduated from boot camp, they saw me and that was it," she said. "They said, 'We're so proud of you.' That's when the tears came, then apologies."

James Babani said his faith helped him see that joining the Marines was the right choice for his daughter.

"We prayed together. We said, 'If it's God's will, you're going to pass the test, the boot camp. If God doesn't want you there, he's going to make you fail,'" he said. "And she passed."

For his part, James Babani has applied to go to Iraq as an interpreter with the Army.

"I might be there before my daughter," he quipped.

He also achieved his citizenship first, taking the Oath of Allegiance last July. His wife, Madlen, did the same last week.

Sona Babani said her parents are thrilled that she is now a citizen.

"I've always been patriotic," she said. "I'm ecstatic. I love this country."