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An Immigrant's Walk to Freedom
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Chicago, IL -- How far would you have walked to vote in November's presidential election? In a way, I walked 150 miles, rode 200 miles in a bus under police arrest and then spent eight months in a refugee camp behind barbed wire.

In October of 1983, I was a recent graduate of the University of Baghdad and working as a pharmacist in the northern city of Kirkuk.

I also was an underground democracy conspirator. I was chosen to sneak out of Saddam Hussein's Iraq to help tell our story to the Western world. After driving to a mountain village in the Kurdish region north of Kirkuk, I walked along goat paths for a week before crossing the border into Iran, not far from where Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet. I was promptly arrested and loaded on a bus with other detainees to the Iranian capital of Tehran. Iraq and Iran were in the midst of a brutal war. Anyone coming across the border was suspect.

After more than half a year in a guarded refugee camp, I was able to get out with the help of an Iraqi doctor. Over the next several months I made my way to Chicago via Switzerland and Italy to reunite with my parents, who had fled Iraq years earlier.

I had been part of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, one of several stealth democracy groups in Iraq. Assyrians are an ancient people who invented one of the first written languages and who adopted Christianity in the days of the original Apostles. The year 2004 is the year 6754 on the Assyrian calendar. Our language, our traditions, our faith and our lives were always at risk from Hussein, who had already driven out the ancient Jewish community in Iraq. Anyone in Iraq, even a relative or crony of Hussein, could be arbitrarily arrested, tortured, raped and murdered. We wanted to be free.

Today I am an American citizen, and can nonchalantly walk a few blocks to my polling place to vote as I choose. I earned a doctorate in pharmacy and I live in this wonderful country with my parents and siblings. And not even President Bush can walk through the door of my home without permission.

I visited Iraq shortly after the liberation and I believe that most Iraqis, then and now, appreciate and understand the opportunity America and the Coalition Provisional Authority have given them.

Free elections on Jan. 30 will be an important way station on Iraq's journey from being a land ruled by gangsters to being a democracy respected by its own people and the world. We see terrorists viciously trying to disrupt the process, murdering both Iraqis and American soldiers. Beheadings, bombings and assassinations will continue, but millions of Iraqis are willing to risk death in order to cast a ballot.

The desperation of the terrorists is escalating. But so is the determination of Iraqis, encouraged by Iraqis living in the U.S. and elsewhere who also will participate in the election. From Jan. 17 to 23, at various locations around the U.S., including Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, tens of thousands will register to vote in the Jan. 30 election.

Allow me one small example of why nearly two-thirds of Iraqis have consistently told the pollsters that they expect life will be improving in their country. When I studied at the University of Baghdad, Hussein had banned the study of the Assyrian native language, Aramaic/Syriac. This is the language that Jesus spoke. Many Americans heard it for the first time in Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ." Assyrians around the world were thrilled to hear their language used to tell this redemptive story. And now, there is a resurrection of sorts for our language in Iraq with a new department of Syriac language at the University of Baghdad. And alongside it is a new Hebrew department, the other ancient and revered language banned by Hussein.

It was the American people who made this new freedom of thought once more possible for Iraqis.

As I look back at our little band of democracy conspirators, I realize that in one respect Hussein had it right. He had reason to be more afraid of us than we were of him. I think of the two young men who sent me on my mission. One, Yousif Toma, was eventually caught and murdered by Hussein's men. We hold a memorial service for him every Feb. 23. For that crime and many others, the imprisoned Hussein will face justice from the Iraqi people. The other, Yonadam Kanna, has served as a member of the Iraqi National Council, the country's interim governing authority. Once a man on the run, he has helped oversee the rebuilding effort in the new, sovereign and soon-to-be democratic Iraq.

Agnes Merza is a clinical manager for home health-care patients in the Chicago area and is a member of the Assyrian National Council of Illinois

By Agnes Merza
Chicago Tribune

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