Alea Nadeem was 8 years old when her world was turned upside down.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1984, Alea was the first child of Cindy and Sam Nadeem. Her mom is American and her father is of Iraqi descent. Alea was 5 when her sister, Ayesha, was born. Life was good for the Nadeems until Alea was 8 and her father announced that he was taking the whole family to Iraq for a vacation.
That trip would change young Alea’s life forever.
“I remember my dad saying he wanted to go back to Iraq because his mother was sick and he wanted my sister and me to meet our relatives over there,” Alea said during a recent interview on the Megyn Kelly Today television show. “We flew to Iraq and it was a wonderful experience. I got to meet members of my dad’s family for the first time and we were having a great vacation."
Things changed for Alea the night before the Nadeems were supposed to fly back to America. “I remember my dad took my sister and me to our aunt’s house and then he left,” Alea recalled. “I was playing with my sister and I realized my dad wasn’t there and I started to cry. Nobody in the house spoke English and I didn’t speak Arabic, so I was really scared. I remember crying myself to sleep that night and I woke up the next morning and my dad still wasn’t there."
Alea’s father finally returned, but he had some heartbreaking news for young Alea. “My dad told me that he and I would be staying in Iraq and my mom and sister were going back to America,” she said. “My dad told my mom that she had to choose which daughter she wanted to take home and she chose my younger sister because she was afraid that my little sister, who was 3 at the time, would not be able to remember her if she left her at such a young age."
Of course, Alea’s mom was devastated by the decision she was being forced to make. But with her visa about to expire and tensions high between the U.S. and Iraq at the time, she had no choice but to go back to America with Alea’s sister.
“I don’t have kids, but I can’t imagine having to choose between your two children,” Alea said. “It certainly wasn’t fair to put my mom in that situation, but she made the best choice she could make at the time."
Alea still remembers clearly the day her mom and sister boarded a plane and headed back to America. “I felt numb,” she said. “Even though I was only 8, I knew my life would forever be changed. I honestly do not know the words to describe the feeling of being left behind. All I can say is it was painful."
Alea spent four years in Iraq while Saddam Hussein was still in power. With no understanding of the local culture or language, she was immediately immersed in the life of an Iraqi schoolgirl.
It wasn’t easy, but Alea slowly assimilated into life in the city of Mosul. Naturally, she missed her mom and sister terribly, but she adjusted to her new life and her new family. “Despite the problems with my father, most of the people I knew in Mosul were good people,” she said. “But it wasn’t easy being a girl in Iraq at the time. Having spent my early childhood in America, I knew what it meant to be free and you definitely didn’t have that kind of freedom in Iraq,” she said. “There were only two television stations. You listened to only what the government wanted you to hear. As a girl, I was probably going to have to quit school after the eighth grade and get married early as most girls do in Iraq. There weren’t many opportunities open to girls at the time.
“I remember my family in Iraq telling me to always say good things about Saddam Hussein, never say anything bad in public because it could put you in danger. It’s kind of hard to imagine but I ended up enjoying the time I spent in Iraq, just not under the circumstances of how it happened. My family in Iraq were amazing, kind people who helped me and tried to comfort me as much as possible."
Alea was living in Mosul when Operation Desert Storm began. “I remember one day I saw a U.S. helicopter land near my home. I think they were transporting patients to a nearby hospital. I remember frantically running up and desperately begging the air crew to take me back to America with them. Of course, they couldn’t take me with them that day, but I never lost sight of my goal. … Neither did my mom,” she said.
As soon as she got back to Ohio with her youngest daughter, Cindy Nadeem immediately began working to try and get her older daughter back to the United States. It took four years, but Alea’s mother, with the help of the FBI and local government officials in Toledo, was finally able to secure Alea’s return from Iraq.
Alea said she was able to talk with her mom some while she was living in Iraq. “She would call as much as she could. Back then, phone companies charged a lot of money to call internationally. At one point, my mother had more than $10,000 in phone charges because she called Iraq so much.
“Eventually, my mom was able to convince my dad to fly to Canada so she could give him money from businesses she had sold. He agreed to fly to Canada. She met him at the airport and drove him across the border to the U.S. where the FBI arrested him (for kidnapping). Once my dad was in custody, the court told him he would not be released until I was brought back to the U.S. I was back in Iraq and had no idea any of this happened, but my uncle drove me to the Iraq-Jordan border where I was reunited with my mom."
Alea returned to the United States when she was 12. Once again, she had to assimilate into a new life. “It was a real struggle,” she said. “I was 12 when I returned to the U.S. and a lot had changed. I was almost stuck in the mindset of an 8-year-old versus a 12-year-old. By this time, I was speaking broken English and was behind academically. My family hired me a tutor, but I was always self-conscious. Not until high school did I get my confidence back academically. It was a tough road, but I made it slowly."
Alea was a junior in high school when the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001. “As I watched the events unfold on television, I was scared,” she recalled. “I could see how the tragedy brought Americans together, but I was confused after hearing negative comments about Muslims and Arabs. Many people were saying unkind things and I remember asking my family if we were the Arabs people were talking about. I knew we weren’t.
“I realized people were confusing two different types of Arabs. America needed to know the difference between those horrible men who attacked our country and the people I knew and loved in the Middle East,” she said. “As the U.S. ramped up its actions in response to the attacks, I wanted to make sure our military knew the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims are good people. Perhaps I was a bit naïve, but I was determined to help people understand Middle Eastern culture. The events of 9/11 ignited my desire to serve."
Alea walked into an Air Force recruiting office in Toledo and asked what jobs deployed the most. “A year later, I was in basic training, learning to become an Airman."
She originally served in security forces. Ten years ago, she earned her commission and has been serving as an intelligence officer ever since.
After serving on active duty for seven years, she switched to the Air Force Reserve in 2015. She is currently the individual mobilization augmentee to the director of operations for the 70th Operations Support Squadron at Fort Meade, Maryland. The 70th OSS is part of the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing. Its mission is to provide multi-source, multi-service intelligence products for the Department of Defense by gaining and exploiting information as a major component of the Air Force and DOD global intelligence mission.
“I love the Air Force Reserve and am very happy becoming a Citizen Airman was an option for me following active duty,” Alea said. “I’ve provided cultural context about Iraq and Syria to senior Air Force leaders, including the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force. I recently deployed to the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, where I provided intelligence and counsel in regards to Middle Eastern cultural and geo-politics for Iraq and Syria in support of Operation Inherent Resolve."
The major said returning to the Middle East during her latest deployment was a therapeutic experience for her. “It brought back so many memories for me,” she said. “I missed the culture, the bargaining at the shops, the food, the kind people and the desert air. This is my second home."
With her strong ties to the Middle East and her unique experience growing up, Maj. Alea Nadeem is a proud and a valuable member of the Air Force Reserve team.
“I am so proud to be serving in the Air Force Reserve and living under the U.S. flag,” she said. “I am grateful for everything this country has given me and the opportunities the Air Force has afforded me. All the amazing people I have met in the Air Force have helped me become a better person and Airman. It takes a village and my Air Force village has raised me up and I am forever grateful."
(Editor’s note: In recent years, Alea has reconnected with her father and they are working on rebuilding their relationship. “My father has atoned for what he did, I have forgiven him and we have begun building our relationship,” she said.)