As Iraqi hospital rooms overflowed with wounded soldiers and moaning civilians a hallway in Baghdad became the maternity ward where Reta Youssif, 25, was born. Surviving three major wars, a food embargo and certain death got her to Glendale.
In the middle of the Iran-Iraq War, which took place from 1980 to 1988, Youssif’s Armenian mother, Araxi, gave birth to her while her Iraqi father, Yacoub, stood by.
Soon, Yacoub, Araxi and his daughters would be dodging bullets at their government-provided residence as terror in the form of “smart” bombs and Patriot missiles came raining down on the streets of Bagdad.
One couldn’t ask to be born under more volatile circumstances. To be an innocent child born into a war-torn country, and then to grow up amid two separate Persian Gulf wars likely led to her strength and character.
“I think Reta can make it through whatever life throws at her,” said fellow chemistry major Anahit Kazaryan, 22. “She’s inspires me.”
Youssif saw a neighbor’s house reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble by a stray missile during the first week of the war while she and her family sought refuge in a neighbor’s shelter.
“One of the bombs landed right on one of my neighbors’ houses,” said Youssif.
That’s when her father moved the whole family to a relative’s house in a safer part of the city.
After the move, he had to be away to manage his oil finance department. With a master’s degree in accounting, he worked in the oil industry nationalized by Saddam Hussein in the early 1970s.
When the phone lines got disconnected and the roads were cut, the Youssif women worried about their beloved Yacoub day and night.
“Until the war was over, we didn’t know if he was alive or dead,” said Youssif. “And then he came back.”
She remembers how happy they were to see him alive and well.
She also remembers how tough the U.S. military soldiers tried to look while searching her house for weapons. They never found any but in the process everything in the house and basement were left in chaos.
As America did, Youssif watched the demise of her ruler on TV. The ominous footage of Saddam’s statue being torn down, his subsequent capture, and his eventual hanging still runs through her mind in flashbacks.
The Kuwait War, also known as Desert Shield-Desert Storm (1990 to 1991), Operation Hammer in 1997, and the Second Persian Gulf War, (2003 to present), are very vivid in the nightmares she still has to this day. They often torment her in class or in the middle of the night.
Youssif would train in uniform, military marching style, at an Armenian athletic club, she said.
“The year 2003 was the hard one. I realized it was pretty bad, but I was brave. I was a kid,” she said.
It was her senior year in high school, and she was about to take her final exams when she had to evacuate the area without a single textbook.
As the coalition forces wreaked havoc on her homeland, Youssif had to fight to hold on to her dream of becoming a pharmacist, but she was denied entry into her school of choice.
“Women were accepted into college but needed higher grades.” she said. “If you were a man, you might get in with a 97, but a lady would need a 99.”
Her second choice was computer engineering school, which she attended, but without enthusiasm.
“My dream was to become a pharmacist. I didn’t want to be a computer engineering major,” said Youssif.
The turning point came with a death threat in the mail, most likely because her family was Christian.
In Saddam’s time, being Christian was fairly well accepted, but after 2003, “Terrorists began to persecute Christians,” she said. “There were terrorists everywhere. Terrorists can come from Iran or any country.”
In October 2006, the Youssif family escaped the war-ravaged country with their lives. The U.S. granted them a special visa, so they came to California as visitors. They planned to stay and thus had to start a whole new life.
“I was happy to get out of Iraq because my family and I could have been killed at any time.”
But her departure was emotionally painful: she gave up the only life she knew, leaving behind schoolmates, neighbors, cousins, aunts, uncles and both grandmothers.
Once in America, she worked hard to improve her English by taking non-credit classes at GCC and by getting a job in customer service at a Ralph’s supermarket. She was the first in her family to get a job and heroically supported them until her older sister, Noora, 28, got a job at EDN, an aviation company.
Instead of being respected for his accounting brilliance, her father found that America distrusted him much like the Japanese were distrusted after Pearl Harbor.
After four years of hunting for work as an accountant, he swallowed his pride and took a job as cashier at a parking garage.
“You have to live,” said Youssif.
Youssif still pays more than her share of the bills with her part-time grocery job while she studies chemistry with GCC professor Asmik Oganesyan.
When Youssif started out at Glendale, she was so impatient with school that she would say to herself, “I just want to finish and get my bachelor’s degree right away.” Soon, she learned to take her time.
Oganesyan, now her role model, said, “Focus on what you want and believe in yourself. If you want it, just go after it. And always have a plan B.”
Youssif took this advice and got a pharmacy technician certificate at Garfield.
“Thanks to [Oganesyan’s] advice, anything that I want to do, I just think about it first, and then do it.”
Youssif now volunteers at a friend’s pharmacy on Broadway. It’s helping her learn the trade.
Oganesyan said Youssif listens very carefully and never shows that victimized part of her life.
“She is a person who doesn’t give up,” she said.
According to Oganesyan, Youssif is mostly quiet but still manages to make friends.
“I try to figure it out on my own,” said Youssif. “I go home and study the material and then ask questions in office hours. It teaches me more when I depend on myself.”
At long last, Youssif seems to be in the right place at the right time to safely nurture her dream of becoming a pharmacist. She plans to transfer to UCLA in the fall.
“She’s a mature student with dignity,” said Oganesyan. “With the dedication she has, she will do well. She is one of the students with the most dignity and decency as a scholar. I have a lot of respect for her.”
Although Youssif has lived through a lifetime of war, and narrowly escaped death, she yearns to return to her homeland to see her long-lost friends and family members, with whom she has fond memories of time spent together.
“I survived all kinds of wars,” she said. “But I still love Iraq.”