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A portrait of courage: Iraqi humanitarian visits Warrior and Family Support Center

By Elaine Sanchez | Brooke Army Medical Center Public Affairs | April 10, 2018


An Iraqi humanitarian lauded as a national hero visited the Warrior and Family Support Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston March 26 to learn how the U.S. military cares for its warriors and their families.

Aliyah Khalaf Saleh, known as Umm Qusay in Iraq, toured the Warrior and Family Support Center as part of a visit to San Antonio. As she walked through the center, which offers coordinated services to military families recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center, she expressed her admiration for the recreational rooms, playgrounds and lush gardens.

“I don’t have enough words to say about this place,” Umm Qusay said through an interpreter as she settled in her chair, gathering her black robes trimmed in gold around her. “I’ve never seen this in Iraq before. I would love to help injured, sick, children who are sleeping in streets, widows who have nothing.

“I see such great courage here helping injured Soldiers and taking care of them, providing services,” she added. “I want to learn from you because of everything being offered here.”

Umm Qusay’s devotion to others came at great cost. The 62-year-old humanitarian was born in the Iraqi province of Salah al-Din, near Tikrit. She was not afforded the opportunity to attend school and was married at the age of 13.

In 2014, tragedy struck. “ISIS killed my husband, son and my nephew in front of my eyes,” she said. “They killed children, older people, women.”

On June 12, a group of Iraqi military cadets fleeing ISIS arrived. Umm Qusay and her family watched as young Iraqi military cadets jumped into the river to escape. Although still grief-stricken over the loss of her family, she set her emotions aside and took action.

Umm Qusay rescued 58 recruits over a period of five months. She hid them, provided them with ID cards from the local university to hide their identities and helped prepare their escape routes, according to her biography. She also taught the Shi’a how to pray as Sunnis to prevent exposure to the ISIS. “Umm Qusay, a Sunni, believed strongly that each young boy deserved her care whether Christian, Kurd, Turkmen, Yezidi, Sunni or Shi’a,” her bio said.

For her actions. Umm Qusay was one of 10 women from around the world honored with the 2018 Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage award. Established in 2007, the IWOC award honors women “who have exemplified exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for human rights, women’s equality and social progress, often at great personal risk,” according to the State Department’s website.

“It was difficult,” she said. “I sacrificed everything I had, but I was able to save lives and that was the reason I was given this honor by God’s grace.”

Four years later, Umm Qusay’s life is still devoted to others; she cooks for Iraqi soldiers and visits with wounded service members.

When asked why she put her life on the line four years ago, Umm Qusay said it all came down to family. “I saved 58 young men in order to return them to their wives, their mothers, their homes,” she said.

“A human being no matter nationality or background – American, Saudi, Iraqi, Afghanistan – in all of these religions and human beings, God created them; God put the breath of life in them,” she said, her passion evident despite the language barrier. “Any person that wants courage should trust God and go forward. If it’s to do good and serve others … go forward without fear. So any good deed a person wants to do will be supported and cared for by God.”

For Umm Qusay, courage is a simple concept. “When asked for a robe for cover, give your robe. Courage is generosity and generosity is courage.”

“We are all created by God,” she said in her biography. “We are all the same.”