U staffer stays in touch with Iraqi family

Josh Verges

Next to family pictures in the Rinkenbergers’ living room sits a portrait of the Manaas, their “other family.”

Now a program coordinator at the University’s China Center, Sarah Joy Rinkenberger met the Iraqi family in 1998 as an exchange student in Tianjin, China.

Saad Manaa was working toward a doctoral degree in mathematics then, and his family lived in the same building as Rinkenberger.

The family comforted her when Chinese resentment for Americans peaked in May 1999 after NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, killing three Chinese journalists and wounding 20 others.

“You learn so much about being American; how you’re perceived, and what it means to be American,” Rinkenberger told The Minnesota Daily after she returned home in 1999.

Now Manaa is teaching her what it means to be a U.S. sympathizer living in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq. And through her prayers, e-mails and 70 cents-per-minute phone calls, Rinkenberger is getting a chance to repay the support the Manaas gave her in China.

“I just wanted to empathize and feel with them,” she said.

But from the time she returned to Minnesota in 1999 until four months ago, Rinkenberger did not know if the Manaas were even alive.

She failed to get Manaa’s contact information from the University of Mosul and scratched her plans to visit them in Iraq.

And when she received an e-mail on Dec. 27 titled “big kisses” she nearly deleted it, thinking it was spam. Once she read it she still was not convinced Manaa had written it.

Since January, Rinkenberger and the Manaas have fought an unreliable phone system and violence in Mosul.

Despite her concern for the Manaas’ safety, Rinkenberger usually keeps talk about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq out of her conversations with the family.

She said because the Manaas lost family during the war with Iran and sympathize with their Kurdish neighbors, they were happy when Saddam Hussein’s government fell.

Still, she said, the Manaas question the merits of a war that has created such instability.

“With houses bombed, the water system shut down, and phone lines broken Ö it’s a very hard situation,” Rinkenberger said. “It’s a lot worse now (than before the invasion), but in the long run” they think they’ll be better off.

In a Feb. 7 e-mail, Manaa told Rinkenberger about the growing violence in Mosul at night.

“I am sorry for this few days not in touch because Ö the situation is not safe in our place after 5 p.m.,” he wrote. “(There are) so many bombs, accidents (and) shootings.”

Rinkenberger said Manaa told her in a phone call he is afraid to go outside at night because he could be robbed or killed.

As Manaa drove his wife and two of their children to the doctor March 28, they watched as insurgents ambushed and killed a British man and a Canadian on their way to work.

“It (happened) so close to us,” Manaa wrote in an e-mail to Rinkenberger. “(The family doesn’t) want to go out of the home but we are O.K.”

That day saw two additional attacks on the U.S. military in Mosul and a drive-by shooting that injured two media members with U.S. affiliations, according to media reports.

But the violence did not keep the Manaas from showing off their new triplets in a family photo they sent via e-mail to Rinkenberger and her husband Jesse.