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The Plain Dealer
Using Heart, Head To Help Iraqis Rebuild
Brian E. Albrecht; Plain Dealer Reporter
September 5, 2004
COURTESY OF MAJ. EDNA NOGUERAS Native Clevelander Maj. Edna Nogueras, an Army reservist, prepares for another day of work in Baghdad, where she directs a civil-affairs unit.
One of the less familiar acronymic weapons wielded in Iraq overshadowed by the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) is the IAC-B, the Iraqi Assistance Center-Baghdad.
The IAC-B is a system of 10 Iraqi-staffed offices throughout the city that seek to help people rebuild their lives and their nation.
Making sure that system works is the job of its director, Maj. Edna Nogueras, 43, a native Clevelander serving in the Army Reserve's 478th Civil Affairs Battalion, based in Miami.
The IAC-B helps Iraqis find jobs, medical assistance and counseling and helps them file property damage claims and locate detainees or missing relatives.
The walk-in centers have been handling about 1,500 cases a week, despite an upsurge in insurgent attacks against Iraqi civilians and security forces. IAC-B offices also have been targeted.
To Nogueras, the continued success of the center reflects the determination of many Iraqis to overcome the violence.
"Things are getting better," the 18-year reservist said in a phone interview from Baghdad. "A lot of Iraqi people are making a really good effort to help rebuild their country. They're starting to look into the future."
The risk, underscored by occasional explosions heard around the city, "doesn't stop us from trying to achieve our goals," she added. "You live with it, but I don't think anybody gets used to stuff like that."
The response from Iraqis helps. "What I enjoy most is seeing the look of people's faces when we're able to help," Nogueras said. "People have been very warm and welcoming, and very giving.
"I think that because of what Civil Affairs does, it's difficult for somebody not to be accepting of someone who's handing them bottled water or medical supplies or helping rebuild their house," she added. "We really do make a difference in people's lives."
That role, Nogueras said, is one reason she volunteered to go to Iraq six months ago. That, plus being a soldier at heart, as she describes herself. In her family of 14 children, five of her eight brothers have served in the military; her father is an Army veteran.
Nogueras was raised both in Cleveland and in Puerto Rico, where she graduated from the University of Turabo. She served two years in the Army, then taught English as a Second Language classes for middle-school students in Texas and Florida.
Before being deployed to Iraq, the divorced mother of two grown daughters and grandmother of three was working as an immigration officer in Miami.
Nogueras said her previous jobs provided useful experience for her current assignment, both in terms of applying a teacher's patience to overcoming language barriers and the familiarity of working with refugees and displaced people.
The work easily fills a day. "Down time? What's that? We're usually here from 7 a.m. until almost 10 p.m.," Nogueras said.
Part of the center's mission includes establishing programs specifically for Iraqi women seeking jobs, education, counseling or a refuge from abuse.
Nogueras also said informal aid from families, friends and companies in the United States has helped with such efforts as providing shoes and soccer balls to a new youth sports center. "The look on those kids' faces was just incredible," she said.
Though the center resolves about 70 percent of its caseload successfully, Nogueras said the most difficult cases involve missing persons. "It can be pretty frustrating, and I can understand how a family feels, so we don't give up until we achieve something," she said.
Nogueras said the one thing she misses most in working through these 140-degree Iraqi summer days is her mother's cooking. Nogueras hopes to take her on a cruise when she returns from Iraq.
Carmen Nogueras, 69, of Cleveland, said her daughter periodically calls to let her know she's OK. "I am very proud of her," she said, "but very scared. She has to be careful."
Perhaps there is some reassurance to be gleaned from remembering when her daughter was "a smart student who always liked to study and get ahead in life" and who worked her way through college and "struggled, but whatever she wanted to do, she did it."
Edna Nogueras said that come homecoming, her mother will meet a somewhat changed daughter. "I think the experience has made me a stronger person," she said. "And it made me realize how lucky I am being an American citizen."
Nogueras said she'll also bring some souvenirs in "a lot of good memories of the people we've helped, and the huge accomplishments we've been able to achieve here. Being able to be here, to see this country blossom and be a part of it, is an incredible feeling.
"Those are the positive things I want to take home with me."
People interested in making a donation can contact the IAC-B through its Web site, www.iac-baghdad.org.