Using her seat at the table: Maj. Alea Nadeem

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Ashley Thrash
  • 17th Training Wing Public Affairs

Alea grew up in Ohio. She had a very normal childhood, born in the 80s, eating McDonald's, all the normal things you could think of, but what she didn't know is that her parents practiced two religions.

Alea would attend a mosque with her father and church with her mother and grandmother. That was the norm for her growing up.

Alea’s father came from Iraq and moved to the United States to learn English and obtain an education. That is where he met Alea’s mother and she and her younger sister were born.

When Alea was eight years old, her dad told the family that her grandmother was deathly ill and wanted to take the children to Iraq to see their grandmother.

“We made the journey, and we actually landed in Baghdad, and I remember the first time landing,” said Alea. “ It was like a blow dryer to the face, it was so hot and I was honestly excited.”

One night, Alea’s father woke up her and her sister and said they were going to her aunt’s house, which was unusual, but they were promised ice cream and candy, so they weren’t too concerned. After a few hours of being there, she started to realize that her dad was no longer with them.

“We ended up sleeping in a room crying ourselves to sleep that night,” said Alea. “My family tried to help, but we didn’t speak Arabic. We kept asking for our parents, and after 30 days went by, finally, our dad came.”

Alea’s dad sat both of them down and told them that they were continuing as a three-person family because their mother didn’t want to be a mother anymore. Alea decided to be strong because she knew from that point forward she had to be strong, not only for herself but for her little sister too.

“A few days go by, and it’s early in the morning, and I hear all these cuss words, but it’s English, and I understand it,” Alea laughed.

Alea and her sister run downstairs to see their furious mother, who is angrier than they had ever seen before.

After reuniting with her mother, Alea comes to realize that her mother was left in the house by herself after they left for Iraq, but Alea’s mother eventually got in touch with her daughters.

“We go back to my grandmother’s, and my mother starts packing, but she doesn’t pack any of my things,” said Alea. “It’s weird the details I remember, but I had this cat shirt with a watermelon, and I was upset I had to leave my favorite shirt, but I was okay with it as long as I could leave with my mom.”

Alea walked downstairs to realize that wasn't the case. Her dad was only letting one of the girls leave with their mom. Alea didn’t have much choice of what to do, and her entire life changed.

“I grew up in Iraq,” said Alea. “I watched bombs get dropped. I had to hide when the police came into our house because I didn’t have documentation. I couldn’t go outside unless I had a hat on and a male with me.”

Back home in Ohio, Alea’s mom struggled to find someone to take their case, which was especially hard during the Gulf War, but since it was the first-ever international kidnapping case in Ohio, the Federal Bureau of Investigations decided to take the case.

While working with the FBI, Alea’s mom was able to convince her dad to come back to the U.S., where he was later arrested. Alea’s uncle then traveled with her to Jordan, where she was reunited with her mom after four long years.

“The thing I remember the most is her smell,” said Alea. “I remember touching her face. I couldn’t remember what her face looked like because we didn’t have FaceTime or anything, and it was surreal.”  

Alea was a junior in high school when the events of Sept 11, 2001 took place, a classmate turned to her and asked “Are you a terrorist?” She honestly did not know how to answer. She heard people saying horrible things about Middle Easterners but from her experience growing up in Iraq she knew that not all of it was true.

“Having grown up as a second-class citizen and being treated a certain way, I had a chip on my shoulder,” said Alea. “I don’t like when women are treated differently, when minorities are treated differently, or when anyone is treated differently, and I grew up seeing it firsthand, what that can be like.”

The events of 2001 and what people were saying about Middle Easterners ignited Alea’s passion to go and join the U.S. Air Force right after high school.

Now, Maj. Alea Nadeem, Congressional budget and appropriations liaison, is stationed at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and is inspiring women across the entire force through her daily job, speaking engagements and accelerating change throughout the Department of Defense.

Nadeem is also one of the Air Force Women’s Initiative Team leads. She has been a huge advocate for adjustments involving health care, hair policy, and parental leave.

“My goal is that in 30 years,” said Nadeem. “When I’m gone, the WIT is gone because that means we’ve actually integrated women into the service, not accommodated them.” 

On March 8, the 17th Training Wing hosted a Women’s History Month conversation at the Powell Event Center where Nadeem came to speak on her personal experience as a military member and how discrimination and inclusion can have such a monumental impact on your life and those around you.

Nadeem connected with members around the 17th Training Wing about diversity, inclusion and the empowerment of everyone in the DoD.