A Kurdish-American high school graduate invited a U.S. soldier who saved her life as a baby in Iraq nearly 20 years ago to her high school graduation.
The U.S. military officer Lt. Col. Greg Pepin met Lava Barwari at the Iraq-Turkey border when she was only 36-days-old. Lava’s mother, Awaz Barwari, was fleeing persecution of Kurds in Iraq in December 1996. She was one of about 6,000 Kurds fleeing Iraq out of fear for their lives. She arrived at the Iraq-Turkey border with her 1-month-old baby Lava.
Because Awaz worked with an American NGO in Iraq, she was targeted for elimination by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Her association with a Western NGO meant that she was suspected of being a Western spy. She took her baby and tried to flee Iraq after she learned that she was on the regime’s “kill list” and that a bounty of $5,000 was on her head.
But soldiers at the border who were organizing the movement of the Kurds across the border and who had the list of Kurds authorized to cross into Turkey refused to allow Awaz to take Lava with her because the baby’s name was not on the approved list.
Lava told Gwinnet Daily Post that one of the soldiers told her 22-year-old mother, “You can toss her [the baby] to somebody who can deliver her to your family.”
But Awaz refused to leave Iraq without her baby.
Fortunately, Lt. Col. Greg Pepin, a U.S. military officer, was stationed at the border crossing at the time. He approached the soldiers to inquire why the bus taking the Kurds across the border was delayed and was told about Awaz and her 1-month-old baby, Lava.
He came up with a plan for the baby to cross the border by using his name. The Iraqi soldiers were unwilling to cooperate but he was able to convince them. Pepin helped the mother and child across the border into Turkey from where they travelled to Hawaii via Guam.
According to the Gwinnett Daily Post, they spent three and a half months in Guam and arrived in Hawaii on March 31, 1997. They finally settled in Atlanta where Lava attended school.
Lava used a language arts assignment to share the story of the fateful incident that changed her life with her class at Mill Creek High School. That was the first time she had shared the story with her friends.
One of her friends at school encouraged to her to find Pepin. After some effort, she found the email address of Pepin who had worked for Boeing after he left the army.
She sent an email to Pepin asking him to attend her graduation. She wrote in the letter, “I’m not sure you remember me, but I’m the baby who took your name.”
Pepin said he was elated to receive the letter. He said he remembered the incident in Iraq 19 years ago when he read the email.
Pepin, who retired from the U.S. Army in 1999, told ABC6, “The day I got Lava’s email was one of those signature days that kind of make your life worthwhile… Talk about making my day. Actually, it made my year.”
According to the Barwaris, they had not seen or spoken with Pepin since he helped them escape from Iraq.
“This very day may have been the most impressive thing to have ever happened to me. I finally get to meet the man who single-handedly saved and changed my life forever.”
Recalling the incident at the Iraq-Turkey border, he said, “I told them if the baby’s name was ‘Greg,’ she could come with me under my passport. They didn’t understand what I was trying to do at first, but then they realized I was trying to help.”
Pepin joined Boeing after his retirement from the army and rose to the position of vice president of Boeing International and President of Boeing Turkey. He retired from Boeing only two years ago and now he is in his seventies.