Finding Closure: Deployment helps Reserve Citizen Airman learn about her father, connect with family

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  • By By Bo Joyner

Capt. Sandrela Magnuson never really knew her father. After all, she was only 2 years old the last time she saw him in 1985. But for the last 34 years, the dad she never knew was never far away in her thoughts. “Was he alive?” “Where did he live?” “Did her ever try to look for me?” “Did he have any other children?” The questions endlessly rambled around in her mind without answers.

Until one day a couple of years ago when the Reserve Citizen Airman met someone on a deployment who volunteered to help her try and find the answers to the questions that filled her thoughts.

Sandrela was born in Baghdad in 1983. Her mother, Angela Ruiz, was Spanish and worked for the National Ballet of Spain as a dancer. During the early 1980s, she traveled the world on a tour to promote Spanish culture. It was while she was performing in Iraq that Sandrela’s mom met her dad. Adel El Masry was born, raised and educated in Egypt. He moved to Iraq from Egypt and was working at the Palestine Meridien Hotel in Baghdad when he fell in love with the young Spanish dancer.

The couple married in Madrid in 1982 and returned to Iraq where Sandrela was born.

“From what my mom told me, my dad had a great job and was very successful in Baghdad,” she said. “The Meridien Hotel was built by the Iraqi government, but it was managed by the French. Although my mom was Spanish and my dad was Egyptian, French was the common language between the two of them.”

Life was great for the young couple and their beautiful baby girl until one day in 1985 when Iraqi authorities unexpectedly came and arrested Sandrela’s father.

“From what my mom told me, they were shocked when he was arrested. Nobody explained why he was being arrested, what his crime was or anything. They just came and took him and we were told we had to get out of the country right away,” Sandrela said. “I was almost 3 at the time and the French Embassy helped me and my mom get out of Iraq and back to Spain.”

Sandrela’s mom continued dancing and touring and eventually she remarried and divorced. When Sandrela was 14, she and her mom moved to the United States.

“During those 11 or 12 years, we never heard from my dad,” Sandrela said. “We didn’t know if he was dead or alive or if he was still in prison. It was really hard not knowing what happened to him.”

When Sandrela was 16, war broke out between the United States and Iraq. “When the war broke out, I was really hoping I could find out what happened to my dad. I thought maybe he would get released from jail and would come looking for me,” she said.

The war progressed but Sandrela never heard from her father.

After high school, she went to nursing school and took a part-time job with the Army working as a “civilian on the battlefield.”

“I would dress up as an Iraqi and serve as a role player during Army training exercises,” she said. “That’s when I decided I wanted to be a part of the military.”

Magnuson joined the Air Force Reserve in 2012. She is currently assigned to the 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, where she works as an aeromedical evacuation nurse.

During deployments and humanitarian operations, Reserve Citizen Airmen assigned to the 34th AES provide critical medical care to ill and injured patients.

Magnuson deployed to Al Udied Air Base, Qatar, in 2017. While flying missions, she worked alongside Staff Sgt. Brian Tremain, an Air Force Reservist assigned to the 934th AES, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Air Reserve Station, Minnesota. Magnuson and Tremain quickly became friends during the deployment.

Tremain also made friends with an active-duty staff sergeant named Aly Nour Eldin, who was deployed from Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, and working as a logistician and interpreter, at Al Udied. When Tremain found out that Nour Eldin was from Egypt, he suggested a meeting between Magnuson and Nour Eldin.

“We talked for a while and Aly told me his father was a retired policeman in Cario and he might be able to help locate my dad. I thought it was a long shot, but it was worth a try. I had all of the information about my dad locked up in a safe at my house, so when I got back from deployment I sent what I had to Aly,” Magnuson said.

“Two weeks later, I got a text from Aly saying I had to give him a call. My first thought was he found my dad. I called him and he said he had bad news. He had my dad’s death certificate and he had died in Egypt. I had all of these questions that Aly couldn’t answer, but he did say his father was able to find the names and phone numbers of some of my dad’s relatives.

“I started calling, but no one would answer. About three days after I started calling, I was home alone and I got a video call from Egypt and there were about five people standing there. They spoke broken English but I could tell they were trying to tell me they were relatives of my father. I thought they might be pulling my leg until one of them pulled out my mom and dad’s wedding picture. That was a very emotional moment for me, but it was an amazing feeling knowing I had found my father’s family.”

Magnuson found out she had two aunts, three uncles and 13 cousins she had never met. During the numerous phone calls that would follow with her new family, Aly would serve as an interpreter and help bridge the language gap.

“I asked about my dad and they told me he had returned to Egypt in 1995, but he was very weak and wasn’t in good health at all when he arrived,” Magnuson said. “He didn’t want to talk much about what he had been through in Iraq, but he was trying to get all of his papers in order so he could go to Spain and look for me. Fourteen days into his time back in Egypt, he wasn’t feeling well and he went to the doctor. While he was there he collapsed and died. He was only 43.

“I hated finding out that my dad was dead, but it was comforting to know that he was with his family and that he died in Egypt. For years I had it in my head that he died in prison in Iraq and he was buried in a mass grave there.”

Magnuson also learned that the “crime” her father was arrested for was not meeting a deadline for making a repair at the hotel, even though he informed the Iraqi officials that the materials they sent him for the repair were not of high-enough quality to do the job correctly. Additionally, she said some of her relatives believe her father may have been poisoned before he was finally released and allowed to return to Egypt.

Magnuson flew to Cairo and visited her new family in the small town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra in December. “Aly’s dad was there to meet me at the airport and he escorted me to my family. There was a whole mob of people there with flowers and balloons. I can’t even explain how it made me feel. With blood family, even if you’ve never met someone, there’s an instant connection there. I can’t even describe it.”

The captain spent 13 days in Egypt getting to know her new relatives. “It was an amazing trip,” she said. “We did all of the touristy things and it was an incredible cultural experience, but the best part was I got to visit my dad’s grave. The fact that he died with his family and is buried in his family’s cemetery was huge for me. It brought a lot of closure. I’ve never cried so hard in my life. It came out of nowhere. I guess there were a lot of pent-up emotions I had deep inside of me that I never let out. When I got there, I was finally able to let them out. It brought me peace.

“Another great thing that happened was my cousin gave me six pieces of art my dad created. I was amazed at the level of talent he had. It’s my goal to display them in an art gallery some day along with his story.”

While Magnuson has a whole new family in Egypt now, she said she feels like her stateside family has grown as well.

“Aly is like a brother to me,” she said. “I could never thank him and his dad enough for helping me find closure. Aly and I are trying to coordinate a trip to Egypt next year where we can go together. It’s amazing the people you meet and the networks you develop as part of the Air Force Reserve. Joining the Reserve was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Nour Eldin said he was more than happy to help his new friend with her quest to find out about her father. “I felt like it was the least I could do,” he said. “I knew my dad had the connections in Egypt to find her family and he was willing to do the research. I made a great new friend in the process.”

Tremain said he will never forget this deployment. “Through the friendships and networking that developed while we were deployed, we were able to introduce two people who journeyed through one of the most intense family reintegration stories I’ve ever heard. This whole event came as a result of randomly established friendships during our deployment that radically changed the lives of two people.”