In 1996, 22-year-old Awaz Barwari, an Iraqi Kurd, was working for an American non-government company in Iraq. At the time, Saddam Hussein was targeting the Kurdish people in a genocide, and her job placed her at even greater risk, according to the Gwinnett Daily Post.
On a “kill list” with a $5,000 bounty on her head, Barwari sought help from the Americans to flee her country, and was put on a list of Kurds who would be helped to escape Iraq to Turkey.
But as she waited on the border, her 36-day-old daughter in her arms, Iraqi soldiers stopped her from passing.
Barwari’s name was on the official list of people who were allowed to cross, but the baby’s name was not. Barwari became frantic. She was given a choice—leave her baby with a relative or stay behind herself.
“[The soldier] actually pointed to the window and said, ‘You can toss her to somebody who can deliver her to your family,’” Barwari told the Gwinnett Daily Post. “She’s not a sack of potatoes. I’m not giving her to anybody. That’s my baby. That’s the whole point why I’m leaving my country and my mom behind.”
As the argument ensued, Greg Peppin, a young American soldier, was confused as to why the bus hadn’t left yet. He stepped up to find out what was going on.
When he heard the mother’s plight, he knew just what to do. He took the baby in his arms and asked the baby’s name.
“Lava,” replied Barwari.
“That’s a beautiful name, but today, that’s not her name,” Peppin said, according to the Gwinnet Daily Post. “Her name is Greg Peppin.”
Peppin managed to convince the Iraqi guards to bend the rules a little.
“I said my name is Greg, so if the baby’s name is Greg it’s got a be a relative and that means she can go [under my passport],” said Peppin, according to WSB-TV.
“They didn’t understand what I was trying to do at first, but then they realized I was trying to help,” Peppin told Fox 5 News.
Amazingly enough, the plan worked, and Peppin was able to carry the child across the border and reunite her with her mother.
The family eventually moved to the United States, and little Lava grew up in Georgia.
In 2015, as her high school graduation ceremony approached, she thought about the man who had who had risked his own job and safety to claim her as his own, and she decided to try to find him to invite him to her graduation.
Peppin had since retired from the army and become the vice president of Boeing International. He now lived in Seattle. It took Lava a month to find his contact details, but finally she plucked up the courage to email him.
Peppin was excited to hear from the family he had helped escape Iraq
“The day I got Lava’s email was one of those signature days that kind of makes your life worthwhile,” Peppin told WSB-TV.
He happily agreed to come meet up with Lava and her mother again and see the teen graduate.
On the morning of the graduation, 18 years after they had last seen each other, Peppin and Lava were reunited.
The teenager embraced retired Army lieutenant colonel Peppin before the ceremony, and it was a very emotional reunion.
“I’m happy you tracked me down. I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Peppin said to Lava, according to WSB-TV.
Lava said her mother often talked about what Peppin had done, and the impact it made on their lives.
“It was the first story I probably ever heard … She’s always told me about the man who saved my life,” said Lava to WSB-TV.
It was telling that story for the first time in a class assignment that prompted Lava to try to find Peppin.
Now that they had found each other again, they both said they planned to keep in touch more regularly.
“He’s always going to be part of our lives because he’s responsible for the new life we have,” Barwari told the Gwinnett Daily Post. “If he hadn’t saw us in five minutes, we wouldn’t have lived in the United States and lived a different life.”
But Peppin says they are the real heroes for having the courage to step out into the unknown all those years ago.
And to see Lava all grown up and graduating high school was the icing on the cake.
“She took the opportunities that her parents [and America] gave her and didn’t waste them,” Peppin said.