Flying for the first time to a longed-for reunion with her children, Maria Lynn Ali made it to Kuwait hours before the Iraqi invasion. She spent the next seven months trying to hide her American identity.

The 23-year-old from Portland, Ore., stayed with five other families in her in-law's home and survived close brushes with the occupiers, always living with the fear that she and her two daughters would be shot."I wanted to leave so bad during the war because they were looking for Americans," said the former restaurant cashier. "Every day, I worried that something was going to happen.

"It was very hard," she said, explaining how she remained silent and wore a traditional black abaya, a head-to-toe black veil, whenever near Iraqis.

Difficult, as well, was the fact that her Kuwaiti relatives helped stand in the way of an escape. They kept her passport until the war ended.

Married at 17 to a Kuwaiti student, Mrs. Ali left her husband in May while in Portland and took their children, Sarah, 3, and Shaima'a, 2.

In June, she said, he called and begged her to take their daughters to the Portland Rose Festival parade. The next thing she knew, her husband had whisked the two girls to his home in Kuwait.

After frantic phone calls and a telephone reconciliation, Mrs. Ali decided to fly to Kuwait to be with her family, although she said she knew there was a possibility of war.

She arrived on Aug. 1 and was taken to her husband's large family home in the Rumaithiya district, where she lived with both fear of Iraqis and severe culture shock.

In one incident, Iraqis searched the house two days after a surprise visit from one of her husband's cousins, who is married to an Iraqi officer. Later, her husband's elder brother was arrested by the Iraqis. He is still missing.

When the U.S. Embassy started evacuating Americans in November, Mrs. Ali said she wanted to leave with the children. But her in-laws wouldn't allow it.

"At one point, my in-laws brought me to the airport and said, `Go - but don't take the children,' " she said.