Saturday, April 24, 2010
It was in the summer of 2007 that Haiffaa, still new to Colorado, joined the fledgling group, A Little Something: The Denver Refugee Women's Crafts Initiative. She became one of our most ardent supporters and she passionately spoke about this and refugee issues to anyone who would listen.
In her time in Denver, Haiffaa met hundreds of people and befriended many along the way. She was on a mission to learn as much as she could about the place and people who had so intimidated her early on.
After Haiffaa died, many people were left with a feeling of loss, but also with a need to talk about Haiffaa and how she had left an impression on so many. These rememberances were originally posted on the A Little Something blog. Now that some time has passed, it seems appropriate to create a dedicated space for these essays and farewells so they don't become buried amid the bits of news and postings about events that fill the blog.
The world lost a true original when Haiffaa Ali's life was abruptly cut short. She had great hopes for the world and the people in it, even after experiencing some of the worst moments created by mankind.
We miss you, Haiffa, we truly do.
If you would like to share your memories of Haiffaa, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Sunday, October 25, 2009, two massive bomb attacks killed well over 150 people in Baghdad and wounded hundreds of others. Those are hard numbers to comprehend, let alone think of on an individual-by-individual basis. What does that look like? Who were those people? It was so far away, does it matter?
In the United States , war tends not to meet us on a personal level unless it is one of our own who dies, and then only if it is a member of the military. In that case, we get the full press treatment from family reaction to funeral.
Well yesterday, one of our own met the war head on and did not survive. She wasn’t a “civilian casualty;” she was a woman with friends, family, and a compelling life story. You won’t read about it in the news and you certainly won’t hear the story singled out on television. That doesn’t make this loss any less significant. The war has a face and it is the face of Haiffaa Ali.
Haiffaa came here with her family in March, 2007, a refugee at the age of 53. She was my student for months, until she learned enough English to move on to a higher level class. She also took a free class on Saturday mornings, a class we had set up for refugee women living in east Denver.
Her participation in both classes is what brought her to be one of the first four “Beadwomen,” the women who became the core of A Little Something. Haiffaa was our champion. She not only learned faster than the others, she taught new women how to make jewelry and she explained to them why it was good for them to be part of the group. She cried when she made her first sale, and then she asked me to help her write about the experience. We each wrote our own version and we named the essay, “Eight Dollars.” Haiffaa kept a copy of our blogged version, just as she kept the actual eight dollars cash from the sale, which she had proudly framed.
Haiffaa was a one-woman public relations machine for A Little Something, and she was never subtle about it. She wanted everyone to know about the work we were doing, even after she left us to become her own brand. We had hoped she would stay with us longer as a member leader, and then go onto micro-enterprise class and our Board of Directors. Big plans, for sure, but there was no stopping Haiffaa—she always maintained her resolve to do things her own way.
Once she learned some English and began to relax in this country, Haiffaa soared. She made friends everywhere she went in Denver. She met the Mayor and the Governor; she had her own gallery show; she did two public radio interviews and she was the subject of at least two newspaper articles. She presented at the national TESOL conference and at the COTESOL conference, as well. She knew almost everyone at Emily Griffith Opportunity School, it seemed, as well as a hundred more outside of school. She loved Barack Obama, books (and she read them in English so she could talk about them with friends), Michael Moore, education, people, empowerment for women, and above all, the tenets of peace and justice and the teachings of Ghandi and The Dalai Lama. She was also the woman who took the time to cook many excellent and much appreciated meals for my husband, Leo, because she felt sorry for him, knowing that I was much too busy to cook for him myself.
Haiffaa used to love to sit and talk. We would talk for hours sometimes, discussing life, home, family, and healing a battered soul. She knew when I was hiding something, and she gave me a hard time about a lot of things. Sometimes we didn’t get along at all, and we argued, each of us determined to prove we were right. Of course, it was probably just because we were both hard-headed and opinionated. Haiffaa never hesitated to take a stand.
When Haiffaa first arrived in Denver, she was angry and afraid. She only knew Americans by way of the military presence in her country and from what she had seen on television. She believed Americans would be hostile, especially toward an Iraqi. She was surprised and relieved to learn that she was welcome here and that strangers wanted to help her make a life here. She used to say that in a person's heart, it was easy for love to turn to hate, but together, we all had truly accomplished something by turning her hate into love.
Haiffaa loved to travel, and her family made it possible for her to go overseas to visit her friends and other family members. On this trip, she said she would go to Germany and then to Jordan . She stayed far longer than she had said she would, and many of us were wondering if she was planning to come home at all.
Unbeknownst to her family, Haiffaa sneaked into Iraq late last week. She was so close and the temptation was too great to ignore. She had some unfinished emotional business she needed to take care of. Haiffaa’s elderly father had been murdered while Haiffaa and her family were in exile. The crime was unrelated to the war and it remained a cold case amidst the chaos of war. Haiffaa never had closure—she had no way to say goodbye to her father, and she was always pained that he didn’t have a proper funeral. As his only child, she felt his loss keenly. She often spoke of the day she could return to Iraq to visit her father’s grave and to finally say goodbye.
When Haiffaa called her husband in Denver to say she was with relatives in Baghdad, he was furious. He told her to get out of the country immediately. Who knows what Haiffaa was thinking. Perhaps she thought the conflict had eased to the point that it really was safe enough to visit. Apparently, it wasn’t.
Ironically, Haiffaa was at the travel agent’s office making arrangements to return to the U.S. when the bombings occurred. Her relatives who survived the blast called her husband to tell him that his wife had been killed.
Haiffaa was outgoing, creative, tenacious, stubborn, witty, amazing, and full of personality—probably enough for several people. She had a way of immediately connecting with people, and as a result, she had many, many friends and just as many fans. It was easy to be impressed with Haiffaa.
All who have heard the news are mourning. Those of us who work with refugees understand more than most what the true cost of war really is. We know why refugees aren't supposed to go home during an active conflict, and we know that for many, never being able to go home again is the deepest wound of all.
Haiffaa had said numerous times that when she died, she wished to be buried in her homeland, a country she loved and missed deeply. Unintentionally, she has truly gone home to stay.
Haiffaa was buried in Baghdad on Monday, in a grave alongside her father’s.
On Wednesday, October 28, KCFR (Colorado Public Radio) re-ran an interview with Haiffaa that was originally broadcast last year. Ryan Warner, the host of Colorado Matters, included an update on Haiffaa's death. Click here to hear the ten-minute story.
Following the loss of Haiffaa, we were presented with the opportunity to work with two local journalists in telling Haiffaa's story.
Leanne Gregg from MSNBC spent many hours over the course of a weeks researching, coordinating, writing and filming a story about Haiffaa and the lives she touched.
Megan Verlee from Colorado Public Radio also worked on a story for about a week, and went to four different locations to conduct interviews and gather the sounds of Haiffaa's world in Denver. She met with the A Little Something Team at our HQ--the basement of Sharon's house.
Unfortunately, very, very few people got to see the television story. It was released to NBC affiliates nationwide, but here in Denver, our own local NBC channel buried the story in the 5:00 A.M. newscast. They showed it, but we're not sure if anyone was awake to see it. This was hugely disappointing because Leanne Gregg put a lot of effort and thought into getting the details and tone of the piece just right.
On a more encouraging note, the Colorado Public Radio interview was more successful in getting on air. It ran in drive time three times, so there is no doubt that many people heard this story.
To hear the story yourself, click here. Windows Media Player will launch and the story should play automatically. If you experience technical difficulty, click here and select the story from 11/16. The piece is about five minutes long.
(Above left: Katrina and Susan being interviewed. Above right, Colorado Public Radio at work.)
Two weeks have passed since Haiffaa was killed in Iraq. Some of the people who knew her have shared their memories and impressions here.
While Haiffaa was at Emily Griffith, she used to come and check in and out every day in the Special Programs office. The computer where she would key tag in and out is located in my office and I would see her daily, sometimes twice a day. Early on, she struggled some with the computer. Getting the mouse just right to key tag in was often a challenge for our refugee students. That is how Haiffaa and I first started getting to know each other. Every day I would help her keytag in and in the process ask her about her day or her family. As I came to know Haiffaa I always looked forward to seeing her smiling face. It was a joy to watch her language skills and her confidence blossom.
For a time in 2008, I was on a spiritual path that required me to wear all white. In accordance with the Ifa tradition, I also wore ilekes. Ilekes are colorful beaded necklaces that represent the different Orishas of the Ifa tradition. Haiffaa always noticed my ilekes when I wore them outside of my shirt. One day she asked me about them and we talked about their meaning. The next week she brought me a beautiful beaded necklace that she had handmade just for me. She was concerned that the colors might not be right, but she felt called to make it for me. I was so touched by her gift and generosity.
Generosity - that was the essence of Haiffaa. She would bring us flowers on her birthday. She shared her smile, her stories, and her peace loving spirit with all she came across. I remember her bringing me little treats of homemade desserts. And I remember the day she brought in her postcard for her art show at Stripe Gallery. She was so proud. It was such a joy and honor to witness. Shortly after, that show, she participated in the A little Something Show at Emily Griffith. I bought one of her necklaces to give my oldest niece as a holiday gift. I shared Haiffaa’s story with my niece and now a young teenage girl in Michigan carries a piece of Haiffaa with her also.
However, what I remember and miss the most is her calling me her son and placing her hand gently on my cheek. I don’t recall when she exactly began doing that, but I know that I can still feel the gentle weight of her hand on my face. She was and always will be my Iraqi mother in my heart. I am confident that despite my current pain and sadness, that her spirit will continue to touch and inspire both me and others for years to come.
I only had the pleasure of knowing Haiffa for a short time--less than two years. I can't say I knew her her well, either, but I can say that every time I saw her--every time--she would break into a smile and grab my hand or give me a big hug and ask me how I was doing, how was my family, how were the other women of A Little Something?
She was a strong woman who wanted other women to reach their potential. She was creative, resourceful, funny, and maybe a little stubborn, all of which served her well. She was a self-appointed recruiter and publicist for A Little Something, bringing new refugee women to Sharon's office to join ALS and helping us do presentations about the project at conferences.
Even if only for a short time, I am honored that I was able to work with her and the other amazing women to help A Little Something grow. I am so grateful for being a part of this wonderful organization and can't wait to watch it blossom just like the women that comprise it. More than a little piece of its success will be because of Haiffa.
May we all go forward and bring a little more peace to this world that so desperately needs it.
I would like to wallow in my own pain, the sadness of losing a mother figure in my life, but her words keep coming back to me and do not allow me to do so.
Haiffaa Ali was an unequivocally wise woman, a woman who acted with great humanity, strength and graceful acceptance of life's whims. She tried to instill the same in me.
"Be strong" is a Haiffa adage that has looped through my mind ever since the news of her passing.
I certainly am trying, Haiffaa.
Haiffa always made me feel very special and loved, wrote cards, mailed postcards, stayed in contact despite distance. Haiffaa so highly valued those in her life and always created the occasion to let them know.
I am left in awe by the most basic tenet of life, the certainty of death, and that someone like Haiffa can simply disappear one day. What once housed her spirit is gone, but her spirit and memory occupy my mind at this very moment. I will forever carry a piece of her loving and tenacious spirit.
The light of Haiffa Ali can never be extinguished; it is now our duty and great honor to carry on her legacy, her message of hope, her sincere wish for peace, her compassion for others.
I will never forget you, Haiffaa Ali.
This was written in response to an article that was being sent around on the Internet about the Muslims that were immigrating to France. It was a really nasty article about how they were refusing to adapt to the French culture and were a real problem.
I spent an hour today talking with my friend/student Haiffaa Ali about Geert’s article. Haiffaa came to the U.S. about a year and a half ago as a refugee from Iraq. She has a son in Germany and visited there this past summer for a couple of months, and from there she went to Syria, Jordan, and Egypt so she has recently been around the areas that Geert talked about.
When she first found out that she was going to be sent to the U.S. as a refugee, she was really upset. From her point of view we were the enemy who had come in and turned her life completely upside down. She was an only child of a wealthy family and now she was a refugee coming to the U. S. with a suitcase that couldn’t weigh more than 48 Kilos.
She felt that way for about 2 weeks. Once she got to know a couple of Americans and found out that we were basically good people who really cared about her and were going to support her and help her to get through this transition, she had fallen in love with Americans. She doesn’t plan to return to Iraq now even when it is safe.
She contends with, in my opinion, some validity, that where Geert describes the massive immigration into the European countries, most Californians and Texans could substitute Hispanics for Muslims without changing many of the words. Even the numbers are very similar. Both populations are growing at a much more rapid pace because of a cultural value on fertility and a high birth rate. Both are bound to change the culture of the country because of their huge numbers.
She also mentioned that immigrants are, for the most part, very fearful. They don’t understand the new culture, the language, the religion, or have the money to fully participate. Therefore, they tend to cling to what they know and feed their resentment of the “others” by fiercely maintaining their old culture. The difference between Haiffaa and most of these immigrants is that they actually chose to come to the country and had high expectations of how their lives would change. Imagine their dismay that they have made, what was to them, a major effort to improve their lives only to find that they are still at the bottom of the social scale. This brings out anger with both populations as well as criminal behavior as they are willing to do anything to survive and to get a piece of the wealth they see all around them.
She quoted to me several passages from the Quran that admonish Muslims to love one another, to treat others as they want to be treated and to search for peace. She also corrected me about the Muslim view of Christ. They recognize Christ as the Son of God--more than the Jews will do. She agreed that Mohammed was a warrior who was fighting against fundamentalist Jews who were tormenting them and trying to either convert or kill them. (Sound familiar?) However, Mohammed was admonished by Allah to search for and embrace peace.
In the conversation we also talked about 9/11. She said that immediately after it happened--before the Iraqi war--people would come by her father’s house and be very happy. Her father, however, would tell them that the Quran tells them not to kill others. How could they be happy that people--any people--were killed? She thinks that in some part it was in response to America’s support of Israel, not any real hostility to the U.S. She said that the Israel deal was all about power and land. She reminded me that most of the Arab countries are less than 100 years from tribal domination. She also talked about the legacy of the past that has for hundreds of years dealt with tribal wars. War has always been a part of their history and traditions. In this, you always hate the most powerful, and this time it was the U.S.
Hello, Ali family.
You don't know me, but I was a friend of Haiffaa's in Denver and I even had the privilege of helping to teach her English a few years ago.
I am very sorry for what happened and please know that I thought she was a beautiful, friendly, joyous, amazing and strong woman.
My memories of Haiffaa include:
- Her zest for life
- Her wonderful sense of humor
- Her friendship
- Her calls and visits
- Her graciousness and generosity
- Her ability to make others feel welcomed and valued
- Her courage
- Her willingness to share her story to help others understand
Submitted by Marilyn Eaton, Colorado Refugee Services Program
It is a shame to lose Haiffa. She understood the importance of educating others about refugees. She was not only willing to be an advocate for refugees, but her personality made her a great one. I met Haiffa while at the African Community Center and we worked together on various outreach activities designed to educate the people of Denver about refugee issues. She was willing to tell her story to the broader public and declared as much while interviewed on NPR’s Colorado Matters. I got to know her well while developing the Voices of Refugees lecture program. We spent numerous hours together going over her presentation. She told me several times how nervous she was to speak in front of hundreds of people, but from the audience you could never tell. She stole the show that night with her amazing charm, powerful words, and ever-present humor.
I miss Haiffa but I am grateful she was able to have the impact that she did.
One of my favorite memories of Haiffaa is from when we went to the jewelry show together. I had been her teacher for several months and had learned that Haiffaa was beginning to make jewelry with the refugee group on Saturdays. Having a jewelry background, I was planning to go to the show and I invited her to go with me.
The first trip to a jewelry show can be a little overwhelming for almost anyone. It is huge and there are about 100 booths selling jewelry and all of the things you need to make jewelry.
When we first arrived, she acted like a child in a candy store going from booth to booth exclaiming over the beads and jewelry. I had given her some money to purchase items for the refugee group, and she went right to work looking for exactly what she thought that they needed. She would bargain with the merchants very carefully to get what she wanted; however, when she found what she wanted for her own jewelry making, there was no limit to what she would do to get it. She went back and forth between several booths and eventually the booth owners would laugh when they saw her coming because she was so good natured about her bargaining. Needless to say, she walked away with the best deals of the day.
Sharon sent her back to me later and she not only stayed in my class, but quickly became a class leader. Her thirst for knowledge was unstoppable. She eventually progressed on from my class into GED classes, but would come to see me and frequently bring flowers.
I came to the conclusion that she was right. Life is too short to not surround yourself with things that you love. Thus, she inspired me to keep fresh flowers in my classroom all of the time. In this way, she has spread her beauty to all of my students.
Haiffaa was the link to one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. She facilitated my introduction into her family, with the goal of teaching English to her husband. My husband and I had dinner a few times with Haiffaa and Majeed. The first in a restaurant to facilitate reading menus and ordering food, and the second within the warmth and hospitality of their home. Haiffaa made an incredible dinner with a multitude of choices. A truly exquisite meal.
During the dinner, we asked how Haiffaa and Majeed met--they were neighbors in Baghdad. We heard some funny stories about their relationship. My favorite was Majeed’s story that Haiffaa was described as having a “long tongue” (meaning she talked a lot) by his father. Additionally, Haiffaa’s father told her mother, “she can never be a teacher of young children, she doesn’t have the patience.” I don’t know if that is true, but she was a great teacher of people. She was persistent, strong, caring and clearly goal directed. She knew how to get things for herself, her family and others, all of whom are better for the experience of being in the “eye” of the Haiffaa tornado. Her “long tongue” was a gift to all who she showered with care.
I am a better person for my experience with Haiffaa and her family.
I was so shocked and saddened to hear of this great loss to us all. I am very grateful for the posts on this blog which are beautiful stories that keep Haiffaa with us. I just want to share a quick one of my own-- I used to work at Safari Seconds and Haiffa came to shop there sometimes. She was the master bargainer. Even when she had a gift certificate she somehow managed to bargain and you just couldn't refuse her, especially when she would be so pleased once you gave in! It was always a pleasure when she stopped by and her radiance was certainly contagious. I send my love and support to her family and friends throughout the world.
Denise Lines said...
what a loss to the world, an amazing, talented, and brave women, we are all better for knowing you.
Haiffaa Ali was one of those students. I met her in March of 2007. She was beautiful in her long black skirt and dark headscarf. She reminded me of so many of the Bosnian neighbors I had left behind in my home country. There was that familiar sadness in her eyes. At the age of 53, she had been forced to abandon her comfortable life in Bagdad and start over in Denver. She didn’t want to be in Denver, or anywhere in the USA for that matter. I understood that, since I hadn’t wanted to be here either when I first arrived.
In 1991, I had found myself in the middle of the religious civil war in Bosnia. I was only nineteen years old then, and had just graduated from high school. I was simply too young to experience all that hatred, too young to choose among the three parts of my now-divided city. All three main religions – Islam, Catholicism, and Greek Orthodox – were present in my family, and there was simply no safe side for me to choose as I waited for the war to be over. After six months of living on my own in a basement, my neighborhood bombed and invaded, my family scattered, I barely escaped, heartbroken – but hopeful that I would be back very soon to continue my life the way I knew it before the war had started. But 18 years later, I’m still here.
When I told Haiffaa that I too was a refugee, her face brightened. “You know war,” she said, “don’t you.” Yes, I told her. I did know war, much better than I ever wanted to know. I told Haiffa that once she started her classes the following week, she could come and see me when she needed to talk to someone. And she did. Almost daily. At the beginning, she asked when the pain would go away. I lied and said soon. I didn’t have the courage to tell her that the pain would always be there. The pain of sadness, the pain of longing, the pain of loss – our homes destroyed, our dreams shattered, our lives suddenly changed forever by the horror of the war. It would never go away completely, although it would become more manageable.
On March 20, 2003, U.S. cruise missiles and bombs had dropped on Baghdad, Haiffaa’s home. Haiffaa and her family had found themselves stuck in the war without knowing if they were safe or if they should escape. In her family, there were Sunnis, Shiites and ethnic Kurds. Just as I had, Haiffaa wanted to stay in Iraq; that was home.
Soon after the beginning of the war, Haiffaa’s father was murdered. Nobody knew who killed him and why. Was it because he followed a different religion? Or was it simply a lawless society that had left an elderly man vulnerable? With that, she knew she and her family had to escape and find refuge. Baghdad was no longer a safe place. She could not even attend her father’s funeral.
Haiffaa never talked about the specifics of her father’s death. Usually she just stopped by my office to give me a hug, to bring me flowers or to offer me some delicious homemade food like biryani or dolma. Her English improved week by week, and our conversations lengthened and deepened. I learned that she had four children. Three of them had come to the U.S. with her and her husband, and one of her sons lived in Germany; she couldn’t wait to get a travel document so she could visit him. She often talked about home. She had come from a wealthy family and had never worked a day in her life. Her job had been to raise children, cook and decorate the house. She had no idea what type of job she could get here. She read a lot and dreamed of becoming a writer. She had so much to say and she wanted the whole world to hear it. She started by talking to virtually everyone she met, and by doing so, she truly found her voice.
The first time I heard Haiffaa give a speech was at the University of Denver’s Voices of Refugees event. She was very honest about how much she hated Americans for what was happening back home in Iraq. She blamed the U.S. for the war, for the destruction, and mainly for how her family’s life was changed forever. She didn’t believe that she could live among Americans. She felt far too much hate inside to simply overcome it. But since her family had to leave Syria, where they had found temporary refuge, she had had no other choice. She got on an airplane headed to Denver.
Once in Denver, and at Emily Griffith, and once Haiffaa started learning the language and engaging in conversations with many Americans, she had a change of heart. She realized that the people of America are friendly and welcoming, and her hate slowly started turning into love. She wanted to figure out all Americans, so she met and befriended more people in two years than I thought was possible. She continued telling her story at different events, on NPR and on television. She became a true advocate on behalf of our many voiceless refugees.
In September of 2007, she joined an organization called A Little Something, where she learned to make jewelry and helped recruit more women to the group. That’s where she discovered the true meaning of women’s empowerment. Her jewelry was unique and colorful. Anything she created was made with love and passion—her cooking, her essays, her necklaces.
The morning after she sold her first one, for eight dollars, she came to my office, clutching the money in her hands. She looked at me and said: “Look, this is the first money these hands ever earned. This was the first time in my life that I didn’t do something as a mother or wife; I did this just for me, Haiffaa. It is possible—these hands can support me and my family, and these eight dollars are a proof of that.” I had never seen her so happy, so proud of herself.
A few months later, she had her own show in Stripes Gallery. To this day, I have no idea how she made that connection. On the wall of the gallery hung those eight dollars and the story about how she made them. She said she would never spend that money; she was going to keep it forever, as a reminder of her accomplishment.
I have seen thousands of refugees come to Denver and enroll in our school, but I have never seen anyone transition as quickly and make as many friends as Haiffaa. In March of 2008, Haiffaa invited all her female friends to help her to celebrate her first-year anniversary in America. We ate great food, played music and danced the night away. I had not seen Haiffaa without her head covered before. She looked so glamorous in her long dress and shoulder-length hair, and her happiness made her even prettier. She truly thrived being surrounded by as many people as she could possibly gather together in one place. She had enough love in her to share with everyone. Incredible what a difference one year had made.
She always told me that I was the only woman she was jealous of. She even wrote a story with that title for the school’s newsletter. She said that she wanted to become more like me: strong yet gentle, someone who has been through so much but yet manages to put a smile on every morning and face life head-on. She said that my story should serve as an inspiration to all refugees. Whenever they had a bad day filled with struggles, she would tell them to remember my story. A story of survival and success.
I listened to her, but I made sure to tell her that she was our inspiration. To come to another country at her age, to learn a new language, to make as many friends as she did, to give so many speeches and even meet our mayor and our governor – and all of that in two years – was truly remarkable.
And then she left. She went to visit her son in Germany and said she would be back in August. Then she decided to visit her family in Syria and Jordan. August came and went, then September, and by October she still was not back. We all missed her and were planning a party for her return.
When my phone rang, all my friend said was, “Haiffaa is gone.”
“I know,” I said. “She is supposed to be back soon.”
She said, “No, Slavica, she is not coming back. She was killed yesterday in the bombing in Iraq that killed 150 people.”
Haiffaa had always talked about wanting to go back home and visit her father’s grave. She promised us all that she wouldn’t go back to Baghdad until it was safe to do so. But being so close to the border of her homeland, the temptation had been too great. She had sneaked into the country just to visit her fathers’ grave and on her third day, she had gone to a travel agency to arrange a return flight to Denver; that’s where she had been when she was killed.
When interviewed on NPR, she had said that she wanted to die back home. And she did. She will never have to leave her home again or be a refugee.
And me? I am trying to be strong, Haiffaa—I know you would want me to. But it is so hard. So very hard.