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.