Saturday, April 24, 2010

Turning hate into love

At the place where I work, I see the faces of war every day – hundreds of them. These faces are tired, eyes filled with trauma, fear, tears and a glimpse of hope as they come to Emily Griffith Opportunity School, a 90-year-old institution that many call a place of new beginnings. I am the Dean of Instruction of English as a Foreign Language. Last year alone we served 1200 refugee students struggling to learn a new language, adjust to their new culture, search for jobs and find new homes.

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.

Slavica Park
December, 2009