Friends, Family Mourn Iraqi Refugee

fromCPR

The Iraqis who fall victim to their country's ongoing violence often register as little more than a number in a newscast for most Americans. But one of those recent statistics represented a real loss for many people in Denver. Haiffa Ali arrived there as a refugee in 2007, nervous and hostile to a country that was occupying her own. In less than two years, she was settled in — helping with a craft organization for refugee women and finding her own place in the local arts scene. But Ali went back to Iraq for a visit in October and was killed by a bombing in Baghdad. She left behind friends and family in Denver who grieve her loss.

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Last month, Baghdad suffered its deadliest attack in two years. Suicide bombers exploded cars in downtown Baghdad, severely damaging three Iraqi government buildings. More than 130 people were killed. And among them was an Iraqi woman who lived in Denver.

Haiffa Ali had stopped by a Baghdad travel agency to book a return flight to the U.S. and to the life she had made there after fleeing Iraq. Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee has been talking with some of her friends.

MEGAN VERLEE: It doesn't take long for them to slip into her voice. And in their impression, she comes across as loud, a little bossy and very kind.

Ms. SHARON MCCREARY(ph) (Teacher): At school a couple of us were joking about how many times Haiffa said to one of us on a down day: You must be strong.

VERLEE: Sharon McCreary was Ali's English teacher in Denver. Ali had lived a comfortable, traditionally domestic life in Baghdad until the war took it away. She lost her father to the violence and fled with her husband and sons to Syria. They stayed there five years before finally joining her daughter's family in Denver. McCreary says Ali arrived in her class very troubled.

Ms. MCCREARY: She would often sit with me after class for an hour or more and with very little English try and tell me about what was on her mind and what was in her heart.

VERLEE: What was in her heart was bitterness over the war and a fear of Americans. In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Ali herself described those feelings.

Ms. HAIFFA ALI: I think every people is like a movie from Texas come to fight me. I hate these people.

VERLEE: McCreary remembers the day that changed. Ali, still nervous about being out in public, was waiting in line at the bank when a woman asked her: Where are you from?

Ms. MCCREARY: And Haiffa worked up her courage and said: I am from Iraq. And the woman said: Oh, thank goodness. Welcome. We're glad you're finally here. And Haiffa said that was a moment for her, that was the one that crystallized for her that it was going to be okay here.

VERLEE: People who work with refugees say they often stick with others from their own countries. Not Ali. She befriended women from Sudan and Somalia. She cooked for the people who worked in her apartment building. She helped McCreary start a group to teach refugee women how to make jewelry. When Ali sold her first necklace, she cried. It was the first money she'd ever made. Within a year, she had talked gallery owner Noa Garza(ph) into carrying her jewelry. Garza says Ali was ambitious, not for money, but for herself.

Ms. NOA GARZA (Gallery Owner): In Iraq she was a mother, she was a wife and she didn't know how to do anything else. So this was something that she did for herself for the first time.

VERLEE: In a way, coming to America was a blossoming for Ali, but that didn't make this home. In her interview last year, Ali said her family might stay here, but she wouldn't.

Ms. ALI: Because I miss this country, because I leave behind me my house, my dreams, my memory, everything I leave in this country.

VERLEE: Last month, while visiting friends in Syria, Ali slipped across the border to Iraq. She didn't tell anyone she was going, but she wanted to visit her father's grave. She was killed when a terrorist bomb ripped through the center of Baghdad.

News of Ali's death was a terrible shock to her friends, but they knew after waiting so many years to get to a safe haven, Ali never intended to stay here. She always said she'd return to Iraq someday.

Ms. ALI: For me, maybe I need this. Maybe I need to die in my country.

VERLEE: Ali's friends say they respect her wish, they just never expected it to be so soon.

For NPR news, I'm Megan Verlee.

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