Haiffaa approached me after class today and somberly asked if she could talk to me. I smiled and asked her what was on her mind. She reached into her pocket and held out eight dollars in cash, a five dollar bill and three ones.
She looked at the money and then looked at me and said, “Do you know what this is?” Since Anna and I had set up a fairly standard pricing system for the jewelry, I took a guess and said, “Did you sell a necklace, Haiffaa?” She said that on Saturday, Anna stopped by her apartment to tell her that Susan (another program coordinator) had bought and paid for one of Haiffaa’s pieces.
Haiffaa said she took the money from Anna and just stared at it. Anna asked her if it was OK—had we charged too little? Haiffaa assured her it was fine. After Anna left, Haiffaa closed the door and started to cry. She told me that she cried and cried for a long time. She held the eight dollars in her hand and thought about her life until now.
Haiffaa explained that as an only child in a well-off family in Iraq, she had never lacked for anything. Whatever needs she had were met almost as soon as she expressed them. When she got married, she settled into life as a housewife and continued to be comfortable in her living situation. She said that for thirty years, the most satisfying things she did were to raise her kids and keep a nice home. She said she decorated her house and spent time deciding how to arrange the pictures on the wall. She never needed or wanted a job, and, in fact, had never even considered the possibility of working.
Haiffaa said that when she and her family fled Iraq, they were forced to go quickly and with nothing. She held her hands out, palms up, one about a foot higher than other. She said, gesturing with the lower hand, that it was one thing to start off down here, poor and living in a camp and then continuing to struggle as a refugee, but it was another whole thing entirely to go from up here (she gestured with the upper hand) to down there in a matter of days. Haiffaa picked up the container of bottled water on my desk and said, “You can’t even take this. Then you know you are leaving to start with nothing.”
And so it was that Haiffaa found herself staring at eight dollars in her hand on a Saturday afternoon. She said, “I can’t tell you how the feelings inside of me came up. I looked at this money and I didn’t see eight dollars; for me it is like eight million. For the first time in my life, these hands, my hands, made something for me. I did something not as a mother, not as a refugee, but just me, for me, my work.” She pointed at the center of her chest and continued, “I have this pride, this feeling, and I can’t explain it. This eight dollars, it means everything right now. It tells me I can do something and make my own money. This is my first money I made. I can never spend this eight dollars. I have to keep it and show it—I must show it to the other women so they know how this feels and it is real.” She told me that she stood with her back against the door for what seemed like an hour, praying that no one would disturb her so she could fully savor this moment.
Haiffaa’s eyes had long since welled up with tears and they were spilling down her cheeks. She spoke with a great deal of emotion, and I understood that it wasn’t her pride that was making her feel this way so much as what this eight dollars signified for her. At 53 years of age, she had just experienced the first taste of self-sufficiency, the knowing that she had just proved something to herself about her own strength, determination, and nascent sense of accomplishment. It was so much more than her first pay, and significantly more than a handful of damp dollar bills. When I look at the women in this crafts group and I think about their lives, their histories, the challenges and horrors they’ve overcome and the challenges they’re facing now, I have to wonder: How can we possibly estimate the true value of eight dollars? --SM