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Monday, October 26, 2009

Gone too soon

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.

May the journey of your soul be peaceful.
We will miss you.

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.

Haiffaa's eight dollars

Haiffaa making jewelry in Sharon's back yard

Celebrating our first successful bracelet!

Haiffaa's very first trip to Hobby Lobby

One of her first jewelry lessons

Haiffaa was a natural born teacher

Speaking at "Voices of Refugees" at the University of Denver

Sharon and Haiffaa

Haiffaa and the bear...???

Haiffaa Ali

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

We gather, we have a ball

Last Saturday, we had planned to have our first meeting of the Board of Directors of A Little Something, followed by a drop-in session for women who needed help with their crafts or needed to pick up supplies.

The weather forecast wasn't very encouraging. Since most of the women come by bus, we figured we would have our meeting and go home--we didn't really expect much of a turnout.

Sometimes, nothing is what you expect. We had over a dozen women in attendance, including four newcomers from Bhutan and one from Burma. Not only did they come on a freezing Saturday morning, they showed up about 40 minutes early. So much for that business meeting. Not a big deal--spending time with the women is much more fun than writing bylaws and setting goals.

Sharifo brought her son, a chubby, healthy, active 18-month old. Mama Moumina is in Denver until the weather turns cold in earnest (and then she spends the winter in Phoenix). She brought two of the baskets she weaves from bread wrappers and plastic grocery bags. Hind once again dazzled us with her innate design sense and excellent technical skills. Our two newest weavers/knitters, Pampha and Durga, went home with plenty of rich, wool yarn with which they will create sumptuous-yet-quirky hats and scarves.

Katrina was able to spend time with the members in attendance explaining the co-op contract and how members are paid. Anna worked through quality control with the Somali women (and a successful lesson with the "Yes/No" board), while Jaime worked on materials distribution. I was busy giving a starter lesson on bracelet making, bead selection, crimping, and using tools with the new members.

I regret that I was too busy to take a picture of Susan diligently assembling tool sets and findings for the teen girls. Because I take medication that sometimes makes my memory a bit foggy, I make lists for everything. I created a visual picture list to use when making starter sets so I wouldn't forget to include anything. It was very validating, then, to see Susan deep in concentration checking her sets against my rumpled visual list.

It's looking more and more like we're going to have a large community of weavers within A Little Something. Our weavers' styles are as different as their ethnicities--Karen, Karenni, Nepalese, and Burmese. This is something we've tried to foster from the beginning of the project, and it's finally about to happen. Next steps: sewing and soap making. More on that later.

Although we had expected a slow Saturday morning and only two hours of "hands-on" time, we barely had time to sit. I believe it was 3:00 when we finally got in our cars to head home. There are not enough hours in the day. Not even close.

Around the Web

All over the world, populations are moving, fleeing, evolving, hurting each other and helping one another. For those of us who work in refugee resettlement, it is especially important to remember that although there is always more work to be done, good things are happening all over the planet, as well.

Jaime and I have found a few articles and Websites that we hope will provide some insights into the ways hope and courage are still alive and well in our world.

A recent article in the New York Times gives a glimpse into the lives of newly resettled Bhutanese refugees in the Bronx, New York. The article is accompanied by an excellent photo slide show by photojournalist Suzanne DeChillo.

An excerpt of the article follows. Click here to read the entire story, but do it soon--articles in the Times aren't available online indefinitely. you can access the archived stories simply by registering with the Website--it's quick, easy, and free.

Bhutan Refugees Find a Toehold in the Bronx

Published: September 24, 2009

Nearly every immigrant group in New York City has a neighborhood, or at least a street, to call its own. But for refugees from the tiny South Asian nation of Bhutan, the closest thing to a home base is a single building in the Bronx — a red-brick five-story walk-up, with a weed-choked front courtyard and grimy staircases.

Eight families — more than 40 people — have taken up residence here in the past several months, part of a stream of thousands of Bhutanese refugees who have flowed into the United States in the past year and a half. With the help of resettlement agencies, many have found apartments in the Bronx, and the largest concentration has ended up here in the building on University Avenue.

This is their small toehold in a strange new world. The only life most have known was in the rural plains and Himalayan foothills of Bhutan and the dusty refugee camps of Nepal. Few have ever lived in homes with electricity or indoor plumbing, or between walls made of anything but bamboo. continued online

Weaving together a community of hope

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Website currently features a story about a weavers' co-op in Bangladesh. Ethnic Chin refugee women from Burma are using their traditional weaving skills to earn their own money instead of depending on handouts from UNHCR or local Bangladeshis. The goal of the program is to empower the refugee women in the co-op as well as to help them become self-sufficient in a country where it isn't easy to do so. When women have their own money and they have the leeway to make choices for themselves, their families benefit, as well. This project rings a familiar note for us at A Little Something since our goals and beliefs are very much the same. Click here to read the entire story.

The Blue Sweater
The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World is author Jacqueline Novogratz's memoir of a life spent trying to understand and document global poverty. From her Website,,

It all started back home in Alexandria, Virginia, with the blue sweater, a special gift that quickly became her prized possession—until the day she outgrew it and gave it away to Goodwill. Eleven years later in Africa, she spotted a young boy wearing the sweater, with her name still on the tag inside. That her garment had made it all the way to Kigali, Rwanda, where she was helping a group of African women start a micro-finance bank, was ample evidence of the way we are all connected, and how our actions—and inaction—touch people every day across the globe, people we may never know or meet. This awareness continues to drive her efforts to fight poverty, and to bridge the gap between rich and poor.
Novogratz has managed to tie together her experience as a venture capitalist in developing nations with her idealism and optimism into a story that will inspire readers to look for ways to effect real change.

Women Leading for Livelihoods
Imagine our surprise at coming across this project on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Website. It was like reading a page from our own book, another telling of the A Little Something philosophy:

This UNHCR initiative is aimed at promoting the economic independence and
empowerment of refugee and displaced women and girls around the world. For WLL, women are not victims or passive recipients of aid; with access to the proper
resources, they are capable of changing their lives and those of their children,
families and communities.

Refugee and displaced women face a series of barriers to work: legal restrictions, physical and psychological trauma, lack of financial resources, child care issues, the wrong skills for their environment, and much more. WLL aims to break down these barriers through the funding of a full range of programmes aimed at empowering refugee and displaced women. Projects range from language and vocational training to classes on farming , marketing and computer literacy as well as basic courses in finance and how to get access to business centres and savings and loan schemes.
Read more about Women Leading for Livelihoods here.


The Women’s Crusade

The liberation of women could help solve many of the world’s problems, from poverty to child mortality to terrorism.

In August of this year, New York Times journalist Nicholas D. Kristof and investment banker Sheryl WuDunn wrote an extensive article about the plight of women struggling to survive and get a foothold on basic human rights throughout the developing world. Thanks to the availability of micro-finance business and development programs, women are making progress toward a better life, one at a time. The article points out the powerful effects of micro-finance projects and specifically addresses the benefits to women in parts of the world where they often suffer the most and have the fewest rights. With structured programs, small loans, and the opportunity to begin entrepreneurial ventures, women are changing lives far beyond their own.

To access the entire article, click here.

The article includes an audio slide show and a short video about women who are newly empowered and whose lives are being transformed by their participation in the micro-finance movement. Additional information about the Kristoff and WuDunn's Half the Sky Movement (get involved!) can be found here.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

'Tis the season

Check the right column of our blog for information about upcoming sales.
We're going to be very busy!

We're getting ready for a meeting with the A Little Something members this Saturday. We can only hope that they come! The weather is supposed to be dreadful.

We hope to finally explain the new contracts and pay arrangements. For the past two years, we've been paying the women 75 percent of the selling price of their items. The other 25 percent goes into the business to buy supplies and pay for registration fees when we attend festivals and sales events.

Going forward, we'll pay the women outright for whatever they make. This will also give us the opportunity to inspect the women's work when it's turned in. That matters because we've spent hours upon hours fixing jewelry so it could be sold. Now the women will get immediate quality-control feedback and they'll have the option of taking "quirky" pieces home or staying for the workshop where there is help immediately available to bring the work up to a saleable standard.

It also appears that we may have recruited some new members--including a half-dozen weavers from Burma and Bhutan. We still need looms, but just knowing there are more women in our community with this skill is exciting. The woven items we carry at our sales are some of the best-selling and most in-demand items the women bring to us.

Here's hoping for a successful and crafty Saturday!