Hawah spend the last few months in Hell, forced into a homeless shelter, her husband struggling for life, afraid she would lose her children, forced to eat the awful shelter food, walking the streets of Albany at 4 a.m. picking up bottles to cash in at a local supermarket for $5 or $6 on a good day.
Six or seven years ago, she and her husband Hassan had a good middle-class life in Libya, and gave a good life to their eight children. Then the Libyan Civil War broke out and soldiers loyal to Muammar al-Gaddafi came to their home demanding that their sons join the Army. She and Hassan fled in the night with them to a refugee camp, where she spent five years before coming to the United States.
The family lost everything. Soon after they arrived Hassan, who worked as a large crane operator for 14 years, collapsed on the street and was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he was rushed to the hospital, is unable to move and the doctors say he will never be able to come home.
When Hassan got sick, local welfare authorities cut the rent subsidy they were getting to help pay for Hassan’s medical care. He requires 24 hour care in a nursing home.
Hawah had never worked, spoke no English and had no money and no car.
She couldn’t make up the difference between the old subsidy and the new one. She also had two children to care for, she doesn’t know where the others are. The welfare authorities did not care. She was soon out in the street.
In the new and Darwinian world of refugees, federal aid, which used to help sustain them until they could get on their feet, has mostly disappeared.They are on their own with nowhere to turn for help. There is Ali. And when I can, there is me.
There is also RISSE, the refugee and immigrant support center in Albany, they are stretched thin and overwhelmed and do whatever they can.
Hawah was locked out of her apartment and evicted. She couldn’t afford to rent another apartment, she was forced to live in a dangerous, filthy and hostile homeless shelter. The authorities there threatened to take her children away because they violated the curfew, walking in circles with their friends because they were ashamed to let anyone know they were in a shelter.
She said she thought about killing herself, but could not do that because of her children.
When I met Hawah a week or so ago, she would barely talk to me, she was so anxious about me and my camera, she would only speak to me while holding a shawl over her face and eyes. She was fearful and bewildered. She looked stricken and hopeless. I could see she did not believe we could or would help her, she had the eyes of someone who was beaten down and exhausted.
I am so happy to tell you there is a happy ending ot this story.
Ali brought me and Hawah together. We have her all the help she needed and all she would accept. We paid the deposit and first months’ rent on a spacious and clean 3 bedroom apartment in Albany, there is room for her, and for her two children. For the first time in many years, they each will have their own rooms.
I gave her $1,300 for rent and deposit last week, and $700 today for a TV and clothes and food. We brought her groceries for her new apartment, she loves to cook.
Thank you, Army Of Good. For $2,000, we saved a live and gave hope to a family and brighter future for her children. With the refugees, it is always about the children. That is their eternal story, that’s why they risk their lives to get here.
I am well aware that Hawah and Hassan and their children would not be allowed into the United States today, Libya is on the governments’s travel ban list.
Last night Hawah and her children slept on mattresses on the floor, today, Ali began bringing in furniture collected by local churches for the needy. The beds will be coming in a day or two, the living room has a new sofa and some chairs. The apartment has running water, head and big airy windows and tall ceilings.
They have a full refrigerator and a table to eat at. For the first time in so long, she told me, she has a home again.
We gave Hawah another gift today. We bought her a TV for the apartment and paid the cable installation fees. The TV isn’t just for entertainment, it is the connection to their world, past and present. It is important to the children.
I gave Ali $300 to buy clothes for her two children, their clothes are worn and dirty. Ali took them shopping Thursday afternoon.
Hawah and I are good friends now.
She has no fear of my camera, and now smiles and says she would like to crawl into it. Hawah is a different person than the one I meet a week ago. She is always laughing and smiling, happy to pose, she shakes my hand and jokes about me. She is eager and joyous to start her life over again, although her heart is broken for Hassan, who lies immobile in a nursing home.
She paid me a great honor today, she asked if I would go with her a week from Sunday and visit Hassan in the nursing home where he is, just outside of Albany. Ali said he would like to come also.
Hassan can only communicate by blinking an eye. She says she wants him to meet and see the “man who is helping us live again.” I said I would be happy to meet Hassan, and I asked if it was all right to bring Maria if she wanted to come. She said that would be fine.
So we shall go on that journey together in a week. I look forward to it. She said I am the first person outside of her family she has brought to see her husband, she can only rarely see him because she has no car and he is miles away.
She and I have a real connection now, as real as a connection can be without being able to speak to one another in the same language. We talk to one another with hand gestures and facial expressions.
Last week, when we looked at a dreary and decaying apartment, her eyes told me she did not want to live there. She was grateful, as if it was up to me. She looks at me with trust now.
So Hawah has what she needs now, and after our visit to Hassan, she wants to cook a great meal for me, Ali and Maria. She is on her own now, that is the way it needs to be, the way she wants it to be.
I said that dinner would be fine also, I would love to stay in touch with Hawah. And Ali has told me that in her culture, it is important to give something back to someone who helps.
She is meeting with an employer in the morning, applying for a job one or two bus rides away, she has no car. I asked if there was anything else she needed now, and she shook her head.
“No,” she said, “I have enough. Others need help, too.” She said she liked my new Panama hate, she told Ali it was stylish. She thinks I might need some new clothes, she told Ali to take me shopping.
On the way out, we didn’t even think about it, we just hugged, something Muslim women don’t often do to men outside of their family.
She seems good. She is strong and brave and determined. She is eager to start her life anew.
It all seems very American to me, and I am happy to be a part of it. As I drove off today, I thought of my grandmother, a refugee from Russian who suffered horribly and lost everything.
This one’s for you, grandma, I said.
I did want to cry, but I did not. I wasn’t sure what she would make of it.