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Violating Sanctions

An American Woman’s Listening Tour Through the Axis of Evil

Barely Breathing….

The Author By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | June 11th, 2009 | Comments 1 Comment »

When working with refugees, one holds one’s breath.

Not like the way we did when we were kids, when we’d see how many times we could cross the pool without surfacing, deliberately pushing our lungs to their limits.

It’s more like you just forget to breathe for so long that a section of your diaphragm goes numb, until your breath is in a holding pattern not unlike the lives of the families you hope to help.

Yesterday, I learned an Iraqi I thought was dead is alive, married and living in Ithaca, NY.


I had written about Dhia, the resourceful young man who worked at the coffee house across the street from my Baghdad hotel. Dhia, who befriended me and trusted me, before becoming a translator for the US Army, a potentially fatal job during the early months of the US occupation.dhia.jpg

I wrote about how Dhia’s hair-curling coffee and candid conversation were a refuge for me from the tumult of Iraq’s pre-war jittery streets and about how I tried to find him after the war began.

I heard from him briefly via US Army e-mail in the fall of 2003, then never again.

I read about Iraqi translators’ bodies floating down the Tigres River, and my breath stopped.

Today, I stumbled across his name on a web site created by Maura Stephens, a journalist who traveled to Iraq when I did. She has spent the last 6 years helping 24 Iraqi translators and their families relocate to the US. I’ve shorthanded far too much here. To read her Orwellian account of navigating the American bureaucracy that was deliberately established to assist Iraqis who assisted the US military, but in fact was deliberately designed to keep Iraqis in Iraq, click here. (“Andy” is Dhia.)

Want to do something concrete to help Iraqis? Send Maura a few bucks to help pay for the relocating fees of the Iraqis she’s still helping: Iraq Raqi Refugees Assistance Connection (

In typical understatement, Maura said it hasn’t been easy. Iraqis often arrive with nothing – Dhia’s scant luggage was lost by the airline that flew him out of Iraq. Often, refugees don’t know how to drive, or navigate large grocery and department stores, or deal with snowdrifts, or speak the language, certainly the technically specific language needed to secure government documents and medical assistance. These are capable, educated people emerging from months, years of psychological, emotional and physical trauma who are suddenly dropped into a culture as foreign as they can imagine with little (or no) family or community support. One family went back to Iraq, too isolated in their overwhelmed state. Another translator has just been diagnosed with cancer, a 30-year-old man who suddenly has to learn English for “recurrence” and “remission.”

Coincidentally, I took the chapter of my book that includes Dhia’s story and describes the tense days leading to the US-led invasion to a writing group the other night. The group is too inexperienced to offer helpful critique; they seemed to want me to show them my emotions so they could know how to feel themselves. One guy actually suggested I invent a scene where I cry.

I’m crying now. The numbness in my chest is thawing and I’m crying little sobs, little fetid bubbles trapped far too long.

I can finally breathe.


As you may know, I am writing a book about my travels in the Middle East as a way of putting a human face on US foreign policies. I’m so honored to have been awarded two writing fellowships in the past year for my book!

I’ve spent the last 6 months criss-crossing America, housesitting and staying with friends while I rent out my Santa Monica home to cover the mortgage. This allows me the time and opportunity to write - and to live one of those highly romanticized pauper/writer lives. All I need now is a dangling cigarette and a scotch.

I have a list of friends and family I e-mail about once/mo or so with my ramblings - both literary and geographic. If you would like to be added, just drop me an e-mail and let me know. (BeInvolved (at) Sometimes, these e-mails are early incarnations of what ends up on my blog.

I’m also continuing my public speaking about my pre- and post-invasion trips to Iraq and my work last year in Syria with Iraqi refugees. In July, I’ll be speaking in Buffalo and Cincinnati. If you would like to schedule a speaking engagement – or have someone who would like to come to one – let me know!

Finally, I will be back in Western NY for my 30th high school reunion in July – and will drive to Ithaca to see Dhia and meet his family!

Wishing you peace, love, and enough gratitude to send Maura a few dollars: IraqIRAC ( ) (Hit donate to IRAC.) (I’ll give Dhia the $100 one of my chapters was awarded by the Alabama Writers Conclave.)

Thanks for reading….


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One Response to “Barely Breathing….”

  1. Andrew Griffin Says:

    Kelly, great story — very nice to see some good news coming out of all this.

    Also, congrats on the writing fellowship and the positive reactions to your book’s third chapter!

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