Living Large in Limbo:
How I Found Myself Among the World’s Forgotten
After a 30-year career as a political consultant and activist which culminated in a bruising loss for public office herself, Kelly Hayes-Raitt launched a new, mid-life career by visiting (as author Rita Golden Gelman put it) “the bellies and bowels” of countries decimated by U.S. foreign policies.
Living Large in Limbo: How I Found Myself Among the World’s Forgotten is her forthcoming journalistic memoir that puts a human face on how those policies impact real people.
Not intending to make herself a refugee of sorts from her own life, Kelly found a connection with Iraqi and Palestinian refugees and with Filipinos still reeling from an 80-year domination by the U.S. military — economic refugees, if you will. Self-funded and unembedded, Kelly was able to slip into places denied to credentialed journalists.
During her 4 years of nomadic travel to complete this book, she found herself in New Orleans assisting community groups with cleaning up the Ninth Ward, the neighborhood destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and the breached levies. There, she heard from these American evacuees the same sentiments she heard from Iraqi refugees: “Our history is lost. Our families are scattered. Our lives are in limbo.”
Below are excerpts from each chapter:
Going Braless: An Introduction
ISRAEL & PALESTINE
A few years ago, in a typical New Year’s ritual, I was asked to write what I wanted to burn out of my life. Without hesitating, I wrote DOUBT in bold letters.
But, the moment the flames browned the D, I knew I should have burned CERTAINTY. Certainty is lazy; doubt deserves consideration. One can’t lockstep when one is doubtful. One can’t demonize when one is doubtful. On the other hand, certainty fosters righteousness. Certainty fosters denial, the kind of denial used to claim the Holocaust never happened, forcing generations of Jews to relive the millions of acts of horror instead of the thousands of acts of heroism in an endless emphasis on mass carnage rather than on mass courage.
Abigail leads us up a wide alley guarded by a handsome young soldier, who waves us by. We head toward the right, toward the grimy alley nicknamed Checkpoint Five for its street address painted on the entrance. A second soldier ensconced behind a bunker that looks more like a portable bar, glances questioningly at his buddy, wondering why we had been waved through. His buddy, who turns out to be his superior, jumps up, and suddenly requests identification. He’d mistakenly assumed we would head left, up the hill toward the Jewish settlement, instead of toward the right into the passageway leading to a Palestinian section of town.
“The only way out of this endless cycle is to look forward. I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor. My father was at Auschwitz. [Now] my son is a founder of Combatants for Peace.
KARAPATAN documented 209 people who were killed by the government last year and another 78 who were abducted, illegally detained or “disappeared.”
“He’s so sweet. Handsome,” Mylene giggled during our earlier interview, her delicate hand flying up to her mouth like a love-struck teenager. “One of the members of our church calls him Jackie Chan.”
And she’s right: Pastor Berlin Guerrero, a year younger than me at 46, is movie star handsome, even after nearly nine months in captivity. He is gracious and funny and is genuinely appreciative of an outsider’s interest in his imprisonment. Inside the grounds of the Cavite Provincial Jail, we’ve moved to an open air “mess hall” to escape the karaoke in the pavilion where the prisoners gather for entertainment by a TV set that dangles from one corner above the cement floor, competing with the phlegmy litany from nearby roosters.
When her parents moved to Clark Air Base in the mid-1990s, Crizel was a curious toddler. Her two brothers, Carlo and Rudolph, were born there. Her family lived on the base for four years before moving to a nearby community where they drank the same contaminated well water. Residents talk about how a layer of oil still occasionally skims a glass of tap water.
I wonder what these women wore when they arrived here, I wonder how much of what is now exposed had been covered, what color their veils are. Hijab always struck me as cumbersome, hot and somewhat repressive, yet these ladies frolic carelessly and unselfconsciously. Muslim women say hijab is freeing (freeing from a bad hair day, perhaps), but to me it seems restrictive. “All this covering up, hiding, protecting,” I think as I squirm in my sticky bathing suit, too shy to disrobe.
There’s no place like home runs through my mind as I interview the slight 10-year-old Iraqi refugee in her school principal’s office. In a valiant attempt to ease the heat, an overhead fan jerks as nervously as the fingers in the fragile girl’s lap.
“They told her father, if you don’t leave the country, we will kill you. They cut his finger. The Americans cut his finger,” the translator, a psychologist at the school, repeats, somewhat confused.
“They cut off his finger?” I ask, hoping I’m equally confused.
The girl raises her hands, points to her right index finger and slices across the bottom knuckle.
I look down at her sequined shoes and learn she’d received them at a church giveaway program. I notice the bald spots where they’ve lost their luster and the worn threads that struggle to hold them together.
Syria denied him entry.
Disowned, Salbod is one of 3,000 Palestinian-Iraqis forced from his home in Iraq by sectarian violence but refused entry into Syria. He now lives in the makeshift refugee camp stuck in the “No Man’s Land” between the two countries’ borders.
From Damascus, the UN workers and I travel for nearly three hours through unforgiving land, whizzing past an imposing cement factory, grazing by trucks transporting wood planks and produce to Iraq, and resisting the wake of empty trucks barreling in the opposite direction. It’s a jumpy road, flat shades of brown layered from the sand to the muddy sky. The monotony is broken only by tumbleweeds and potholes and bloody tomatoes spilled on the shoulder.
At the border, the Syrian intelligence offices are nothing more than dilapidated dormitories. We are ushered into one soldier’s seedy room and offered a seat on his lumpy cot while he checks and rechecks our passports and identification cards at his rusty desk. “Wel-come,” says the officer finally, nodding at me over the automatic rifle perched at his knee.
Abdullah nervously greets me in front and tugs me through the crowd to regain his place in the last of the lines. I stand behind him, using his wiry body to shield me from the UN workers’ sight. He graciously maneuvers me into the iota of shade created by a small overhang from the tent.
A Middle Easterner wearing a baby blue UN bib approaches authoritatively and questions Abdullah in Arabic.
“What?” I lean in as the man walks away.
“He wanted to know who you were and I told him you were with me,” he says defiantly, his taut jaw barely moving.
I am overwhelmed by the lines. Lines into a trailer. Lines into another tent. Lines of people who used to create the lines of Iraqi society: teachers, engineers, architects. Educated, middle-class professionals now reduced to standing in the blistering sun for free flour and olive oil and dishwashing detergent.