Excerpts from


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

Now that it’s over, I want to skulk in the shadows while I redefine myself. I no longer want anyone to name me, dress me, introduce me through their prism of what I represent to them. When you are a candidate, you belong to a greater community that filters its hopes through you. There are no boundaries. During the three decades I was a campaign consultant, I often joked to my candidate-clients that the only thing they’d have an abundance of during their campaigns was free advice. During the three years I was a candidate, I buried my own identity beneath that public ownership so successfully that Candidate Kelly was grateful for any advice that connected people to her. After one public appearance, a supporter pulled me aside and whispered she wanted to take me bra shopping. Nothing, apparently, was out of bounds.


Now, I want to wear bad bras, or no bras. I want to decide for myself where my boundaries lie, where my limits lay, where my new self lurks. I want to act out and push back in unacceptable ways. Perhaps this is why new officeholders cruise hookers or drive drunk: after months and months of being told who they are, they need to go to extremes to reassert themselves.




Nebras doesn’t recognize me at first. Not until I show her photos of herself does she smile. Backed against a shop facing a tight crowd of curious men, Nebras retreats shyly, studying her photo intently. I shoo back the men who had treated this beggar only as a nuisance and, kneeling before her, I ask the interpreter to tell her I had come from America to see her.


Without warning, the overwhelmed girl lunges forward and kisses me on the lips.


Games People Play
In contrast, my wandering into the roadside coffee house attracts little attention, surprisingly, since I am the only woman here. It’s a big flat building perched on the bank of the Tigris River that hints of a posh past. Several men are gathered in this cacophonous hall where the smoke-filled air is as thick as the coffee. The triumphant slamming of dominoes on the tiled tables contradicts the gentle clinking of the dainty china teacups against their saucers. A floor-to-ceiling open fireplace tiled in blue delft and decorated with ancient teakettles is the ornate centerpiece of this otherwise sparse room.


This is where I meet Dhia, a 24-year-old with a strong command of English and a quick sense of humor. He serves the hair-curling coffee in the delicate teacups, and dishes up political commentary with surprising candor.


I later return to the Amariyah bomb shelter where I first met Sura, longing for someplace solemn and respectful amid Baghdad’s chaos and cataclysm. When I arrive this time, the electricity is out and I bribe the guards to let me in. Alone in the creepy darkness that had sheltered so much death, I think about the workers outside planting a memorial garden in the bright sunlight. Inside the tomb it’s quiet, almost prayerful. A single shaft of light weaves through the tangled rebar and spotlights a wreath marked “peace” in English and Arabic. On the walls, abstract shadows intermingle with the bloodstains, old paint on a canvas too stubborn to fade.


Getting Bombed
Our delegation members moved from room to room, child to child, passing out balloons and taking photos. As I passed through one room, a mother startled me by grabbing my hand and feverishly pleading with me in Arabic. I called for the doctor: “This woman needs something, she needs something for her son.”


“No,” the doctor translated the woman’s urgent message. “She says she has everything she needs. She just needs peace.”


She just needs peace. She asked me for my peace button, and she pinned it on her black abaya, while Ahmed, her son, sat cross-legged on his bed, dying.


Flashed in Fallouja
It is during my interview with the water district manager about her staff’s heroic efforts to keep the water flowing through the first onslaught of war, when this strange man squats unobtrusively in a doorway, catches my eye, and lifts his dishdasha, displaying how Allah had been very, uh, generous to him.


I’m shocked! And awed.


Talk about weapons of mass distraction! What’s a white girl in a war zone to do? Being flashed in Fallouja isn’t covered in the human rights’ handbook.


Broken Record
Watching the contractor slowly rise from his chair, I realized that to rebuild their country, Iraqis would be required to buy American insurance in order to work for an American company so they could rebuild the airport that the Americans bombed.


Like a broken record repeating a profiteering past, this invasion of Iraq was about more than spreading democracy, stemming terrorism, or stealing oil: It provided lucrative profits to well-connected private companies that staff America’s increasingly privatized military actions.




Beyond the Bulkhead
I catch my reflection in the plane’s dark window. The dull, smudged image is kind, dimming the emerging wrinkles around my mouth, softening the listlessness in my gaze. I look like one of those expressionless Degas dancers I’d just seen in London’s National Gallery, self-absorbed in her position.


Power Broken
“Are you married?” The precocious 10-year-old grabs my hand proprietarily.


“No,” I laugh as her entourage of audacious Palestinian girls plucks me from my delegation to tour me through their refugee camp in southern Lebanon.


“Why?” Her brown eyes flash.


I wonder how this little Muslim girl might interpret my matrimonial pickiness. I assume her marriage will be arranged for her. “I never, uh, found the right man.”
“Good!” she draws out the word to nods all around.
I arch my eyebrow, feigning seriousness. “Are you married?”
“NO!” she waves her hand over her pre-pubescent flat chest.
“Good!” I concur, cementing our sisterly bond.
Grief’s Grip
She finds me again, picking me out of a crowd of hundreds at a cultural program days later. Why does this old woman insist on me? I’m so tired, I just want a night off to watch kids dance. Her claws again grip my arm; she’s like a bothersome raven in her black abaya robes, picking, picking at me.
I glance at the old woman, unsure of what her reaction will be, afraid of that blood-curdling wail. But she’s ignoring the camera, watching me instead as I recite her loss in a language she doesn’t speak. For the first time, I actually see her. I don’t remember crying, but a year later, the camerawoman tells me I did.
Right of Return
Patriotic music thumped from loudspeakers the size of Volkswagons along this main highway’s shoulder. Soldiers posed on hoods of jeeps that crept through the thronging crowd, flashing two-fingered “V” hand signals that stood for either victory or peace, depending on one’s perspective, while hoisting their rifles with their other hands. Teenage girls wept. Jubilant women mobbed the camouflaged-colored trucks, dumping homemade cookies through the windows into soldiers’ laps. The air tasted of spent fireworks that erupted at each bridge as convoys of Soldiers Coming Home passed beneath.




I lie nearly comatose in my friend Susan’s bathtub and try to decipher the expression on the Buddha in the corner. Eyes closed, hands folded gracefully in his lap, he’s decidedly unaware of the come-hither orchid that rings his shoulders from the pot Susan has placed artfully nearby. From the bubbling bathtub, I reach out and touch one of the orchid’s tender petals. I tug gently and the arching stem bobs provocatively over the Buddha’s belly.


Sign Language
I expected a Kumbaya community, where everyone joyously embraces one’s neighbor and frolics to a ’60s tune of peace and harmony. It’s not. Finding peace is messy. Living in this village are the most opinionated people imaginable who daily rise to the challenge of negotiating conflict respectfully.


Breaking the Silence
“Silence is the way we wake up and drink our lattes,” murmurs a weary 24-year-old Yehuda Shaul, a former Israeli soldier who served two years in the West Bank. “What’s going on in the Occupied Territories is the biggest taboo in Israel.” His bulky shoulders hunch from the weight of too many unsaid words. “No one talks about the moral price of being occupiers.”
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.


The sun is dropping. Abigail wants us out of this atmosphere where anything can happen when adversaries are cloaked by darkness. The fastest route back to our apartment that avoids the conservative synagogue that might draw ire, insults or stones is Checkpoint Five.

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.


Natural Order
“After one of my talks, the brother of [one of] the suicide bomber[s who killed my daughter] came to shake my hand. I said, ‘OK, let’s shake.’ He’s now a member of our group. You don’t look back, you don’t judge or find who to blame. It won’t heal anything.

“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.




In Memoriam
I surprised myself by getting weepy at a memorial service today. I didn’t cry over the commemoration of the man who died – a charming, smart, committed 81-year-old I met during my campaign. Instead, I teared up when a passing acquaintance hugged me warmly, saying she’d thought of me recently when she saw me in a photo taken during her 50th birthday party … 24 years ago! I edged out of her grasp, suddenly embarrassed by the number of people in the sanctuary who had known me for more than half my life. I felt exposed by these people who have watched me grow up. These people who have admired me, fought with me, supported me since I was in my early twenties…and feel they know me now because they have my youthful, brash optimism archived in a 24-year-old photo. (How ironic I’ve chosen a memorial service as the place where I want to be forgotten.)


No Money, No Honey
As my sabbatical from my political career stretches into its second year, I spend Valentine’s evening cruising Fields Avenue, Philippine’s seedy, glittery red light district outside the former Clark Air Base. Since the US military base closed, the economy is maintained by hundreds of thousands of sextourists from Australia, Japan, Germany, the US, Britain and Ireland. Where once American soldiers strutted the rutted streets, now paunchy white men swagger in their Hawaiian shirts pulled as tightly over their tummies as the spandex skirts that cling to the upper thighs of their young Filipina escorts.


Lily Pads
My second day in Manila, Lopez tours me through a squalid section of a flimsy warren that could be called “homes” only by the very generous. This shantytown adjacent to Manila’s North Harbor houses thousands of families of working seafarers and dockworkers who live in the slummiest conditions I’ve ever seen. Multi-generational families of a dozen people live in rooms smaller than most Americans’ bathrooms, their “kitchen” a board with a hotplate and washbasin, their “bathroom” a blanketed-off corner with a bucket. People sleep in lofts above the claustrophobic cubicles. Windows are absent luxuries; the stench of humanity seeps from the splintering wood.


Nothing Left to Fear
“Gloria is a small Bush,” the lifelong activist declares. It’s why she keeps fighting. “It’s important for people like me who have seen such atrocities go on working to struggle hard to assert their rights. Governments will not give you civil rights on a silver platter. You have to work for it…or die for it.”

KARAPATAN documented 209 people who were killed by the government last year and another 78 who were abducted, illegally detained or “disappeared.”


Living Large in Limbo
I’m not sure what to expect of this man whose thirty years of political activism mirror my own, but who recently has been accused of murdering a fellow activist he hasn’t seen in 17 years, a man he didn’t even know was dead until he was arrested. He doesn’t know I will interrupt this precious visit with his wife.

“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.


The smell of chicken soup wakes me at 4:00 in the morning. Dina feeds her family by feeding the neighborhood: She sells homemade soups through a gated outdoor patio. It is here, over her succulent soup, that she shares the scrapbook. “Crizel hated being bald,” she pauses over the butterfly-tressed portrait.

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.





Yep, still writing!


Gingerly, we slide along the wet marble floor as we are guided into a smaller room overtaken by an imposing fireplace that hisses angry steam. We perch on a slick stone bench that has been sweated on by centuries of perspiring women. From where I sweat, I watch a naked, steam-enshrouded woman in the next room douse herself with water and playfully splash her child. Two other naked women soap and scrub each other while their children squeal and slip across the floor. The scene is beautifully Degasesque.

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.


Her sparkly gold shoes remind me of Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

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.


Deserted in the Desert
Like a trapped animal who gnaws off its limb in order to free itself, Raed Salbod smashed his forearm with a metal rod, breaking his bone as he balanced it on two rocks. Desperate to reach his wife in Damascus who was about to give birth, the father-to-be crippled himself in the hope the Syrian government would grant him entry into Syria for medical care, where he could join his wife. He was trapped in Al Tanf, the bleak slum of tents which dollop the desolate strip of harsh land that stretches between the Iraqi and Syrian borders.

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.


Still Alive
The cab drops me at a gate wallpapered with lists of names. People mill about while waiting for their turn to sit in a stifling tent in order to wait to stand in a meandering line to enter a trailer to get a card that allows them to stand in another line to wait to finally gather their staples and board a truck that will take them home. Refugees spend as much time in line as they do in limbo.

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.





Yep, still writing! Check back as I post my progress on this page.


EPILOGUE: Back to Iraq


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