It was a moment Lisa Ramaci thought might never happen –- the doors at JFK airport swinging open and a young woman in a headscarf and high heels walking into a new life of freedom –- and safety.
It was a very long journey for both of them. Nour al-Khal is the Iraqi interpreter who was with Lisa’s husband, Steven Vincent, when he was abducted and murdered in Basra in 2005. Nour was wounded in the attack and Lisa had spent 18 months fighting U.S. authorities to bring her to the United States.
I first met Lisa more than a year ago at a dinner for the Committee to Protect Journalists. She introduced herself as the widow of Steven Vincent. His murder then was recent enough that you could tell she found it strange to be defining herself that way. Over the next year, this extraordinary woman started a foundation in Steven’s name to help the families of local journalists killed in war zones and successfully battled to get Nour to the United States –- all while being treated for breast cancer.
“I was filling out paperwork, making phone calls, e-mails, pledging to stand financial security for her, promising that I would let her live with me,” Lisa said. Many times it seemed she would never get her here. Lisa and Nour at Bryant Park in New York.
But now, here we were with her at JFK, waiting for Nour to arrive, to meet the woman who would be sharing her home. I’d met Nour in the Jordanian capital, Amman, while she was waiting for her visa. Like many Iraqi refugees, she lived in fear that she would be deported back to Iraq. And she wasn’t sure what to expect from her new life.
Lisa was understandably nervous. She’d changed her shirt in the van on the way to the airport – putting on a purple T-shirt someone had made for her reading ‘Got Nour.’ “I told her to look for a tall woman with a ‘Got Nour’ T-shirt,” she said. As we waited for Nour’s connecting flight from Frankfurt, Lisa smoked and paced on the sidewalk outside.
Nour was arriving as a refugee – someone who has fled their country because of a legitimate fear of persecution. She was one of the lucky ones. Although almost two million Iraqis have fled their country’s civil war, the United States has taken reportedly taken in fewer than 700 of them. Hundreds of Iraqi interpreters who have risked their lives working with Americans have been stranded in Iraq or left destitute in surrounding countries. Resettlement officials at the airport said they believed Nour was the first non-military interpreter to arrive in the United States after being given fast-track refugee status.
The stylish young woman who stepped off the plane in strappy high-heeled shoes, a sparkly headscarf and flared trousers didn’t quite fit the common image of a refugee. But the plastic bag with her documents and the distraught look in her eyes did.
Nour had been shot, separated from her family and her country and lived with the fear of being deported back to Iraq since she arrived in Jordan 18 months ago. Every step in those strappy sandals was fraught with not knowing what would come next.
They had no trouble recognizing each other. Nour sobbed –- telling Lisa over and over how sorry she was she had come without Steven – how sorry she was she couldn’t save him. Lisa told her over and over it wasn’t her fault.
Nour insisted on going straight to Steven’s grave in the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. She’d never had a chance to say goodbye to him.
“I’m so sorry for everything…and maybe I’m sorry I’m alive,” she told him, kneeling in front of his black granite tombstone with a map of Basra.
The two women could hardly appear more different – Lisa is a statuesque 5’11” with flowing black hair – an irreverent New Yorker from an Italian-German family. She towers over the smaller, younger woman. You can’t see Nour’s hair –- it’s covered in public in keeping with Muslim tradition –- but with fashionable headscarves coordinated with her clothes.
They have Steven in common. This was a
Lisa greets Nour at the airport. translator’s story with a twist. Steven had gone to Iraq as a freelance journalist. With the hordes of reporters in Baghdad after the war, Lisa says, he couldn’t afford security guards and drivers when the city started to turn dangerous. So he went to the south of Iraq, where he found that insurgents and death squads had infiltrated the Basra police. He wrote about it in a book titled ‘The Red Zone.’ Nour began getting threats for working with him and he believed her life was in danger.
Lisa was in New York, working at her job as an appraiser at an auction house. He called her at three in the morning. “He said: ‘What do we do? I’ve got to get her out of the country. Her parents will not let her leave unless she’s married. And I said ‘well then, you have to marry her.”
So they decided that Steven would convert to Islam and marry Nour as his second wife. Once he got her to safety in Britain, where she had been promised a job, the plan was he would divorce her as easily as he had married her in an Islamic ceremony and come home to Lisa.
“I have had people say to me ‘Are you crazy coming up with that idea?” Lisa says. She didn’t see any alternative.
As for what might have happened on the wedding night of her husband of 22 years and his Iraqi interpreter, Lisa insists it doesn’t matter.
“Had anything happened, if they had gotten married and if they had had a honeymoon night, it’s not the end of the world,” Lisa tells me. “He loved me and that was good enough for me.”
Lisa has turned Steven’s study into a bedroom for Nour. It’s the first time she’s shared the apartment she’s lived in for 27 years with anyone but Steven. It’s a small, friendly building in the heart of what used to be New York’s bohemian East Village. Lisa had put a note in the hallway announcing Nour’s arrival. “She will be living with me for a while. If you see a woman in a headscarf please introduce yourself,” the handwritten note read.
It’s the absence of other women in headscarves that most surprises Nour as she and Lisa walk through Manhattan. She’s heard there are a lot of Muslims in New York but she doesn’t see any.
Over the next few days, Lisa would take Nour to get a social security number. In a few weeks she will have a green card and will be able to work. She was already offered a job with an Arab television network here –- but on the condition that she take off her headscarf, she says. She refused.
Nour plans to translate Steven’s book –- the one she was clutching so tightly when she arrived – into Arabic and to help Lisa with the Steven Vincent Foundation, which helps families of media workers – interpreters, fixers, drivers and stringers –- killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. The two also plan to write another book based on Steven’s writing –- if they can find a way to decipher his shorthand.
But for now Lisa is busy showing Nour the New York that Steven loved – watching her marvel at buildings so tall she can’t see the top. The best thing for Nour, Lisa says is “just being able to walk down the street and not having to worry about a suicide bomber or a truck bomb –- she’s fascinated by the kind of people she sees. We saw a woman today with tricolor hair and she was astonished…so really it’s fun. She’s providing me with a new look at my own city and it’s just begun. Wait till I take her out to Coney Island.”
The two women have a lot of painful things to talk about and they’re taking it slowly. “Steven would be ecstatic that she’s here,” Lisa says. She says Nour’s escape and the families the foundation will be able to help are an affirmation that Steven didn’t die in vain.
Watch a video clip of Jane's interview with Nour and Lisa.
Editor's note: Jane's report on Lisa and Nour will air on tonight's 'Nightly News' broadcast.
Photos by Jane Arraf
Reporting from the Great Barrier Reef
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