Denverite Hassina Omar

A Loving Legacy. This October, Denverite Hassina Omar honored her late parents by carrying on their dream: helping children wounded from three decades of war in Afghanistan. Once there, she realized there was more to do. And she made it her dream too. She is confident and tall in her heels. Her hair is so black and shiny it’s almost blue. Her green eyes light up, and it’s impossible not to return her smile. Hassina Omar looks like a princess from far away who’s been plopped into an unlikely place: Radio Station KOA’s newsroom. Laughing, she says, “Look at this button. The cover’s coming off.” She smooths down her blazer with long, cool fingers. Fashion talk is the Western way, but just three months ago the makeup was gone, and she covered her sweat pants with a black robe so as not to draw attention to herself. Omar was visiting a hospital in Kabul, delivering boxes of tiny crutches and wheelchairs. Waiting for them were children injured by land mines left from 30 years of war. She is carrying on her mother’s life’s work. Handicapped Children of Afghanistan was started by Khadija Omar to care for kids whose disabilities are often ignored by their government. “The children are the ones who are most innocent,” says Hassina. “Many of these kids are released from the hospital with nowhere to go, their parents blown up by some crazy fanatic. These are the most graceful children I have ever met.”

Handicap International reports 800,000 people in Afghanistan have been injured by scattered mines and explosives, which are forgotten until they’re stepped on. Half of these casualties are individuals under 19 years of age. This is not the Afghanistan Hassina Omar was born into. Forty-one years ago, it was a neutral country run by a king. Omar was the baby of five children, outspoken and fiery. Her parents were educated in France and sent her to international schools, where she learned English. When she was 12 years old, the Russians invaded, and the world as she knew it was over. Her father, Abdullah Omar, was the minister of public health, a respected physician known for building family-planning clinics in the most rural areas of Afghanistan. In December of 1979, Dr. Omar was in meetings at the capitol in Kabul when the Russians blasted the city. Cabinet members who weren’t killed were taken as political prisoners. Dr. Omar’s family had only pieces of his clothing as proof he was alive. When they collected his dirty laundry from the jail guards for cleaning, if they could smell his scent on them, they could sleep another night.

Omar’s mother, Khadija, did on the outside what her father could not do behind bars. She knew Afghanistan could never again be home, and so she managed to sneak three of her children out of the country. They left, one by one, fake passports in their pockets. Her youngest stayed behind with her. When Omar’s father was released two years later, the family reunited in Omaha, Neb., where Dr. Omar found work as a microbiologist. Life was good until he was called back to work in Yemen by the United Nations. A tragic car crash ended his life, but there was something strange about the accident. His vehicle had been hit by three military cars. Some wonder if he was assassinated for speaking out. The Russians were still in Afghanistan, and Dr. Omar had written Mikhail Gorbachev in protest. Questions surrounding his death still haunt his family. Khadija Omar never remarried, happy to live her life honoring the man she met at the wedding of her sister and his brother. Hassina and her mother eventually moved from Omaha to Denver and lived here together for the next 20 years. They felt they belonged in the Rocky Mountains, which reminded them of the rugged peaks of Afghanistan.

Omar is proud of her mother’s strength. It was she who used the underground to get the family to safety during the fall of Kabul. Years later, when she knew her children were settled, she sat down with her daughter and told her, “I’ve done something.” Feeling powerless over the destruction of Afghanistan, Khadija had sold some of her jewelry, much of it given to her by Abdullah, and some passed down from her family. With the money, she arranged for wells to be built so poor Afghan children could have water to drink. In the dusty countryside, it’s often the child’s job to fetch water, which is sometimes over an hour’s walk away. With new energy, Khadija published a book of her late husband’s notes from prison and sold it. From these funds sprang another project: Handicapped Children of Afghanistan. In 2007, after two philanthropic trips overseas, Khadija Omar died at the age of 76, the youngest Omar at her side. When Hassina told her bosses at KOA Radio that she wanted to honor her mother by hauling medical supplies to a war zone, they were obviously concerned. In the summer of 2008, the war was shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan. One supervisor told her not to go. It was getting more dangerous by the day. The Taliban was getting stronger. Religious courts and judges were replacing governmental law. More and more Afghans in the rural areas lived in fear. Truckers transporting goods over remote roads were routinely dragged from their vehicles and murdered for cooperating with the “infidels.” Medical staff was being threatened and targeted in anti-government attacks. “But I’m headed for Kabul,” she explained to her supervisors. “It’s civilized.” The Taliban had not yet infiltrated the country’s capital.

Rosemary Bennett, KOA’s general sales manager, wasn’t worried about wayward bullets. She was worried her outspoken friend with the looks of an Afghan but the attitude of a Yankee would get herself in trouble. Afghanistan’s view toward Westerners had changed since Omar had fled with her family three decades ago. Bennett was afraid Omar would speak her mind about the corruption she saw and says, “I told her to keep her mouth shut. She was in their territory.” Before Omar left for her embattled homeland, she received a warning in the form of an e-mail from the U.S. Embassy: “It’s not safe. It is a war zone. We can’t be responsible.” A talk show host wanted to accompany her to promote Handicapped Children. But the station didn’t want to assume the risk. She would go alone, but there was no stopping her. “These people used to have a normal life. Not everyone is an extremist,” she says. When Omar arrived in Kabul, she had $42,000, mostly donated by Coloradans; the wheelchairs; and the crutches. Her plan: visits to the hospital, a disabled group and a school for deaf, mute and blind children. She was struck by the youngsters with dark skin and big eyes just like hers. Their families were starving, so she bartered with the street vendors in Farsi for huge sacks of rice, pinching their price down by a third.

But before she could distribute the goods, she became seriously ill from eating contaminated lettuce. She was stuck in bed with a fever, shaking and angry. She had only five days left, and she could not lift her head. She had not come this far to be stopped by a salad! One night as she struggled with a spiking temperature and night sweats, she woke to see her father, pacing the floor back and forth with his prayer beads clasped in his hands behind him. She felt her mother, dressed in white, holding her. “It seemed my parents were there and that everything was going to be fine,” she recalls. The next day, Omar got out of bed. She called the schools and asked them to notify the children’s families she would bring the rice. Hundreds of people showed up. The average Afghan family makes $222 a year. A bag of rice would keep a family fed for at least two months. The wheelchairs and crutches would mean kids with no legs would not have to crawl in the dirt. As the items were handed over, the visitor in the black veil and sunglasses received smiles and thanks and was invited for tea. She was relieved. Her work was finished.

Omar returned to the States grateful and showing a new attitude noticed by the boss. Bennett says, “Hassina pulled humility from her mother’s passing. She embraced her culture for herself.” The normally composed Omar admits she had a hard time “keeping it together in the hospital. It hit me these children are innocent victims of an unnecessary war.” And as the fighting gets worse in Afghanistan, their needs are changing. “You can give so many wheelchairs, but now they don’t have anything to eat,” she explains. UNICEF reports indicate Afghan children suffer more than those in any other country. A third of the babies do not live past five years. The latest information from the Associated Press indicates the Taliban’s power is spreading north to within 30 miles of Kabul. Anti-government militants operate in 30 percent of the country, and that number is growing. In an attempt to control the swelling insurgence, 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops will be sent to Afghanistan by this summer. Omar is planning her next trip for fall. “To the last day I breathe, I will continue my mother’s charity. She was my best friend,” she says. About the growing risk, Bennett comments, “I can’t stop her from going, but the violence is random now and so pointless.”

Omar again: “Is it more dangerous? Sure. But I could pass away here in a car wreck.” Echoes of her father’s end. Is she a role model? Omar focuses her green eyes somewhere above the reporter’s head and replies, “I consider my parents the role models. Because of them I made it here today. They taught me right from wrong. And to speak my mind.”

She’s in the right place.

The radio station where she spends every day selling ads is humming with political talk. Conservative and liberal banter is what keeps it alive. She’s back in America, where you’re not killed for criticizing your government or beaten by extremists for going to school … common in some parts of rural Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban. But she has seen good and bad in every society, including the one she’s chosen. She’s a dual-culture darling, a role model who delivers the best of both worlds. If you are interested in donating to the Handicapped Children of Afghanistan, you can send your tax-deductible donation to Handicapped Children of Afghanistan in care of UMB Bank, 707 Colorado Blvd., Denver, Colo. 80206.

Written by Carol McKinley

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