KELLY HAYES-RAITT—Whose License Plate Says “Dosmthn”
By Margaret Van Every
Kelly Hayes-Raitt shares an ice cream with Nebras, an Iraqi beggar she met before the US-led invasion and found again in a Baghdad market four months after the war started. Photo by Yosiko Robinson
Kelly Hayes-Raitt has briefly come to roost Lakeside while she writes a memoir. And does she ever have something to write about! Her life has been defined by the sometimes risky pursuit of humanitarian causes, prodded by a conscience that allows no rest. Her focus for the last decade has been the Middle East, and now in particular she is championing the plight of refugees there.
She says her interest in the Middle East unfolded in unexpected ways. In 2003, she traveled to Iraq five weeks before the US-led invasion and returned to Iraq during the early months of the occupation, nine weeks after “mission accomplished.” Having gotten credentialed as an independent citizen-journalist by the Jordanian government, she was able to access Saddam Hussein’s palace and the recently looted National Museum. She reported live over satellite phone from Baghdad, Fallouja, Hilla and Basra to National Public Radio and other news outlets.
Kelly was enraged by the terrible impact war has on women and children. Over the next two years, she traveled back to the Middle East, interviewing people in order to put a human face on the untold casualties of US governmental policies. During this time, she experienced the array of terrors and thrills that accompany the job of journalist in a war zone.
She relates, “I’ve been held at gunpoint at a checkpoint in the West Bank and also by U.S. soldiers in southern Iraq, visited a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon a week after the Lebanese Army destroyed it. I received dance lessons from Iraqi girls imprisoned in Damascus for prostitution, and have interviewed Iraqis languishing in a snake- and scorpion-infested camp in the No Man’s Land between the Iraqi and Syrian borders.” People have shared their most horrific and humiliating stories with her and now she feels obligated, through lectures, articles, and her book, to get those stories out.
She perceives that most of the issues that incite her social outrage stem from injustice and inequality but pinpoints “If I could wave a magic wand on just one of these issues, it would be to eliminate the weapons industry, to eradicate the war economy that drives far too much of America’s foreign policies. I know we need to maintain a national defense, but I do believe that many of the U.S.’s foreign policy decisions are rooted in economics and not in democracy or defense.”
What fashioned this unlikely activist from a comfortable middle- class home in a time of relative social complacency? Kelly relates that when she was 12, she heard Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first black and the first woman to run for president on the Democratic ticket, speak. Chisholm’s campaign slogan was “Catalyst for Change,” and Kelly knew at that moment—that’s what she wanted to be.
She began in politics, spending 30 years in community organizing, fundraising and acting as spokesperson on campaigns. One campaign she initiated when she was 23—and lost—was written up in Middle Class Radicalism in Santa Monica. Now she hopes her writing will incite people to action. She says she finally realizes “that the best way to be a catalyst for change is simply to treat people with respect and honesty and leave them feeling happier because I was around.”
Her goal in writing a journalistic memoir is to be less specific about what folks should think or do. “In campaigns,” she says, “the action is always very clear: ‘Vote yes.’ ‘Donate here.’ ‘Protest this.’ Now I’d like readers of my book to absorb information that motivates them to decide for themselves how they can make a difference.”
Two of her Iraq chapters have been published in mainstream anthologies (Female Nomad and Friends: Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World, Random House, and Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, Travelers’ Tales). Five additional chapters have won literary awards and were published in literary journals (as well as in El Ojo del Lago!).
At HayesRaitt@aol.com anyone can join Kelly’s list of friends whom she emails every few months about her literary and geographic ramblings. People on this list will receive a discount on her book. She would be honored to address Lakeside organizations and congregations about her experiences in Iraq. She has presented this talk to more than 300 audiences throughout the US and abroad. Her bio is on her blog at www.PeacePATHFoundation.org.