Faleeha Hassan loves words. It doesn't matter whether the words are in Arabic or English. Thoughtfully, with care and emotion, the Iraqi writer chooses her words, sharing her experiences of war, loss and love of family with the world.
Hassan, of Washington Township—often referred to as the "Maya Angelou of Iraq"—is a poet, novelist and playwright, her words published in 24 books and translated into 14 languages. Her writings permit readers to glimpse into the life of a young woman growing up in her homeland, trying to remain hopeful among the devastation of the Iran-Iraq War. She describes the horrors of a war where one million perished, and being witness to men dying around her as she searched for her father on the frontline of the battlefield. She writes about the heartbreak of losing six cousins in combat and of dead bodies being consumed by starving dogs in the street. But within those pages, she also writes of hope, family and love, drawing on her words to bring healing and strength.
Hassan knows the power of words, which is why after applying for refugee status and arriving with her two children in New Jersey, the Iraqi teacher enrolled at Gloucester County College (now Rowan College at Gloucester County) to learn English. Through the College's English as a Second Language (ESL) program, Hassan learned and improved her English speaking, reading and writing skills and prepared for the U.S. citizenship test. When not in class, she watched cartoons and movies on television, listened to the radio and read information online to help expand her knowledge of the new language.
"In 2012, a few days after my arrival in New Jersey, my neighbor noticed my struggle to communicate with others in English," said Hassan. "I asked her what I should do about that and she suggested taking me to Gloucester County College to register for the ESL program, and I did."
"Faleeha started with the ESL program here at the College several years ago. She had arrived from Iraq as a refuge by way of Turkey. She started in the beginner English class and quickly moved up to the intermediate English class. Today her English is almost perfect," stated Instructor Nancy Nolan. "On April 27, she was the keynote speaker at the Literacy for Life Conference, which is held every year for adult educators. This year it was held at the College of New Jersey in Trenton. Her hard work and persistence make her an inspiration to anyone learning a second language."
"I worked with my language hard because I want to communicate with people," said Hassan, who writes at least 30 minutes every day. "I write and read in English and Arabic now."
Although Hassan is no longer a student in the College's ESL class, she remains a frequent visitor to the campus. Her friendship with Nolan and training as a teacher bring her back into the classroom where she shares her poetry and advice with students from other countries also working to improve their English. She understands firsthand the struggle that comes with learning a different language and missing your birthplace, friends and family.
"Faleeha is a heartening influence for women everywhere as told through her poetry and the story of her journey to the United States," said Nolan. "I could not be more proud to say she was my student and she is my friend."
It was Hassan's love for words that unintentionally resulted in her coming to the United States. In 1991, Hassan's first book of poetry, "Because I Am a Girl," brought her notoriety and invitations to attend poetry festivals and literary conferences. The first woman in the city of Najaf and in Iraq to publish a book of poetry, Hassan used gold from her family to print 5,000 copies. The book sold out in three months. The recognition she received did not fare well with many of the male poets living in her city.
"I became a famous woman and that is not easy to do. Women could not write poetry in Iraq without being combated and marginalized by male poets. I was born a poet. The book's cover had an image of a woman with her hair uncovered. Some people thought the image was shameful, and some were intrigued." said Hassan, a Muslim, who in public wears a hijab.
Hassan recalls a fearful incident during the end of Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein's regime. She, like many other Iraqi intellectuals and writers, was considered a threat to the country. "A friend called to tell me that my name was on a death list published in the newspaper," remembered Hassan.
Hassan fled to Turkey with her two youngest children— a place where she did not speak the language and still did not feel safe. Years later, she arrived in Washington Township, again not knowing the language or culture but this time having a sense of security. Today Hassan uses her words, in both English and Arabic, as a way to heal from sad memories and horrific experiences.
"My therapy is my writing. I am healing myself through my writing process," explained Hassan. "I want to help other people and show them when they read my poems that there is a story behind my writing."
Hassan's words continue to have an impact on those reading them. While in Iraq, her work was acknowledged with prizes and awards. In 2012, she published "Guardian of Dreams" to become the first Iraqi female poet to write a book of poetry for children in Iraq. In the U.S., the March 2018 issue of Oprah's magazine, O, printed the story behind her poignant words. This spring on the Rowan College at Gloucester County campus, her poetry brought tears to Raonaq Khdier's eyes, an Adult Education student from Magnolia who left her home in Iraq 11 years ago.
"It touched my heart. I felt her so deep," said Khdier, a future nursing student eager to learn and improve her English. "My family and I went through a lot in Iraq. My brother almost died from an explosion and my father was seriously injured. Everything is different there. We (women) have no rights. We have no freedom. Our marriages are arranged. We cannot go to school. We have no voice. Faleeha Hassan has a voice — a strong one."
For more information about Rowan College at Gloucester County's ESL and Adult Education programs, visit RCGC.edu/Workforce/AdultEducation or call 856-468-5000, Ext. 6227.
Rowan College at Gloucester County is located on a 250-acre campus on Tanyard Road, Deptford, just off Exit 56 of Route 55.