Sometimes to find yourself you have to leave everything else behind

By Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Santa Monica’s Kelly Hayes-Raitt began trekking to some of the world’s most dangerous places shortly before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq

Santa Monica’s Kelly Hayes-Raitt began trekking to some of the world’s most dangerous places shortly before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq

I got into politics to change the world. I got out of it when politics changed me.

For 30 years I was a political activist living in Santa Monica, working with dynamic women to help create Heal the Bay, preserve the Ballona Wetlands and make Santa Monica a Nuclear Free Zone before moving to statewide issues. I was Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy’s environmental aide during his U.S. Senate bid and a spokesperson on several statewide initiative campaigns to protect consumer rights. We won a few, we lost a few, but I always kept my faith that political involvement was the way to change the world.

Then I ran for office.

Naively, I wasn’t prepared for the nasty tactics used by an opponent’s campaign. In various email blasts they accused me of lying, embezzling and even endangering lives in their effort to tear me down. It worked.

After my loss, I wanted to skulk in the shadows and redefine myself. I no longer wanted anyone to name me, dress me, introduce me through their prism of what I represented 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 years I was a candidate, I buried my own identity beneath that public ownership so completely 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!

When it was over, I wanted to wear bad bras — or no bras. I wanted to decide for myself where my boundaries lay, where my new self lurked.

Just after I decided to run for office, I traveled to Iraq five weeks before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. I wanted to see firsthand the impact the impending war would have on Iraqi women and children. Four months later, I returned to reconnect with some of the people who had touched me so deeply.  I interviewed dozens of Iraqi women about Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, 12 years of sanctions and two devastating wars. I sneaked into a Bechtel meeting and observed how American defense contractors set the bar too high for Iraqis to get hired to rebuild their own country. Rep. Henry Waxman used that information to call for an investigation.

I wrote a series of columns for a local newspaper about my experiences and embarked on an exhausting speaking schedule, addressing all sorts of groups between President Bush’s invasion and his reelection 18 months later. I felt my talks put a face on our war. This was one of my life’s
most painful yet most meaningful endeavors.

I’d already shut down my political consulting practice to run for office, so after my defeat I returned to the Middle East, eager to bring home to America stories that could humanize the impact our foreign policies have on real people — usually people who end up as refugees struggling to rebuild their lives, families, freedom and dignity. Without planning to, I found myself among people whose losses made me forget my own.

I accompanied Palestinian schoolchildren through checkpoints guarded by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank; at one I was detained at gunpoint and killed time by teaching a young soldier to play Tic-Tac-Toe. Later that year, I consoled widows in Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, whose families had been murdered 25 years before in a shocking weekend of brutality.

The following year I traveled through the Philippines for a month, meeting women who told me how their children had died from exposure to toxic waste left behind by the U.S. military when Subic and Clark bases closed. I went behind bars to interview a pastor imprisoned for his social justice work, and I went into bars to interview underage Filipinas purchased to delight foreign men for an evening.

I lived in Damascus for a summer assisting Iraqi refugees. I volunteered in a low-security jail housing Iraqi teens forced into prostitution — the girls gave me dance lessons — and shadowed an Iraqi family through blistering U.N. food relief lines. On my last day there I crossed the border into a bleak, snake- and scorpion-infested camp of flimsy tents in the dusty no man’s land between Iraq and Syria. This is where fleeing Palestinian-Iraqis languished for months while waiting to gain entry into Syria. Although the Syrian government did not grant professional journalists access, I, not being a professional anything anymore, was given last-minute permission to visit these forgotten refugees.

I wasn’t brave or honorable. I was just lost.

After the demise of both my consulting firm and my political campaign — and the constraints that went with them — I started writing a book. To finance the trips and the book I crisscrossed North America for five years, housesitting from gig to gig, living rent-free and renting out my own home in Santa Monica to cover my mortgage. I ended up in post-Katrina New Orleans, working with evacuees of the Ninth Ward, where I heard exactly the same sentiments from these American refugees as I’d heard from Iraqi refugees the summer before in Damascus: “My family is scattered.” “Our history is gone.” “My life is in limbo.”

I was where I belonged.

Kelly Hayes-Raitt blogs at LivingLargeInLimbo.com

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