Layla Khalil was born in Baghdad on March 8, 1952, her father a landowner, her mother one of Iraq’s first professional women, a high school vice-principal. As a girl Layla, the oldest of six, lived in the Rusafa district, just east of the Tigris River. Fascinated by books, particularly histories of the ancient world, she became a librarian. A traditional betrothal arranged by relatives led to marriage with Samir Alsalihi, a bookish man six years her senior. A daughter, Ban, arrived two years later, just before Samir’s academic career took the family to Europe—first Paris in 1981, when Firas, a son, was born, then Manchester, England.
In 1990, while Samir finished his degree in England, Layla and the children returned to Baghdad. The family was not political—“We were always trying to avoid the regime,” Ban says—yet neutrality did not protect them from the Gulf War and the bombing of Baghdad a year later, and the family briefly fled north to the farmlands of Diyala province, Layla’s ancestral homeland. Soon after the war, Layla had a second son, Mustafa. When UN sanctions made scarce such commodities as milk and gasoline, Layla improvised. “She would go to the jewellery shop and sell what she had so she could bring us food,” says Firas. Electricity was intermittent, and Layla lived by its flow, awaking at 2 a.m. to do the laundry. Such were the hardships that Samir, now a linguistics professor, left to teach in Libya, visiting for only a few weeks a year; he would not return to Baghdad for seven years. “So she became our mother and our father,” says Firas. “She was dedicating herself for us.”
The awkward distances often delayed Samir’s remittances, yet Layla, with her infectious grin, somehow scraped together feasts (Firas loved her dolma, grape leaves stuffed with rice). “She wanted us to be the best and succeed in our lives and our studies,” Ban says. It was Layla who taught Firas to drive; still a student, he yearned for a salary so he might earn his mother a little rest. But weeks before his graduation, doctors diagnosed her with cancer. After removing a breast they sent her home, recommending a course of Tamoxifen. Layla was unfazed. “She was a real believer,” says Firas. “She used to say, ‘If it’s going to be my day, it’s going to be my day. It’s God that created us and God will take us.’ ”
She was still recovering in 2003 when Baghdad began preparing for war. “Everyone was running around trying to stock food, water, candles, fuel,” says Firas. “We were trying to stock Tamoxifen.” Theirhome was near enough to Dora Farms, the compound that U.S. forces first targeted in the hopes of killing Saddam Hussein, that the bombings shattered their windows. The family rushed Ban, who was hysterical, from the city, but this time Layla refused to abandon her home and watched as coalition forces streamed into Baghdad. “We saw it all,” says Firas. “The burnt cars, broken windows, military killed in the streets. In a war, you see everything.” Amid the chaos, and in the absence of physicians, Layla consulted medical books, becoming, Firas says, “her own doctor.” They grew hopeful an end to war would bring foreign medical expertise; instead, Baghdad disintegrated. Layla was in a taxi when a car bomb exploded metres away, sending shrapnel and burning men into the traffic. Another day, on a city bus, Layla watched as her driver refused to open the door for a man waiting in the street; instead, he stepped onto a bus directly behind hers, detonating an explosive belt.
Soon, Layla and Samir’s ties to Europe drew threats from the thugs who now controlled their district. A gunman approached Firas on the street, shooting him three times. Layla believed him dead. “She went to the hospital and was looking for me in the refrigerator,” he says. The family fled to Jordan in 2006, applying for refugee status in the U.S. Before long, Layla discovered her mother, still in Iraq, was ill. Desperate but unable to find a flight, she took a Baghdad-bound bus through dangerous Fallujah. En route, masked gunmen hijacked the vehicle, driving it miles into the desert; in the wilderness, a man speaking a foreigner’s Arabic separated the men from the women, freeing the latter.
Layla was in Jordan when she learned she, Samir and Mustafa, 17, would be given refuge in Binghamton, N.Y., where Ban was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. “I was really relieved,” says Firas, who was doing a Ph.D. in Paris. “Finally, she’ll be safe.” They arrived in the U.S. last August, and Layla was determined that her youngest would know the same success as his siblings. But she was cognizant that universities in America cost money and so presented herself at a local employment centre, where she found no job. Instead, she brushed up on her English in classes at the American Civic Association, a centre for immigrants. She was there on April 3 when 41-year-old Jiverly Wong, a disturbed Vietnamese refugee and naturalized U.S. citizen, arrived armed with two handguns and began shooting—killing Layla and 12 others—before ending his own life.