Some days Hana Thigeel wonders what her life would be like if she weren’t disabled and confined to a wheelchair. But not often. A native of Baghdad, Iraq, the day she and her husband encountered an improvised explosive device as they drove toward their new home after their honeymoon, her life changed forever. For the first several months that she spent hospitalized, she did not know that her husband had lost his life that day.
Eventually, she returned to her family home but was unable to return to her work as a teaching assistant in the Department of Public Health in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Baghdad University. “My work was on the second floor, there was no elevator and I did not feel welcome when I tried to return to my job,” she said.
She was bored and miserable sitting at home in 2004 when a ray of hope emerged. A veterinarian who had been her colleague got to know American veterinarian Paula Cowen at a workshop they both attended in Kuwait. Perhaps it was because Cowen used a wheelchair that the Iraqi veterinarian decided to share Thigeel’s situation with her.
Cowen was so sympathetic that she set to work making it possible for Thigeel to come to the U.S. for rehabilitation. The process took two years. In 2006 Thigeel boarded a plane for Denver—the first plane ride of her life– paid for with frequent flyer miles provided by the members of a Greeley Rotary Club.
Once in Greeley she received three months of therapy and rehabilitation gratis at the Hope Therapy Center. Doctors concluded that it was too late for any surgery that might allow her to walk again, but with therapy, her legs got stronger and she became more adept at managing her life in a wheelchair.
Life was so much easier for her in the U.S. She wanted to stay. She was awarded a student visa which allowed her to remain in the country and enroll in a graduate program at Colorado State University. In 2010, she earned a masters degree in food science and nutrition, made possible through a graduate assistantship and financial assistance from Cowen and others.
Cowen continued to mentor and support Thigeel for more than a decade. “I will be grateful to Paula until my dying day,” Thigeel says.
A devout Muslim, Thigeel admits: “I have a small American woman inside me who places great value on her independence.” At the same time, even though she developed close friendships in the U.S., she missed her family and tired of coming home to an empty apartment. Both her parents died in Iraq during a time when she was unable to return to her country. Her two brothers remain in Iraq today.
A wish to be married and to have a family led her to meet the Iraqi man who is now her husband. They were introduced by relatives over the Internet and developed a relationship over a period of months. By 2015 they knew each other well enough to marry on Skype. “My husband-to-be, my brothers and an uncle came together and I was alone in my apartment in the U.S. when the ceremony was performed,” she explains. “It’s not as strange as it sounds. We had not met in person, but arranged marriages are common in my country.”
Academically, she elected to shift gears and work on a Ph.D in Epidemiology which she received in 2016 just days before she headed home to Iraq to meet her husband in person. Seven months later, despite her husband’s wish that she stay in Iraq, she returned to the U.S. in hopes that he would be able to follow one day. Her daughter, Fatima, was born three months later.
After she recovered from the birth, Thigeel began the search for a job in her field. “It’s extremely competitive,” she explained. “I continue to send out my resume in hopes of one day getting a job in international epidemiology. My dream is to work in the Middle East to make laboratory procedures safer and more efficient.”
Meanwhile, she gets some financial aid in the form of food stamps, childcare and Medicaid. A part-time internship at CSU makes it possible for her and her daughter to live in student housing. And she works part-time.
In order to qualify for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), Thigeel needed to apply for jobs. Through the Workforce Center in Fort Collins she found work at Home Depot where she is in charge of plant watering for 20 hours a week. “I don’t have a green thumb and I’ve never been much interested in plants until now,” she says. “I’m actually learning the names of plants and developing an interest in them.
“I’m willing to do anything in order to bring in some money. No one but the manager knows that I have a Ph.D,” she explains. “That’s the way I like it. It could be embarrassing but actually, I’m proud of what I’m doing.” She has learned how to manage her work from her wheelchair, even figuring out how to increase the spray to hanging baskets she cannot reach.
Thigeel drives her own car and is independent in every way. She’s also an advocate for the handicapped and frequently gets annoyed when she finds sidewalks with no curb cuts and supposedly accessible bathrooms with towel holders and hooks that are out of reach. She’s strong-minded, an attribute that has allowed her to overcome a whole array of obstacles in her path. “Sometimes when I’m disappointed I have to tell myself to shut up,” she admits.
Today her job search continues with the hope that one day soon she will find work that makes use of her expertise and will allow she and her husband and daughter to be together—to become the family she has imagined for a long time.