The Fabric of Her Life

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“I’m not a victim, “says Khedidja. “I won’t allow myself to be a victim.” 

Khedidja came to the United States with a new husband and new dreams for a happy future. When violence shattered those dreams, she turned to Just Neighbors—our ILJ affiliate serving Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.to help her restore them.

Algeria

Before the empires of Egypt and Rome, before Christianity, Islam, Arab unification, and French colonization; the Amazigh people (formerly known as Berbers) have made North Africa their homeland since 5,000 BCE. 

This sign at the University of Tizi Ouzou is written in Arabic, French, and Amazigh. Credit: wikicommons.
This sign at the University of Tizi Ouzou is written in Arabic, French, and Amazigh. Wikimedia

As a non-Arab minority—roughly one-quarter of the population in Algeria is Amazigh—they suffered discrimination, and racism, and were, until fairly recently, denied the opportunity to study in their own language. 

“We are the Indigenous people of North Africa,” says Khedidja, who grew up in the mountainous city of Tizi Ouzou, about 90 minutes from Algiers. “To me, you can compare it to the Native Americans here. It’s a similar history of struggle.” 

Khedidja became aware of these similarities at an Indigenous summit she attended in Canada a few years ago. “Sometimes, the Native American kids are ashamed to say where they are from,” she explains. “They don’t want to speak the language.
I experienced this in my family with my own sisters.” 

Khedidja is wearing traditional Amazigh dress.
Khedidja is wearing traditional Amazigh dress.

In contrast, Khedidja was always a passionate advocate for her people’s language and culture. She was also keenly drawn to the brightly colored and unique patterns of Amazigh textiles. She began working in handicrafts from an early age; sewing, embroidery, crochet, knitting, and painting on silk.

By the time she was 16 years old, she had an impressive list of clients and made enough money to contribute to the finances of their large family—seven daughters and one son. She also gained a modicum of independence, unusual in their patriarchal society, but not in her family. 

“My father was protective and strict, but he gave us freedom, too,” Khedidja remembers, “and he believed in education for his daughters.” 

Khedidja went to University in Algiers, earning a degree in translating and interpreting—Khedidja is a native speaker of three languages and proficient in three more—and then earned a master’s degree in business law. When her father died during her last year of studies, she gladly took over more responsibility for the family. She liked her job, she worked hard, and life was good. 

And then, a colleague introduced her to the man who would become her husband.

Virginia

“I wake up happy every day,” says Khedidja, when we meet up with her in her Northern Virginia home. “I choose to be happy.” 

It’s impossible not to take her at her word. Khedidja is an amazingly positive person. She moves quickly through the house, eagerly showing us her art pieces from Algeria, smiling as we make noises of appreciation at the exquisite Amazigh jewelry and clothing. It’s truly difficult to picture Khedidja ever feeling sad or afraid. 

Yet Khedidja’s husband—who brought her back to his home in Virginia—turned out to be a violent man. She suffered multiple injuries and eventually obtained a protective order against him.

“We can say I went through domestic violence,” she says, matter-of-factly. “But I don’t want to share any more than that. I forgive, and I move on.” 

Just Neighbors worked with Khedidja on her application for VAWA (the Violence Against Women Act), which allows spouses and family members of abusive U.S. citizens or permanent residents to petition for a green card themselves. 

Yet even with the prospect of obtaining lawful permanent resident status only a few years away, it was a difficult time for Khedidja. She considered returning home to Algeria to her family. Surprisingly, it was her mother who convinced her she needed to stay. 

“You should fight to remain where you are,” her mom told her. “I do not think you are made for Algeria. Your personality, the way you are… you should be free.” 

Khedidja stops to reflect on her mother’s momentous words. “It’s true I was successful in Algeria, despite the limitations of being Amazigh and a woman in a male-dominated country,” she admits. “But America offers more opportunities and more open doors. I love this country because here you can do anything you want. You can be anything you want.” 

“My mother was right,” Khedidja continues. “Yes, Algeria is my country, but this is my home.” 

Ten Years Later

Once Khedidja received her green card, she could begin her new life—and successful career—in earnest. She would eventually–on her own–become a naturalized U.S. citizen. But she never forgets that Just Neighbors was there for her when she was in crisis, with no funds for an attorney, and needed help.  

“I’m so thankful for their support, and for everything they did to help me during those rough times,” says Khedidja. “I don’t know where I would be now without them.”

Khedidja earned another degree—an Executive MBA from George Mason University—in 2016. She now works as a UX (User Experience) designer, a business management and technology transformation consultant, and a government contractor in the Washington, D.C. area. 

Khedidja and her younger sister attend a celebration for Indigenous Peoples--including the Amazigh--in Montreal
Khedidja and her younger sister attend a celebration for Indigenous Peoples—including the Amazigh—in Montreal.

Eager to give back to her community, Khedidja volunteered as an interpreter (French, Arabic, and Amazigh) for low-income immigrants at Legal Services of Northern Virginia, a local legal aid organization. She has also volunteered for a variety of local and international aid groups.

However, it is the causes that benefit Indigenous people that most call on her heart to respond with her time, energy, and talents. 

The business trip to Canada at the Indigenous summit—and a visit to a museum featuring Indigenous designs—led her to reexamine her abiding interest in creating unique clothing styles for women. Khedidja is currently pursuing a Fine Arts degree in fashion design. She hopes to combine her business acumen with her love for her native fabrics and dress styles to start her own line of Amazigh-inspired clothing.

Khedidja has set aside a section of her living room for her projects. She shows us some of her drawings and explains her plans to modernize traditional Amazigh designs for a younger and more international market. Each garment in her collection, she says, will tell a story about the Amazigh people and culture. 

She invites us closer to admire an embroidered bird on a bright green fabric. Its feathers are so delicate, so airy as if the bird could take flight at any moment. Khedidja is pleased with the observation. 

“I lived through some scary things,” she says, “but I never believed that was my fate. If I don’t like something, I change it. If I have a dream, I work for it. Nothing is impossible.”

Feature photo credit: David Moss.

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