There are three Hibas in my life. One Hiba is a dear friend in DC, and her encouragement, passion, and optimism helped me have the courage to move to her country, Morocco, as a volunteer. She taught me that “Hiba” means “Gift from God.” Second, my host sister in my permanent site is named Hiba—she is a smiley, welcoming, and smart 14-year-old who made me feel at home right away.
The third Hiba, her last name was Safi. She is the beautiful person pictured above and below. “Safi” in Moroccan Arabic means “enough.” It’s one of the most common words heard here—people use it as a substitute for “okay,” as in, “I’m going to make you eat just five more loaves of bread, safi?”
So not a day goes by when I don’t hear the words “Hiba” and “Safi.” Not a day goes by when I don’t think about Hiba Safi.
There are so many incredible things I can say about Hiba Safi, even as someone outside her inner friend circle. For now I just want to articulate what she means to me, and how remembering her every day makes me a better volunteer and person. A disclaimer that there’s no way what I’m writing even begins to capture her unique greatness.
Even though the window in her room stayed broken in the most freezing of DC winters, she had the patience and understanding to still see me, the housing coordinator, as a person and friend. I remember when she and her supervisor answered questions as the model “Fellow-Supervisor pair” at the orientation for Atlas Corps supervisors, because she was always willing to help. The last time I saw her was when she took out time to talk to me about our life plans, weighing the merits of living overseas or at home, during her goodbye happy hour at the end of her fellowship.
One day in May 2015, I went over to her house for an inventory check as part of my job. Hiba shared my love for Istanbul and told me about her recent trip there. Over dinner, she brought out Turkish coffee so I could read fortunes.
I’m good at telling fortunes because I’m good at ‘BS-ing.’ I can read shapes and spin them into the letter of your future husband or a meaningful thought from your past. When I told Hiba Safi’s fortune, I don’t remember what I said, but I know I made it end positively. I always do. It’s more fun to see the excited look on people’s faces.
That same night, Hiba’s room mate Huma tried to teach me to play “Zombie” by the Cranberries on guitar, since I had just started taking lessons. Once they had returned back to their home countries, I was going to record and send them a video of me playing it successfully.
Hiba returned to Tunisia after her fellowship and continued contributing her intelligence, character, bravery, and grace to her amazing country. We lost her in January 2016. I never did make that video.
When something tragic happens in my circle, I pause for a minute and realize how easy it is to let both daily life and long-term anxiety take away my positivity or put seemingly unimportant things on the backburner. Sometimes the markers of efficiency and effectiveness make the job of helping people more competitive than beautiful.
But the small acts for and with others are what hold our memories. It seems like Moroccan culture recognizes that a little bit more than ours. Like making a video that might make someone smile—even if I haven’t finished my to-do list at work, talking a friend through her feelings—even if it means losing sleep, calling a stranger to meet up at my new site—even if I don’t know them, or helping my host mom wash dishes—even if it takes hours.
The thing is, right now, my biggest challenge is being okay with having these “unimportant things” actually be my whole life. This is especially because my site has never had a volunteer, so there’s no carved-out role or roadmap for me. When I think too much and realize how little I accomplish every day, I feel empty. When I try to plan out how I’m going to build myself a community here or what I’m going to do at my permanent site, I become overwhelmed. I don’t think this is because I’m American—I think it’s a challenge for any volunteer striving to make their exchange and service meaningful. We have the continual need to justify this risk we took, since we didn’t take it to get promoted, earn a degree, or make money.
No one would have predicted Hiba’s untimely passing. One tragic aspect was the certain potential she had to keep contributing to her country, as a member of the Global Shapers of the World Economic Forum, World Pulse community, a representative for the Arab Institute of Business Leaders, a published researcher, a keen analyst, a policy advocate and an esteemed employee at the British Council and British Embassy. Who knows what else Hiba would have done for Tunisia and our world?
But Hiba’s very name reminds us that our lives don’t lie in these titles or our potential to gain new ones. Instead, it’s the “unimportant things” that we do for and with others every day. Our memories of Hiba lie in her existence, not in her titles. She will always be a gift from God, and everything she was during her life was enough.
I need to remember that women’s aerobics classes or girls’ empowerment clubs (or other Peace Corps-ish stuff volunteers do) can wait. I can’t predict the future, how full or empty my volunteer reporting form will be, or if I’ll actually end up helping anyone out while I’m here.
So, I’m going to look at life like I looked at Hiba’s coffee cup. My 2016 started with Hiba’s passing. In 2016 I made the decision to come here, which was a challenge in itself. The year is ending in a brand new place, with a lot to be overwhelmed by or a lot to look forward to. I’m going to try and appreciate the present, and look ahead with a smile, instead of thinking about what else could happen.
Because no matter what I do today or in the future, our lives are gifts, and they will always be enough. Hiba Safi reminds me of that every day.