Oklahoma women's activist Fern Holland died in Iraq doing what she loved

Vi Holland-Christianson, the sister of slain women's rights activist Fern Holland, keeps a collection of mementos and keepsakes at her home in Jenks. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World

On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. On the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, America continues to fight a war on terror that has claimed the lives of more than 100 Oklahomans. In the coming weeks, the Tulsa World will tell the stories of those who have given their lives, victims of 9/11 and how the attacks affected us all.

Unable to afford a car in Washington, D.C., the frugal young attorney found a red Huffy bicycle with a white banana seat and streamers dangling from the handlebars.

As she pedaled to work in a black Ann Taylor suit and heels, a homeless man jumped up from a park bench and yelled at her: "That ain't right! That ain't right!"

Fern Holland didn't care.

Only 32 years old at the time, she had given up a lucrative career in Tulsa to open free legal-aid clinics in Africa. And now she was making the rounds to raise more funding.

"Everything is going to Iraq," one official explained in the months after the 2003 invasion. "We're putting all our resources there."

Why didn't she put her African projects aside for a while, the official suggested, and go to Iraq herself?

Holland didn't have any particular interest in the Middle East, but she could gain experience and - more importantly, make connections - that might benefit the African clinics down the road.

"I was thinking what a great opportunity it would be for her," says her sister, Viola Holland-Christianson. "The more we talked about it, the more exciting it got."

But Holland hesitated.

Coming back to Oklahoma to visit her family, she went along for the ride while Holland-Christianson ran an errand.

"I remember the moment in the car," Holland-Christianson says, "when she said that she had this sense that she was going to lose her life there.

"And I didn't sense it. I didn't feel it."

From the Tulsa World to The New York Times, profiles of Holland invariably mention that she was from Bluejacket, a farming community with a population under 300 in northeast Oklahoma.

That's true, technically. But after their parents divorced, Fern and Vi Holland grew up with their mother in nearby Miami, Okla.

She was quiet and introspective in high school, but Fern Holland blossomed into a confident, nothing-can-stop-me kind of student at the University of Oklahoma.

Then she set out to change the world.

From an Israeli archeology site on the West Bank to a children's hospital in Siberia, Holland worked her way across Europe, the Middle East and Africa until she finally seemed to settle down for a while in Namibia.

"Smiling faces, genuine. They know no other way," she wrote in her personal journal. "I love being near them. They don't have to say anything or do anything in particular. Being near them, knowing they exist, is enough."

But she didn't want to be in Africa forever. Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, Holland called her sister.

"She was afraid that the borders would be closed and that she wouldn't be able to get home to us," Holland-Christianson remembers.

"She said she didn't want to live in a world without me."

Coming back from Africa a few weeks later, Holland visited ground zero in New York on her way to Tulsa, where she took a high-paying job at a law firm.

She was home. And she could've stayed.

"But she never gave up her ideas about Africa," Holland-Christianson says. "Africa was her love."

Soon, Holland went back to Washington to study international law at Georgetown University, where she met a professor who helped her develop an innovative program to train journalists, lawyers and judges in Africa.

That work led to an assignment from the American Refugee Committee to investigate the alleged sexual exploitation of refugees in Guinea, which in turn inspired Holland to start the free legal-aid clinics.

That's how she wound up back in Washington, looking for support and funding, riding a ridiculous Huffy bike until somebody offered the chance to go to Iraq.

"It was a twisty path that took her there," her sister says. "That's not where she expected to end up."

'Something wrong'

Stationed out of Hillah, an hour south of Baghdad, Holland ran several community centers to educate women about democracy and civil rights. She also drafted the section of Iraq's constitution that guarantees women the right to vote and to be seated in Parliament.

"By the way," Holland wrote to her sister, describing the attitude of Iraqis toward Americans, "90 percent love us. I'm 100 percent convinced of that."

But the other 10 percent was dangerous.

"We stand out," she wrote. "And those who dislike us know precisely when we come to town."

Holland was behind the wheel, with 44-year-old press officer Robert Zangas beside her and Holland's Iraqi-born assistant, Salwa Oumashi, in the back seat.

Some reports suggest that Holland stopped at a makeshift security checkpoint.

Others describe a white police truck pulling alongside her car as she drove down a desolate road near Hillah.

Either way, the gunmen wore Iraqi police uniforms. Bullets came through the windshield. And the car drifted across the highway median, where the assassins surrounded it and kept shooting for several more seconds.

All three occupants died, but the gunfire concentrated on Holland, who slumped against Zangas.

They became the first American civilians to die in the Iraq War.

And the news seemed all the more shocking because it came before the dramatic rise in sectarian violence that would later make roadside killings seem routine.

The obvious assumption was that insurgents wanted to get rid of Holland and her women's movement.

"But I'm not sure that's what happened," her sister says now.

After her death, more than $70,000 in cash went missing from Holland's office, and that was only the beginning.

Investigators discovered that hundreds of thousands of dollars from the program had vanished into a tangle of bribes, kickbacks and outright thefts.

Not the slightest whiff of suspicion ever fell on Holland herself, but was she killed as part of a cover-up?

"If Fern knew something wrong was going on," her sister says, "she wouldn't have kept quiet about it."

'Precisely what I want'

Holland died March 9, 2004.

By April, the Vital Voices Global Partnership - established in 1997 by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to promote women's rights around the world - had already named an award in her honor and was presenting it at the nonprofit's annual banquet in Washington.

"Fern had been in constant email contact with many of us at Vital Voices and on Capitol Hill," says Alyse Nelson, the president and CEO of Vital Voices. "She would write about the dreams of the Iraqi women who would visit her women's center."

Over the years, the Fern Holland Award has been presented by several notable celebrities, including Clinton, Angelina Jolie and Ben Affleck. But Holland herself would probably be more impressed by the activists who have received the honor - including a former political prisoner from Iraq and the director of a safe house in Kenya.

"She gave herself to the idea that every woman has the right to realize her potential," Nelson says, "no matter where she lives."

Meanwhile, Tulsa attorney Stephen Rodolf, who worked with Holland here and remained a close friend, teamed up with her family to establish the Fern Holland Charitable Foundation, raising money to support the work she started.

"Those whose lives were touched by Fern haven't forgotten," Rodolf says. "And there are many such people throughout the world."

In Guinea, the legal-aid clinics continue to defend women's rights. In Namibia, the village school is still educating young girls.

And in Iraq, women hold 25 percent of the seats in Parliament, in no small part thanks to Holland's advocacy.

"Fern was just a girl from a small town in Oklahoma," Rodolf says, "who reminded us that one person can truly make a difference."

On her living-room coffee table in Jenks, Holland's sister keeps a tribal-style candle holder that Holland brought back from Africa.

Holland's favorite mulberry candles left dark stains on the bottom of it, and the familiar odor always reminded Holland-Christianson of her.

"It doesn't smell anymore," she says.

By now, some friends suggest that Holland would've settled down to raise a family of her own, probably in Tulsa.

Perhaps, Holland-Christianson thinks.

But, one way or another, she would never stop fighting for the rights of women around the world, especially in Africa.

"She believed in what she was doing so much," her sister says, "that she was willing to give her life for it. And she did."

Just weeks before her death, Holland seemed to hint that she knew what was coming.

"If I die," she wrote to a friend, "know that I'm doing precisely what I want to be doing."

Fern Holland Charitable Foundation

401 S. Boston Ave.

Suite 2000

Tulsa, OK 74103

Michael Overall 918-581-8383

michael.overall@tulsaworld.com SUBHEAD: Fern Holland sacrificed her life while making a difference in the lives of other women in Iraq

Original Print Headline: The cost of caring

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