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Cultural Walls Fall as West Des Moines Students Raise $15,000 to Bury Classmate in Iraq

Valley senior Katie Baum worried the contentious relationship between the United States and countries in the Middle East might spill over into a fundraising campaign to help the family of a fallen classmate. That didn’t happen.

When senior Katie Baum and her peers at West Des Moines Valley High School raised $15,000 to help a grieving family send their son’s body home to Iraq, it hadn’t sunk in yet that the same cultural barriers that confound nations had silently fallen along the way.

Husam Abdul-Hameed, who died March 3 after being struck along the highway as he stepped out of a disabled car, was Muslim. He had emigrated with his family to the United States two years ago, and he had been a student at Valley since last fall.

Baum and the rest of the “card committee” – a Valley student council group that reaches out to classmates suffering crushing burdens, such as the death of a parent – had been prepared to expect what Baum politely called “a sensitive topic” with some people.

But that didn’t appear to be the case. 

“Maybe they just didn’t voice it,” she said, “but we didn’t hear one wrong comment.”

Students, Parents and Business Chip In for Fundraiser

Selling a stockpile of T-shirts for a buck a piece, Baum and the other members of the card committee, Maddie Anderson and Laura Milligan, raised $2,500 the first day of the fundraiser.

"With the conflict in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the relations between Muslims and Americans can be strained from time to time, and I didn’t know what was going to happen."

Sometime during a frantic week of fundraising — maybe it was when the students had raised $8,000, then $10,000, then $12,000, then finally $15,000 — Baum recognized they were accomplishing what had seemed nearly impossible in such a short period.

“Let’s see what we can do,” Assistant Principal David Maxwell told them on March 8 after learning that Husam’s mother, who a television station had interviewed, hoped to send her son’s body to his homeland for burial.

Maxwell worried that cultural differences might get in the way of the students’ good intentions. He warned them not to expect too much.

“With the conflict in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the relations between Muslims and Americans can be strained from time to time, and I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Maxwell said. “This was an unprecedented thing we were doing.”

Students Show Their Generosity

Two years ago, $14,000 was raised in a district-wide fundraiser for earthquake survivors in Haiti, and that took four months.

The precedent wasn’t inspiring.

But kids often surprise adults, Maxwell said, and the Valley students seemed blind to cultural differences. The donations poured in.

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The table set up for T-shirt sales was sometimes three and four students deep. Kids handed over five, 10 and 20 dollar bills with the comment “keep the change," Baum said.

Contributions came from other central Iowa schools, including Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, and as far away as Wapello in southeast Iowa. A big corporate partner, Iowa Realty, stepped in with $2,772 on March 14, the deadline to raise the money.

Cruel Irony of “the American Dream Gone Bad”

As a student whose experiences were unfathomable for most of Valley’s 2,000 other students, Husam quickly won students’ and administrators’ hearts.

Baum calls it the cruelest of ironies that Husam lived through war in his country, which he and his family fled so the children could get an education denied them by a radical regime, yet lost his life when he tasted the freedoms young people in the United States take for granted.

“He was very, very caring, so very nice and so very willing to tell his story of getting out of a war-torn country,” Baum said. “He was just very willing to discuss it, and he felt he was exactly like the rest of us.”

When he told students what had happened to their classmate, Maxwell described Husam’s death as “the American Dream gone wrong.”

Husam and Maxwell were close. They even had their own handshake they called “snaps.” They’d high-five, then Husam would hold his middle finger to Maxwell’s thumb in a two-handed snap.

“He had the spirit of life in him," Maxwell said fondly. “He was a vivacious, friendly young man who always had a smile on his face, whose presence was truly infectious. We would give all the money back in a second just to have his presence back in this school.”

“She's Not a Little Girl Anymore”

The card committee has been quietly helping students deal with catastrophic losses — the death of one parent, or both; the loss of a sibling — throughout the year.

The outreach group got its nickname because members approach students as with a card to let them know their peers are available to help ease the burden.

“I would really appreciate it in a similar situation,” Baum said. “Some people keep their emotions bottled up and you might expect some backlash — ‘I don’t need help’ — but I’ve been blown away. When you go to a school of a couple thousand kids, you want to feel that somebody in the hallways is looking out for you.”

Barbara Baum said her daughter has always been kind, thoughtful and caring toward others, but she’s especially proud of the leadership role she’s assumed with the card committee.

“I am so proud of her,” she said, beaming. “She’s not a little girl anymore.”

Katie Baum's story has been selected as a Greatest Person of the Day feature on the Huffington Post website. To find more stories on people named the Greatest Person, go to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/greatest-person-of-the-day.

Beth Dalbey March 20, 2012 at 11:35 AM
If the kids have become the teachers, what else have you learned about cultural understanding from today's youth?
Beth Dalbey March 20, 2012 at 03:25 PM
It seems to me that kids have already figured out issues we adults work ourselves into a dither about.
Beth Dalbey March 21, 2012 at 12:35 AM
West Des Moines Community Schools posted this comment on Patch's Facebook page: 'We are very proud of our students and humbled by the outpouring of support from the community, organizations and even other school district. It warmed our hearts!'
Alison Gowans March 21, 2012 at 08:41 PM
This is a really touching story. I only wish the assistant principal hadn't said, "the relations between Muslims and Americans can be strained from time to time," because that implies there aren't Muslim Americans. It's a small thing - clearly the spirit of the story raises the dialogue above that detail.

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