In 2007, a Malaysian woman made a YouTube video to ask for help solving a personal mystery. In the video, the woman wears Islamic dress, her head covered in a pink scarf that wraps under her chin.
ANCHORAGE — In 2007, a Malaysian woman made a YouTube video to ask for help solving a personal mystery.
In the video, the woman wears Islamic dress, her head covered in a pink scarf that wraps under her chin.
She introduces herself as Halimah Hajar. She is 39 years old and looking for her mother, whom she has not seen in 32 years. She holds her passport in front of the camera. It’s American. She was born in Chicago, she says.
When she was small, she lived in New York City. Then she was sent to Malaysia to live with her father’s family. She never saw her mother again.
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Kate Saganna, Halimah repeats for the camera. Kate Saganna. That is her mother’s name.
She holds up a blurry photo of a dark-haired woman on a city street, with a baby in her arms.
“This is the only photo of my mother I have,” she says.
Then Halimah holds up a letter. It was written by her mother in 1991. The return address: Fairbanks, Alaska.
“I appeal to anyone out there especially in Alaska Fairbanks or in America or anywhere, if you know my mother, if she is still alive, please tell her that I miss her,” Halimah says, her face filling the frame, her voice breaking. “I would like to keep in touch with her. I love her very much.”
In 2008, Kate Saganna’s nephew, Ronald Saganna Jr. and his girlfriend, Liz, searched “Saganna” on the Internet. The YouTube video appeared.
They forwarded the video to the rest of the family, including Kate’s nephew, Daniel Lum, a 37-year-old hotel desk clerk in Anchorage.
When he saw the video, Daniel knew Halimah’s face right away, he said.
She was the cousin he had heard about. The one who went missing as a child. She looked like a young Aunt Kate.
Daniel and others in the family sent messages to Malaysia. Kate Saganna was alive, they wrote. They promised Halimah they would help her and Kate make contact.
A split family
In Daniel’s family, Kate’s story is a tragic one.
It began many years ago on a spring day in Barrow, according to Esther Lum, Daniel’s mother and Kate’s sister, who lives in Fairbanks. On that day, Kate must have been about 10.
“She went up on the barge, and she fell into the ocean,” Esther said.
Kate floated in the cold water for a long time before she was pulled out. By a miracle, she was revived, Esther said.
“After that she got real eccentric. She was very smart. But real eccentric.”
Kate and Esther’s family broke up. The girls left Barrow when they were in elementary school and were sent to separate foster homes in Fairbanks. Kate had Ron, her first child, in 1966.
Kate went to Chicago to go to college and met Halimah’s father, Esther said. They had Halimah, and a younger brother, Zainuddin. Kate drove a taxi. She was Christian and Halimah’s father was devout Muslim. After a while, the cultural differences caused their relationship to fray, Esther said. They split up.
And one day Halimah and Zainuddin disappeared, Esther said. Kate learned later they had been sent to Malaysia.
As far as the family knows, Kate didn’t go to the police.
She eventually returned to Alaska, but she wasn’t the same. Her behavior became more erratic.
She had a fourth child, William. He was raised by Kate’s parents in Fairbanks and Barrow. More recently, Kate was homeless.
She had brushes with the legal system, according to public records.
Now she lives in elder housing in Barrow. She didn’t return a call left there for her.
She can usually be found outside the village grocery store, according to her family.
“She sits on the bench and usually asks me for a sandwich and a drink,” said Mary Sage, one of Kate’s nieces who lives in Barrow.
Kate talks about her missing children, Sage said.
Before the YouTube video, Sage tried to find Halimah and Zainuddin online. She hoped it would bring her aunt peace.
After the family made contact with Halimah, Daniel helped make a video of Kate to post on YouTube so Halimah could see her. In the video, Kate stands in the snow outside the Fairbanks Rescue Mission and smiles into the camera.
“I miss you a whole bunch, Halimah,” Kate says. “I love you, love you and love you.”
Daniel, Mary and other family members continued to correspond with Halimah for almost two years. She told them she was divorced. She had a grown son. She worked sometimes as a waitress. She had a degree in computer science. She was very devout, living in Yemen, studying at a religious school.
Daniel told her his family was Inupiat. He speaks to his five children in Inupiaq. He grew up in Barrow eating whale and walrus and seal.
Halimah knew nothing about this side of her family’s culture.
“I told her she was Eskimo and she started laughing, then she started crying,” Daniel said.
Wrapped in hugs
Wrapped in hugs
Halimah said she wanted to move to the United States. Daniel’s family sent her a one-way ticket.
She arrived on a recent December Saturday.
When Daniel saw Halimah at the airport, he was overcome.
He wanted to hug her, but she told him it was against her religion for a man who wasn’t an immediate relative to touch her. So they just smiled and cried.
His children went to her immediately, wrapping her in hugs.
Halimah said she was afraid when she arrived in America, because she had heard that the country was unfriendly to Muslims.
But when she got off the plane she saw Muslim women in the terminal.
Daniel told her right away that Americans are free to practice any religion.
Daniel gave her winter clothes and they went to Walmart. Halima saw more Muslim women.
They also ran in to people from Barrow in town for Christmas shopping. Daniel introduced Halimah to everyone.
“I want her to be welcomed wherever she goes,” he said.
Halimah must pray five times a day. Daniel wasn’t used to that. Halimah always longed to know what became of her mother, she said. After her father died, his brother suggested she make the video.
She knew her mother had been through a lot, that her mental health had suffered. She was asked what she expected when she arrived in Barrow.
“I just have to be a daughter, what a daughter is supposed to be, to be patient and accept her,” Halimah said. “She is my mother no matter what.”
Halimah flew to Barrow on Wednesday morning. Just before noon that day, Mary e-mailed a picture: Halimah, Kate and Halimah’s half-brother William sitting at the airport, all together, with tears in their eyes.