On the south wall of Terri Knight’s mother’s living room in Enid hangs a clock, surrounded by large photos of Terri’s husband and her two babies.
Those photos and her memories are all Terri has left of her family after a deadly fire March 25 in their Massa-chusetts apartment took the lives of her sons — 1-year-old Ali and 2-month-old Hassan — and her husband — 38-year-old Oudah Frawi — and almost claimed her own.
“She put that clock there because she said time is the only thing between them now,” said Terri’s mother, Tina Griffin, as her daughter sat quietly nearby, looking ahead of her, at nothing, for a time before her tear-filled eyes turned upward to look at the photos of her family.
Love on the line
Terri Knight was scared but determined as she headed east in June 2006 to meet her soon-to-be husband, Oudah. The then 24-year-old met Oudah through a telephone dating service and spent a month corresponding with him via the phone and Internet.
“And then I went down there, over there,” Terri said.
“He sent you a train ticket,” her mother added, as her daughter sat, silently rocking, playing nervously with her hands, which were covered in therapy gloves to protect the healing burns.
But she laughed when asked if she had dated online often.
“No, I’d never done that before,” she said.
Nevertheless, she fell in love with the man with whom she was corresponding, and the young woman raised and educated her entire life in northwest Oklahoma decided to take a big leap of faith.
“I was scared to death when she left,” Tina said. “I was, like, ‘Oh, call me, call me, call me.’ I kept buggin’ her, and she goes, ‘I’m OK, Mom. It’s OK.’”
Terri said the night she arrived in Massachusetts, she and Odie, as she would come to call him, were married.
“It was just between me and him,” she said, then after a pause and a gesture toward heaven, she added, “And God.”
Under Frawi’s Muslim faith they were viewed as husband and wife, she said, and eventually they became common law married through the eyes of the American legal system.
Living in a different world
When asked about those first years, Terri gave a sad little laugh and smiled, but she remained silent. Her mother stepped in to fill the void.
“You seen a lot of stuff, didn’t ya?” she asked her daughter, not seeming to really expect an answer, as she went on to describe Terri’s hometown of Quincy, a suburb about seven miles south of Boston. “There are a lot of nationalities over in Quincy.”
“Yeah,” Terri said. “They’re a lot nicer, too.”
Her sister, Tonya, sitting nearby, laughed at her statement, but Terri would not be deterred as she smiled at her sister.
“They are,” she said. “When you go there it feels like a whole different country.”
Her mother chuckled and said they definitely knew her daughter was not from there when she first arrived on the scene.
As they all laughed, then, Tina played the role of Terri’s newfound neighbors.
“You’re not from around here are you?” she said. “You have kind of a drawl ...”
Terri took up where her mother left off: “You’re from the South, ain’t ya.”
She admitted she was scared in those first months.
“But everybody welcomed me,” Terri said, “made me feel more comfortable.”
Tina saw firsthand how her daughter’s Muslim friends treated her like family — first when she visited last summer a few months after the birth of her grandchild, Terri and Odie’s first child, Ali, and again only weeks ago when she arrived to find her daughter fighting for her life in the Massachusetts General Hospital critical burn unit, with her son-in-law and grandsons gone.
“It’s a very well-knit Muslim community,” Tina said. “We met a lot of them when I was there. They were awesome.”
When they learned Frawi’s mother wanted her son buried in Iraq, they pitched in and raised the $13,000 it took to get him there, Tina said. They also donated clothes, prayer rugs and other items to Terri, who lost everything to the fire.
As Terri listened to her mother, the tears began to fall, even though she clenched her jaw and tried to stop them.
“And I was grateful, because I’m, like ... I don’t know what to buy,” Tina said, laughing, and looking at Terri. Her daughter tried to join in, but she couldn’t get around the tears. “And they were, like, ‘Oh, don’t worry. I’ll do it, and I was, like, OK ... very nice women ... and men.
“They still call her ... and keep in contact online,” she said, as Terri sat nearby and nodded.
Family is everything
After a few years of marriage, Terri and Odie were ready to start their family. Terri said they waited so long under the guidance of the Muslim faith, which encourages couples to build a strong foundation so they will be there for the children in the long run.
“Usually they say, in the Muslim world, that you wait for a year, year and a half, to two years, and then start your family,” Terri said. “That way, you’ll stay together and help each other out while you’re raising the boys, just to make sure and not split up our family.”
Little Ali was a firecracker from the first, coming into the world a little unexpected for his new family.
“Well, Ali was born prematurely,” Tina said of her grandson, once more taking up the slack for her daughter, who sat nearby and listened to the memories, thinking about those times, herself, “and he made it through that. He was a very active child.”
“I was 31 weeks pregnant,” Terri said, looking ahead and down at her mother’s coffee table with eyes only for the past.
“Yeah,” her mother said, “and ... he was getting along pretty good.”
“Three pounds, 12 ounces,” Terri continued.
“He was learning to talk and walk, the love of her life,” Tina said, then added after a pause. “He loved his daddy.”
That brought a smile to Terri’s face. “Oh, yeah,” she said, then laughed softly.
Ali was born in March 2008, and that summer Tina got to meet her new grandson, and her son-in-law, for the first time.
“We had a good time,” Tina said, as Terri nodded her head, the tears falling silently on her cheeks.
“He was a very nice, pleasant person to be around,” Tina said of Frawi.
Oudah Frawi was a Shiite Muslim living in Iraq when the first Gulf War started in 1991.
“That’s why he left Iraq,” Tina said.
Terri picked up the tale.
“Saddam Hussein. It was under him, and he couldn’t talk to ... see how his brothers were doing, ‘cause they were in the war, too, in the camps, and he couldn’t see if they were alive or dead or nothing, and he just said this was not fair,” Terri said. “Just for him saying that, they wanted to kill him. So he had to run for his life.”
He ended up in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, where his faith was the only thing that kept him sane, Tina said.
“There wasn’t much to do,” she said. “He read a lot — read about America — practiced his religion.”
He also was a fairly good soccer player, a game his mother-in-law called his passion.
Eventually Frawi traveled with fellow refugees to Canada and then they were allowed into the United States.
“There were several as a community there in Quincy that was in the refugee camps,” Tina said. “As he came over it was like a big group, you know. They were friends. They knew each other.
“All the community over there said he was always smiling, no matter how cold he was, how many hours he worked. He was still smiling. He had his family,” Tina said.
Terri just stared ahead. “They said he died happy,” she said.
Terri’s youngest son, Hassan, was born earlier this year during one of the worst winters in Massachusetts in 25 years.
“I knew I couldn’t get a plane out or be safe, so ... I was going to go this June to see them all again,” Tina said, looking down and falling quiet.
Tina and Terri talked frequently on the phone each week, and Terri told her mother how different her sons were, how Hassan was so laid-back compared to her older son.
“He would soothe himself back to sleep,” Tina said of Hassan. “Ali, he was ... well, energetic.”
“You had to be,” Terri said. “When (Ali) cried, you had to be there.”
“But he knew his brother was a baby,” Tina said of Ali. “He’d call him, ba-by, ba-by.”
“We were happy,” Terri said, “always happy. Tired, but happy.”
March 24 was a blustery day in Quincy, Mass.
“We had to stay in because it was cold outside,” Terri said, her forehead creasing in thought.
Terri normally stayed home with the children while Frawi spent his days working at a nearby gas station.
The last thing Terri remembers about that day is “going to sleep.”
“Everybody was in the right place, asleep,” Tina said.
The next thing Terri remembered was waking up to her mother and brother telling her Frawi and their children were dead.
Tina said they had to tell her twice, not because she didn’t remember but because Terri thought maybe it had been a dream.
“It’s horrifying,” Tina said, as her daughter sat beside her, visibly upset.
The blanks eventually were filled in for Terri — an electrical fire broke out around 3 a.m. March 25 in their apartment and spread to their couch, creating a thick, toxic smoke that quickly brought down the couple trying to save their young children — although she still remembers none of it.
She later learned from her mother and her attorney the basement apartment where she and her family lived had only one exit and no working fire alarms, both of which make the residence illegal in Massachusetts. Her attorney, Bill Kennedy, also said the building was wired electrically for four apartments, not the six it was housing. A lawsuit has been filed.
Firefighters were able to pull the family out of their basement apartment, but only Terri remained alive.
She quickly was taken to Massachusetts General, where she would spend weeks in a coma and then more time recovering from severe burns to her back, hands, neck and face before ending her stay in rehabilitation.
Because of the destruction of the fire and the miles separating the families, it wasn’t until the morning after the fire a trooper managed to track Tina Griffin down at Integris Bass Baptist Health Center, where she works as a certified nurse aide.
“The trooper said, ‘Are you related to Terri Knight?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I’m her mother,’ and he said, ‘Well there’s been a horrible house fire, and she’s in critical condition at Massachusetts General Hospital,’” Tina said, “and I asked about the others, and they said they didn’t survive, and ... I don’t remember nothing else until I woke up in the break room.”
Tina’s fellow workers not only caught her when she passed out, they worked to raise $2,000 in just a few hours’ time to help the family pay for tickets to Massa-chusetts for Tina and her two children, Charles and Tonya, Terri’s brother and sister. They arrived in Boston about 11:30 that night.
“It was pretty scary the first two weeks for sure when ... three weeks ... we didn’t know whether she was going to make it or not. ... The burns, the smoke inhalation on her lungs, was really bad.”
From her arrival at the hospital’s critical burn unit, Terri was placed on a ventilator. Damage from the smoke was so traumatic the doctors performed a tracheotomy — cutting a hole in the windpipe in her neck — to put in the ventilator tube to help her breath.
Once she was breathing better, Tina said, her recovery started to go faster.
“Whenever I found out,” Terri said, “ my mom told me Odie went back to Iraq to be buried, and the babies are still here, and they’re waiting on me to ... so I had to get out of there soon.”
“She pushed herself hard,” her mother said, “so she could come back to Oklahoma to put her babies to rest.”
Terri was able to do that May 15 in Mercy Islamic Cemetery in Cashion.
‘Workin’ on gettin’ better’
Since burying her sons, life for Terri has slowed down ... a lot ... too much.
She can describe her days in one word: “Hard.”
“Before (the fire) they were very busy,” Tina said. “Two babies to take care of, a husband, housework. She was always exhausted. Now, she’s like ...”
“What do I do?” Terri said.
“What do I do now?” her mother said, finishing her thought.
“It’s hard,” Terri said, her brow crinkling.
“Yeah,” Tina answered, as both women looked down.
Terri decided to listen to her family and return home to Enid to their love and care, even if they were a little insistent.
“But she said she was glad that me and her brother and sister were up there,” Tina said. “She said that she wouldn’t have ...”
“I don’t think I would have made it ...” Terri said.
“And the nurses and the doctors said she made a good recovery, and they believe it was because we were there, because I told her, ‘I’m not leaving here without you. No matter how long it takes.’”
Terri started to smile, “I knew then that I was going back to Oklahoma.”
When she left rehabilitation, though, her recovery was far from over.
“She had to learn to do a lot of things all over again, being so weak,” Tina said.
With health coverage provided when she was in Massachusetts, Terri finds herself having to wait on the slow, red tape of government to unravel here so she can receive assistance. Mean-while, she travels regularly to Oklahoma City for rehabilitation that must continue. She still suffers from the burns, and with summer heat coming on to irritate, the pain will not ease.
She wears special gloves on her hands to speed the healing process, but it is hard without their full use to do much of anything.
Which leaves her too much time ... time to think.
She thinks one day she will go back to Massa-chusetts, where she not only fell in love with her husband, children and community but with the ocean, as well. She hopes to travel to Iraq in a few years as her health improves. Frawi wanted to take his family there, and now Terri would like to visit, meet Frawi’s mother, whom she hopes still will be alive, and see to where her Odie is buried.
Before moving East, Terri worked in retail, and while she admits to an interest in returning someday, she holds up her gloved hands helplessly.
“My hands ... right now,” she said, giving a little laugh, one without any humor. “It’s kind of hard.”
She also thinks every day of healing.
“She wants to get better,” Tina said.
“Work on gettin’ better,” her daughter adds.
“Gotta get stronger,” her mother responds.
The old world becomes
Three years ago Terri took hold of her courage and traveled halfway across the country to start a new life. Now, she finds herself back in her old world, but nothing is the same.
Last year, Terri adopted her husband’s Muslim religion.
“I know it’s a very peaceful religion,” Tina said, adding she and Terri’s siblings are trying to learn as much as they can to help Terri not feel like an outsider here.
She asked Terri if there was any ceremony when she accepted the Muslim faith.
“No, not really,” Terri said. “You just have to say a few words, but you’ve got to be clean. Your soul has to be clean when you do it.”
She paused a few heartbeats before continuing. “And women will bring you gifts, you know, like hijabs, praying rugs, everything you need.”
Hijabs are head coverings, and Terri wears the robes of her Muslim faith, as well.
It’s clothing that makes her stand out in Enid, Oklahoma.
“We’ve had some people walk up and say, ‘What’s wrong with your head?’” Tina said. “I said she’s Muslim, that’s all. It’s her religion.”
Which satisfies most, she said, and they go on.
“Some people smile,” Terri said.
“Some of them,” her mom agrees. “The old community ...”
She ends her thought by making a face, and then said, “It’s like, never mind.”
Terri has a saying in Arabic the Muslims use — Salam Alinkum — which Terry says translates to “may peace be upon you.”
“When people look at her funny, she just says that and goes on,” Tina said.
While there is no Muslim community in Enid, she said, there are several in Oklahoma City.
“When she feels better, we can take her down there so she can attend a mosque, which is a religious place to pray, and stuff, and maybe she can start getting a few friends here.”
Remembering the smiles
For now, Terri clings to her faith as she tries to get past this tragedy, and she cares little now for what others think about it.
“When she can stay pretty busy, when we’re going to doctors’ appointments, it’s a little easier,” Tina said.
The hardest thing for Terri now, she said, is “being alone.”
Her family sits by quietly. No one can argue.
But Terri will say it does get better.
“Some days are better than others,” she said, not looking too convinced.
The memories are strong, but along with the sad comes the good memories of her family.
“The most is the smiles,” Terri said.
“The laughter,” her mom added.
“Yeah,” Terri answered.
“We just take it one day at a time,” her mother said, and Terri wiped her eyes.
On the south wall of Terri Knight’s mother’s living room in Enid hangs a clock, surrounded by large photos of Terri’s husband and her two babies.
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