Rahma Salie was endlessly outgoing, a connector of people and ideas. The middle child, the older girl, she was the one who looked after her parents, who called them almost every day and came to Sunday dinner. She had a million friends and a husband who adored her, Michael “Micky’’ Theodoridis, 32. Three years into their marriage, she was seven months pregnant. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Rahma and Micky boarded American Airlines Flight 11 to California. The trip, to a friend’s wedding, would have been their last before their baby was born.
The Salies are a close-knit Muslim family, with relatives on several continents. Ysuff, 65, is Sri Lankan, from a family with a long history in the gemstone business; Haleema, 59, is Sri Lankan and Japanese. They raised their children all over the world, in Sri Lanka, Japan, and the United States. Rahma went to high school in Japan, but soon after she moved to Boston for college, her parents and younger sister Farah followed her here.
For all of Rahma’s sparkle, drive and intelligence—her mother remembers her arguing with a teacher who gave her an A- when she was 7—it was not a certainty that she would go to college. In keeping with their cultural traditions, young women in Sri Lankan Muslim families did not always go away to school. Her father recognized her potential, though, and told her if she got into the best schools, she could go. She blazed a trail for her younger female cousins, said her brother; they all went to college after she did.
At Wellesley, Rahma studied economics, wrote her senior thesis in Japanese (a first at the college), and worked in the president’s office. Later, at her memorial service, Wellesley president Diana Chapman Walsh would describe Rahma’s radiance, the way she was “everyone’s friend, and our secret favorite.’’ Her boss at Cambridge Technology Group spoke of her adoringly as “a leader you wanted to follow.’’ She traveled 200,000 miles and met with 25,000 executives in her six years with the company, but busy as she was, she always found a way to stretch a trip to visit family: a weekend with her grandmother in Japan; a few days with her brother and his children in Sri Lanka.
She was tiny—even smaller than her 5-foot, 2-inch mother—and a giggler known for botching the punch line of jokes, but Rahma was a force to be reckoned with, lecturing foreign businessmen or lobbying to improve corporate maternity policy. She never ran from a challenge, and the same was true when it came to her marriage. Micky was from a traditional Greek Orthodox family, but he agreed to convert to Islam before they were married. Both sets of parents were daunted by the cultural gulf between them, but the couple “faced into the differences,’’ said Victor Kazanjian, the Wellesley dean who married them and later spoke at their memorial service, “and succeeded at something the world is desperate for.’’
When they were gone, there was at first a kind of numbness. Friends flooded the Salies with food and offers of help; the problem, says Haleema, was not even that they were not hungry, but that “we didn’t know if we were hungry or not.’’
In the midst of the terrible chaos, there were especially terrible moments. When Ysuff Salie went to the airport sometime on Sept. 11 or 12, desperate for information, he remembers being pushed into a corner and questioned by federal agents, who wanted to know whether his daughter was part of the terrorist plot.
The experience was upsetting, but the Salies say the mistake was quickly corrected. More important, in their view, is the hard work the government has done to stop terrorism in the decade since.
“They had never had a situation like that before,’’ Haleema Salie says. “They had to do what they thought was best.’’
Afkham Salie, who was living in Sri Lanka at the time, spent days that September packing up the contents of his sister and brother-in-law’s condominium, on West Canton Street in the South End. Their photographs alone filled five huge boxes; 10 years later, he still hasn’t sorted through them all. Rahma’s parents kept her dishes—a simple yet elegant white set that they use daily. Afkham, 42, moved to Boston in 2007 to help his parents run the business, Cafe L’Aroma, and to ease their worry about him living in Sri Lanka in the midst of civil war.
The work is all-consuming, and in some ways, it has saved them. “It has kept us very busy, and now we have thousands of friends,’’ Ysuff says. “It would have given her a lot of happiness to see it.’’ They don’t speak of Rahma daily, but she is “always at the forefront,’’ says Haleema. “We do this daily thinking of her. Her photo is in both cafes, like she’s looking over us. . . . We do think what she would have done, and that’s the way we go, still.’’Continued...