"She Became One Of Us:" Havenly Community Honors A Fallen Sister

Lucy Gellman | March 10th, 2023

Culture & Community  |  Arts & Culture  |  West Haven  |  Culinary Arts  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  Havenly

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“We do not know what happened to Roya, but we know that she deserved better,” said Co-Executive Director Jane Dowd.

Roya Mohammadi radiated light. Sometimes, it came through her love for Marvel movies and cartoons, which she could chatter about in any one of four languages. Sometimes, it flowed through her conversations, as she dreamed of starting her own marketing company. Sometimes, she just reached out with a joke, and it was as if a whole star-strewn galaxy lived in her laugh. 

Her sisters are not going to stop telling her story until they know what happened to her. 

Three dozen friends, colleagues, grief counselors and sisters-in-spirit gathered at Havenly Thursday night to  remember Mohammadi, a 29-year-old Afghan immigrant, translator, and aspiring marketing professional whose body was discovered last week in the West River in West Haven. On March 2, several of her colleagues at Havenly had reported her missing to the New Haven police. 

The West Haven Police Department (WHPD) has since opened an investigation into her death. Reached Thursday night by phone, Sgt. Patrick Buturla of the WHPD Crime Prevention Unit said that the investigation is “​​in the preliminary stages” and that he was not able to comment further. He added that “any loss of life to a member of our community is a tragedy” and said that the department is committed to pursuing the case.  

"We lost Roya suddenly, and I know many of us are still in shock and in pain," said Havenly Co-Executive Director Camila Güiza-Chavez, looking out into a room of tear-streaked faces. "We hope that spaces like this one can allow us to feel a little less hopeless as we lift up Roya's name and her legacy together."  

“We do not know what happened to Roya, but we know that she deserved better,” said Co-Executive Director Jane Dowd. “And while we are here today representing the community that she found at the end of her life, we also know that she had a whole life before her, and that she was doing everything in her power to design the future that she wanted.”

It represents a life cut short far too soon. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan in April 1993, Mohammadi was driven by her ambition. When she was just 18, she moved to India, where she began her studies in economics and business administration at Savitribai Phule Pune University. After earning an undergraduate degree in 2017, she went into her graduate studies in business administration and marketing.

It was her interest in international business that ultimately propelled her to the United States. Two years ago, it brought her to West Haven, where she originally enrolled at the University of New Haven in the fall of 2021. She remained there for only one semester, as a candidate in the school’s MBA program. Thursday night, university communications director Dave Cranshaw said that the UNH community is also mourning her loss.

“She loved and was loved by people that we will never know,” Dowd said. “And we want to hold space for them. We can only pray that they have peace with what has happened.”

Dowd added that there is much of Mohammadi’s life that Havenly does not know (her family is still in Afghanistan, an absence that nearly every speaker mentioned Thursday). Five months ago, she came to Havenly as a translator. With staff, she could slip easily between Urdu, Farsi, English, and German, often using some combination of the four throughout the work day. Between October 2022 and this January, her skills made it possible for four Afghan women to participate in Havenly’s annual fellowship program. 

She was never just a staff member or a fellow, Güiza-Chavez recalled; she made herself part of Havenly’s tight-knit sisterhood. She liked to join in on fellows’ dance lessons. She became a quiet and trusted listener, ready to hold space for any woman who needed it. She could make anyone laugh—and often did by sharing an anecdote about her interest in Marvel movies, cartoons, and pop music.  

Then in February of this year, she became part of Havenly’s inaugural “Career Bridges” fellowship program, designed for women who had studied and worked extensively before coming to the United States. Next month—which would have marked her 30th birthday—she would have begun an internship at Clifford Beers Clinic, working with Farsi-speaking parents and families. Thursday, several staff members from Clifford Beers came to be on hand for grief and trauma support,  

“With each day that she spent with us, Roya became more and more a beloved member of our community,” Güiza-Chavez said. “She showed up every day with her whole heart, and we could feel it.”

In the days and hours leading up to her disappearance, her colleagues and friends don’t know what happened. On February 26, Mohammadi was scheduled to show up at Havenly’s Temple Street storefront to translate during an exam. When she did not and did not pick up her phone, staff grew concerned. It wasn’t like her, Güiza-Chavez said. She didn’t know that it was the beginning of a weeks-long nightmare that hasn’t ended. 

That Tuesday, she was absent from a Career Bridges program session. She still wasn’t picking up her phone. She didn’t answer texts or email messages. When Havenly staff reached out to colleagues in the community—Mohammadi had worked as a translator with IRIS and Elena’s Light as well—no one knew her whereabouts. On Thursday, her colleagues at Havenly reported her missing to the New Haven Police Department. 

It was the following night that Güiza-Chavez’s phone rang. Hours later, she was inside the West Haven Police Department with colleagues, giving a statement. She said that she and fellow members of the Havenly family will be calling the department every day for updates. 

“It’s important for them to know there’s an entire community of people that are invested in this case, and that won’t be at peace until we know for sure what happened to Roya,” she said. “This is a huge shock. I know that there’s a lot of pain. A lot of grief. A lot of guilt in our community.”

As she and colleagues opened the floor to attendees’ grief, several Havenly employees and fellows mourned a colleague who had become a sister and close friend. Nusaibah Shatta, the fellowship director at Havenly, described their five months together as “like five years,” in which her presence was a near-daily constant. 

In a blue headscarf covered with gold polka dots, Shatta remembered how grateful Mohammadi was for the community she found in the space—and how grateful her colleagues were for her. Recently, she said, they were looking forward to a trip to an aquarium together. 

“She became one of us,” Shatta said. “She’s not just an interpreter. She’s supporting women with everything. She was an absolute legend—strong, intelligent, ambitious woman. Thank you Roya, for all those love, hugs and kisses, and for all those days you spent with us.”       

A friend and colleague who asked to remain anonymous remembered meeting Mohammadi for the first time just months ago, in a corner of Havenly’s Temple Street storefront. Co-Executive Director Nieda Abbas had called her with the news that there was another prospective fellow from Afghanistan. They began to talk about their backgrounds, and clicked instantly. 

“She was such a good girl,” she said with a catch in her voice. When Dowd called to break the news to her, she was shocked. She still is. “I don’t know what happened to her. But whatever happened, it was not good. She didn’t deserve that.” 

Stacy Downer, who works for New Haven Mental Health Outreach for Mothers (MOMS), also remembered meeting Mohammadi, and realizing that she was a bright light. At one point, the two were talking, and Mohammadi told a joke. She reached out to touch Downer’s hand, and the two began to laugh. “And I was like, ‘You a light!’” she recalled.

“I know people think lights dim, or lights go out, but when you are a light of this world, lights only change position,” she said. “That’s what Roya did. Roya has changed position. I want you to know, she is now our sun. Our star. She is our morning light.” 

 Others urged attendees to pray for Mohammadi. One speaker, who asked that her name not be used, remembered a moment last Sunday, when Havenly staff, fellows, alumni, and friends gathered in Mohammadi’s honor at a mosque in West Haven. Muslim and non-Muslim alike, they prayed for their friend. 

“She didn’t have her family here, and we became her family,” she said in Arabic as a fellow colleague translated. “She’s in our hearts. We are never going to forget about her. Everybody came to the mosque. We prayed for her. Cried for her. And we shared the love for her.”

As her friends struggle to fathom a world without her, they are also working to honor her bravery, with memories in which she lives on. At one of the final “Career Bridges” workshops Mohammadi attended, Güiza-Chavez “asked the women to visualize their lives as a river,” she recalled. Mohammadi depicted a series of gullies, winding down from the mountains on which they originated. 

“She said that her life thus far had been like this picture, with all its ups and downs,”  Güiza-Chavez said. “She said that when she looked at this picture … it made her feel proud, seeing how far she had come, and it showed her that there’s always hope.” 

“She was very adamant and convicted about sharing that with the other women in this space,” she added. “That there’s always hope.” 

“She Was Somebody”

For many at Thursday’s memorial, Mohammadi’s death was also a very painful reminder that women—particularly immigrant and refugee women, who flee economic and sexual oppression for a new life—may also encounter violence in their new home. 

While this tragedy is unthinkable for some, it is all too familiar for many others,” Dowd said. “People come to this country with an expectation of safety, and the belief that you can operate in a more free way. The reality of being an immigrant, of being a woman, and of living without sufficient financial means too often sows heartbreak. 

For organizer Vanesa Suarez, who did not know Mohammadi but has spent years advocating for immigrant women, it was impossible to hear about her and not think of Lizzbeth Aleman-Popoca, a 27-year-old mother and Mexican immigrant living in East Haven who went missing in July 2020. Her remains were found in Branford two weeks later.

Rarely, she said, does she see the mainstream media humanize women who go missing. Instead, headlines and articles are quick, cursory; they give no sense of who a person was, and reduce them to the single fact and location of their death. She thanked speakers for talking about Mohammadi’s hopes and dreams, her warm smile and quick willingness to listen. 

“Thank you for reminding us that she was somebody,” Suarez said. “Thank you for reminding us that she is missing and we will forever remember her.”

“It is important that we join the sisters at Havenly in calling for action, in calling for answers,” she later added. “We need to know what happened to Roya … I know she must have been so proud of herself to be where she was, to have made it through everything that she did.” 

She noted the timing: Mohammadi was found less than a week before International Women’s Day. To Suarez and many in the room, it was a sobering reminder that women are often not safe. 

“I want us to feel like we can actually accomplish our dreams, and we have the right to dream those dreams,” Suarez said. “It hurts to know that Roya’s light was taken from us so soon. I hope she finds peace, wherever she is.  I hope she feels the love that we have for her today, and all the days forward.”