Faces of the Front Range: From war-torn Iraq to Colorado, one photographer sees life through a new lens

Zara Otaifah bounded onto her metal step stool with gusto at the 17 Mile House Farm Park in Centennial on a recent December day, her hands steadying the camera as she readied her shot.

“Yes, I got it!” she exclaimed to her friend, who was posing for professional headshots in front of the historic red barn, the snowcapped Rocky Mountains looming in the background. “Look at that you! Look at that smile!”

Otaifah, an Iraqi refugee and Aurora resident, fell in love with photography because of her dad. As an engineer, he traveled the world with his vintage camera, coming home with photos that Otaifah still has to this day. Now she photographs as a passion project, shooting everything from headshots and food photos to galleries of her son Al, who has autism, as a way to spread awareness.

“I have a tool to help people, to make people smile,” Otaifah said.

A refugee program counselor by day, Otaifah fled Iraq six years ago after her cousin and other family members were kidnapped and killed by al-Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor to the Islamic State.

Otaifah had witnessed her home country devolving into chaos firsthand when armed men entered the Iraqi-American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, where she worked, in 2006 and kidnapped the organization’s director.

“I had to hide before fleeing the building,” she recalled.

As Iraq became more and more dangerous, Otaifah had another concern: her son’s education.

“In Iraq, they think autism is contagious,” Otaifah said.

Al was kicked out of three separate kindergartens. After one of them, Otaifah had an “aha” moment.

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“The principal told me, ‘You lied about your son’s condition,’ ” Otaifah said. ” ‘We don’t want him here anymore.’ ”

After that, the mother said, she knew she had to fly to the other side of the world so her son could get the care he deserved. Colorado came highly recommended from friends for two reasons, Otaifah said: autism resources and the scenery.

The school experiences in Iraq forged within Otaifah a proud and vocal autism advocate — and she even uses photography to raise awareness for the roughly 5.4 million American adults and countless children with an autism spectrum disorder.

“Autism Mom Behind the Camera,” published in 2018 through the Denver Open Media Foundation, showcased Al’s life — playing at the beach, taking baths, enjoying his beloved toy cars. Al rarely looked at the camera, something that initially broke his mother’s heart as she tried to photograph him.

“Parenting a child with autism takes courage and passion!” Otaifah wrote in the photo gallery. “One minute you hate it, and the next time you embrace it.”

As an immigrant, acclimating to the U.S. hasn’t always been easy. Otaifah got her degree in optical engineering and previously worked as a graphic designer, yet when she first came to Colorado, she was waking up before dawn to start her 4 a.m. shift at Panera Bread.

“All arrivals have these stories,” she said. “You have to wipe the table and start all over again.”

There was the time in King Soopers when an older man told her, “We don’t want you here.” Otaifah acknowledged that some people, especially in Colorado’s mountain towns, look at her funny when she speaks in her native Arabic.

But Otaifah also hangs onto the funny memories of her early-America days — such as the time when she rushed, famished, into a Wells Fargo bank, thinking it was a restaurant.

Now, however, Colorado feels like home.

“Home is not rocks and buildings,” she said. “It’s a feeling, a sense of belonging.”

Otaifah made it official in September when she took the oath to become a U.S. citizen — the “best day of my life,” she said.

“The same flag I’m pledging to is the one my cousin was killed over,” Otaifah said. “She always wished to come to America.”

This story is part of The Denver Post’s Faces of the Front Range project, highlighting Coloradans with a unique story to share. Read more from this series here.

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