Aliza “Bessie” Alyeshmerni has had an out of the ordinary life, both professionally and personally. She’s worked for the government, served in Iraq for almost two years, and has battled cancer three times. Bessie goes in-depth with some of her challenge, as well as what’s next for her, in this week’s Who The Folk?!
You have a very interesting legal career; How’d you start at DOJ right away?
I went into a master’s in law program. I was seeing someone pretty significantly, and he moved to D.C. to join the State Department, and I decided when I got through law school that I’d join him. I knew that coming from William Mitchell no one would know the name, so I decided to do a master’s in international and transitional law at George Washington. If he was going to be at the State Department, we’ll be moving around. If I have this extra degree, it’ll help me get teaching gigs in foreign cities.
I knew that while I was at George Washington because I needed a job while my then-fiancée was still learning a language. We were perfectly posed in that we had JDs and that we could practice, we had just chosen not to. Department of Justice came through at the right place at the right time. I liked appellate litigation. The first court I ever practiced in was the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. It was crazy. I was 28, walked in, and did that.
How did you end up working in Iraq?
They were looking for a detail to Iraq. They were using my master’s thesis (on enhanced interrogation); I went up to my boss and told him ‘I wrote everything about this,’ but he told me I’d only been there a year and a half. Three years passed and another opportunity came to go to Baghdad. This was more significant because they were using my thesis in Baghdad. They got a hold of me and I was supposed to go out in 2010, but they ended up finding breast cancer, which is a story all on its own:
I used to work for the American Jewish Committee, and I had an amazing experience with them. I took a bunch of grad students from South Africa that had won a trip and ended up getting to Rwanda. I was a chaperone at 28. It was really amazing. I was working on a project with somebody and he told me his girlfriend, at 29, had a double mastectomy and it ruined me. On the next Monday, I rolled over as I got out of bed and I felt something. It felt as rigid as a stone. I went in a couple weeks later, and sure enough, I had breast cancer. This girl’s story saved my life.
I went through a year of chemo and then was cleared. I went to Baghdad and spent 20 months there starting as an assistant advisor, and ended up as the head legal attaché. I got very close to the deputy attorney general and the ambassador. Probably one the craziest periods was when the DAG told me it was time to go home and I went to tell the ambassador, and he said no I wasn’t. I kept the office open until I came home. I was at a very similar Office of Justice for Victims of Overseas Terrorism. I had 13 or 14 cases, including Daniel Pearl’s. My job was to explain the legal process to the victim’s family. I talked to his sisters on a video teleconference and explained what was going to happen in Pakistan where they found [one of the perpetrators of his killing].
Within a month of being home and doing that, they found breast cancer on my liver. I moved home to Minneapolis where my mom could help. They gave me 2-to-8 months to live, but later that week it turned from terminal to incurable, meaning that it had a maintenance program. Every three weeks I go to sit down for chemo. After a whole year of weekly chemo, which was pretty hard, for the liver, two weeks later we found it in my brain. There’s a blood/brain barrier. The chemo for the liver wasn’t getting to my brain. I had to do whole brain radiation. For a lawyer and someone who is a serious orator, that was pretty scary. The speech for the Cardozo Society (on July 20) was the first speech I’ve made in public in four or five years. It was an important experience for me to have.
How emotionally do you flip from being given a terminal diagnosis to suddenly not being terminal?
Five years before my 2010 diagnosis, it would have been instant death. It was so aggressive. I learned a lot from that experience alone. I knew it was a very aggressive tumor and pathology. I went from clearing out my closet with my girlfriends, and mom, and sisters – thousands of dollars in clothing – to leasing a (new car.)
Where did Bessie come from?
Great question. Good story. I’m the youngest of three. My mom went back to work after I was in school, and she would work a little later than my school went, so I was at the day school and they would bus me back to my grandmother’s and she would watch me. She was a tough nut, that lady. She was so funny. My grandmother was in WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), which is the first way a woman could be in the military. She was a parachute worker in the Navy. She was sewing up parachutes. Every once in a while they would drop them in between the U.S. and Cuba out of the plane so they remembered how important every stitch was. She went by Pat because she lived in North Minneapolis where the was some anti-Semitism. But her real name was Bess. I went into first grade and told every to stop calling me Aliza and to start calling me Bessie. I come from a long line of women who did what they wanted to do.
I feel like that explains a lot about you in dealing with the work, health and personal challenges.
I don’t know how or why, but I’ve always been a grateful person. Faith is a weird word for me. I’ve seen so many beautiful things in nature, that it’s what connects me most to a God. I’ve been so respectful of the awe of nature. You have hard days. There are days I don’t want to get out of bed. I do have an 80-pound dog that requires exercise. There are still bad days. All in all, my situation is nothing.
Going through this at such a young age, how do you have in God or any higher power?
I’m at a point where I don’t really know what day it is. It’s kind of “Groundhog’s Day.” I do some legal work for veterans who are friends of mine that come to me with issues. I’ve solved and gotten them money. I’m still a lawyer. I’m still paying my dues and getting my continuing legal education. It’s my schedule and how I want to do things.
I’m a survivor. It’s nowhere in my body. You see other people, and I have it so much easier than they do. There is now a support group in Minnesota for people that have (metastatic) or Stage 4 cancer. All they do is go to the funerals of their friends. I have zero interest in being in that group.
What’s next for you?
I just got hired to be Dean Phillips’s campaign as a policy analyst for national security and immigration. I’m the right person for those. I’m excited because no one takes you seriously after surviving three times.
Favorite Jewish Food?
I would say Kreplach. They’re the best. My grandmother made them.
Favorite Jewish Holiday?