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Aasiya Hassan recalled as more than a victim; Cited for optimism, creativity amid woe

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Aasiya Zubair Hassan was more than a victim of domestic violence, more than a figure of grief and pity.

She was an adventurer, an optimist. Until her death at 37, she was a creative and encouraging force beloved by everyone who knew her, except for the man she married.

As public attention focuses on today's sentencing of Muzzammil "Mo" Hassan by Judge Thomas Franczyk in Erie County Court, those who cared most for Aasiya took time to remember the vibrant and unconquerable spirit that embodied their friend.

"I think of all the 'if onlys,' " said Nishat Aleem Khan, a longtime friend who studied architecture with her in Pakistan. "If only she had not married him, and all the in-between 'if onlys.' Oh, what a life she would have lived."

Aasiya was brutally stabbed, then decapitated by her husband Feb. 12, 2009, in the studios of their Muslim-oriented television station in Orchard Park.

She grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, one of four siblings from a very close-knit and accomplished family. Her father and mother had moved from India to Pakistan for better opportunities since Muslims were discriminated against in their home country, said Aasiya's sister, Asma Firfirey.

Aasiya's father was a civil engineer; her mother had a degree in psychology. They sent all their children to private schools; all finished college and pursued professional careers.

Firfirey described her sister as fun, daring, hardworking and brilliant. Her giving and optimistic nature led her to collect friends wherever she went.

"She was different from all of us," Firfirey said. "We never used to get bored when she was around."

Though households in Pakistan struggled with power outages, Aasiya and her father used to pass the time by singing songs, joking that their unpleasant voices might gain God's attention and he would turn the power on to make them stop.

"She'd haul us out of the house and made us face life," Firfirey said. "She gave our life a hope when we were down. She made us alive again."

Aasiya's creativity found an outlet in architecture.

Khan was one of a circle of Aasiya's friends who were architecture students in Pakistan; she admired her work as a student and later as a working professional.

Once, Khan recalled, Aasiya put together a student presentation in which she created a portable restroom that could be collapsed into a 2-by-2-foot box. It opened into a complete shower and toilet, with space for water storage.

"After the presentation, we were all awestruck," said Khan, who runs her own architecture firm in Karachi. "I remember her teachers telling her she should patent this."

After graduation she was regarded as an architectural peer to more seasoned colleagues, Khan said.

Aasiya thrived on learning new things. She took classes in whatever interested her, whether swimming or musical instruments. She rode speedboats and became an avid horsewoman. She bought a horse after finishing architecture school.

"Her life was truly a nightmare the moment she got married," Firfirey said. "However, before that it was like a dream."

When Aasiya was first courted by Hassan in Pakistan, she seemed very taken with him, Khan said.

"She told me she'd met this wonderful person," she said. "She thought of him as very caring."

Hassan -- twice divorced -- was similarly complimentary about his new wife in November 2000. He told a friend via e-mail: "She is 28 and 5'8" and much better looking than I. Most importantly, I feel fortunate that she really understands me at an emotional level."

But Firfirey said things began going wrong as soon as the wedding was over. He even ignored her on their wedding night, she said.

"This was the beginning of her terrible life," she said.

At one point, after moving to Orchard Park with her husband, Aasiya was running a 7-Eleven franchise, raising her two young children and two teenage stepchildren, working as the general manager and programming director of Bridges TV and dealing with her marital problems at home.

Yet many friends said they rarely heard her complain, which was part of the reason the extent of her abuse went undetected for so long.

A pervasive sense of guilt and regret lingers with Aasiya's friends. It seems her buoyant and upbeat personality camouflaged her deep, personal wounds.

"She always walked in with a smile," said Hunaid Baliwala, the current general manager for Bridges TV and close friend and colleague. "That always embodied what she was."

Unlike Muzzammil Hassan, who was described as more of an impersonal and occasionally ruthless business tactician, Aasiya was regarded by most as the heart of the Muslim cable channel.

"The goal for her was for her children to live in an environment where they could live free of fear," Baliwala said.

As a co-founder and inspiration for Bridges TV, Aasiya was the one to whom people turned for advice and who served as an all-around troubleshooter when last-minute problems arose, colleagues said.

"At work, no one would go to Muzzammil," said Mohamed Numan-Al, the current programming director for the station. "They would all go to Aasiya. If you got a problem, you go to Aasiya. She would help you. She was the shoulder to cry on."

She was the one who encouraged Baliwala to pursue his master's in business administration with her at the University at Buffalo and celebrated his every success at work, he said. "She was so smart," he said. "She had a great, great future."

At UB, she was equally well-regarded as a student and friend. Some of her classmates worked actively to educate her about her rights as an abuse victim and help her break with her husband and start a new life.

"I think she really had trouble trusting in the justice system here," said classmate Mary Ellen Brockmyre, who had previously managed a domestic violence shelter and grew close to Aasiya.

Though Aasiya was overextended with numerous commitments, Brockmyre said, her outside responsibilities were probably a great comfort to her.

"Those were respites," she said. "Those were her times away from him, where she could feel freedom."

Brockmyre and classmate Beth O'Donnell said Aasiya was very worried about losing custody of her children and later worried about the impact her divorce and resignation from Bridges TV would have on the station's future success. "She was always worried about everybody else, all the time," O'Donnell said.

Khalid Qazi, president of the Western New York chapter of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, recalled that just one day before her death, Aasiya e-mailed him about a program that a U.S. State Department agency wanted to do in conjunction with Bridges.

She was committed to the station until the very end, he said.

Members of the local and national Muslim community said Aasiya's death sparked greater commitment to domestic violence prevention. Panel discussions, rallies and calls from imams and women's groups flourished in the weeks after Aasiya's brutal stabbing and decapitation.

Bridges TV has carried on, and Aasiya is the primary reason.

"We're here two years after the fact," Baliwala said, "and I don't think we're doing this for Mo. Everyone who's here, we want to do this so her legacy lives on."

Hassan, 46, is expected to appear in court today with his fifth and latest defense lawyer, E. Earl Key.

Family members and friends both here and abroad have flooded Franczyk's office with letters urging that he sentence Hassan to the maximum sentence of 25 years to life.

"The community members keep reminding me that they can never forgive him for what he has done," Qazi wrote in his letter to the judge on behalf of the Muslim council. "There is not a single person in our community who is seeking any leniency for him and, Your Honor, we all hope that you will not disappoint us."

News Staff Reporter Matt Gryta contributed to this report.



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