The Olympic dream of a Broward County ice skater has turned into an ugly dispute that has spawned a discrimination and defamation lawsuit against the West Palm Beach skating rink where she once practiced.
Angela Aldahwi, a dual citizen of both the United States and Iraq, has filed suit against Palm Beach Ice Works in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, alleging that her daughter, Hyaat Aldahwi, was barred from the rink in 2013 when its owner, Lori Alf, learned that the teenage skater is of Iraqi descent and hoped someday to skate for Iraq in the Olympic Games.
Aldahwi says Alf orchestrated a campaign to intimidate her and her daughter during competitions, shunned them from the tight-knit skating community and subjected them to racist and obscene taunts, including references to the Aldahwis as “towel heads.”
Alf, the suit claims, made comments to people in Hyaat’s peer group “to incite them to murder Hyaat and/or Angela Aldahwi, with comments about the Aldahwis being ‘ISIS’ and that they would ‘end up in a ditch someday,’ meaning dead along the side of a road.”
After the dispute became known, Alf hired a 6-foot-7 bodyguard to protect herself from what she told others could be an ISIS hit, the Aldahwis claim.
Alf, whose successful battle against cancer was detailed by The Palm Beach Post in June, denied the Aldahwis’ allegations, saying they are baseless.
“It’s extortion,” Alf said in a brief telephone interview. “I never spoke to them.”
Alf’s attorney, Paul Ranis, said: “We deny we ever said those things. We believe when the truth comes out, we will prevail on all the claims.”
Alf said Angela Aldahwi manages another rink in Pompano Beach, Glacier Ice and Snow Arena, and that that could be another reason for the lawsuit.
Aldahwi said she and her husband bought a small share in the Pompano rink in January of 2016 to make sure Hyaat has a place to skate. Aldahwi added that she is president of the skating club at Glacier Ice and Snow. But she said she is not paid for her work at the arena, and she denied that her lawsuit is connected in any way to her co-ownership of Glacier Ice and Snow.
In 2014, after the Aldahwis said Hyaat was banned from Palm Beach Ice Works, the Aldahwis filed a formal complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, which investigates alleged violations of the state’s civil rights laws. Specifically, the Aldahwis claimed that Alf violated state law in banning Hyaat from the rink, a public accommodation, because of her national origin.
A complaint to the FCHR must be made before a civil rights lawsuit can be filed, though a suit can be brought regardless of the agency’s findings.
FCHR Executive Director Michelle Williams wrote in June of 2014 that her agency investigated the Aldahwi allegation and “determined that reasonable cause exists to believe that an unlawful public accommodation practice occurred.”
Alf scoffed at that determination, saying the agency often makes such conclusions so cases can move forward in the legal system.
Figures from the FCHR show that, statewide, the agency investigated 48 allegations of civil rights violations in public accommodations in 2014 and found reasonable cause that the law had been broken in 14 of them. In Palm Beach County that year, the agency investigated eight such cases and made a reasonable cause determination in three of them.
Ranis said “rulings by the FCHR are not binding on the court.”
The Aldahwis filed suit in January of 2015, alleging that their civil rights were violated and that Alf’s behavior constituted negligent infliction of emotional distress.
In June of 2015, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Gillen dismissed several counts of the Aldahwi lawsuit, ruling that the alleged behavior was not outrageous enough to meet the state standard for judicial action. The judge granted a motion for more clarity on other aspects of the allegations and gave the Aldahwi’s leave to amend their complaint.
The Aldahwis filed an amended complaint in October.
“I don’t want this to happen to someone’s daughter or child again,” Angela Aldahwi said.
In December, Ranis again filed a motion to have the case dismissed.
“These claims fail as a matter of law because the allegations in the amended complaint are duplicative of the previously dismissed allegations and do not allege outrageous conduct necessary to support such claims,” the motion states.
Ranis has requested a hearing on the motion that has not yet been scheduled.
The Aldahwi suit names Palm Beach Ice Works, Alf and National Air Cargo Holdings, the parent company of a freight forwarding and logistics firm that does business with military and industrial clients. Alf, a National Air Cargo Holdings board member, worried that allowing Hyaat Aldahwi to skate at Ice Works could threaten Air Cargo contracts, according to the suit.
Air Cargo’s board directed Alf to ban Hyaat Aldahwi from the rink, according to the suit, which quotes Alf as saying: “We are not going to risk losing our contract because we have some Iraqi wannabe in our rink.”
Ranis denied the Aldahwis’ account of why Hyaat was banned from the rink.
The Aldahwis said Hyaat was barred from the rink in January of 2013 after six months of training there without incident.
Hyaat Aldahwi began skating at age 2, when her father, Hayder Aldahwi, took her to Glacier Ice and Snow.
“He wanted me to try as many sports as possible,” Hyaat said. “I don’t think I ever wanted to leave and get off the ice.”
Her mother said a dream quickly developed in her daughter’s mind.
“When Hyaat was very little, she said, ‘One day I’ll skate for Iraq.’ That was her dream.”
Only Iraq has no figure skating team.
Angela and Hyaat Aldahwi, who were both born in the U.S. and hold Iraqi citizenship through Hayder Aldahwi, decided to try to form one. Angela Aldahwi, a sports psychologist, worked with the Iraqi Winter Sports Association, and Hyaat skated in international competitions for Iraq.
Both women say Iraqi Olympic officials embraced the idea of having a figure skating team compete in the Games.
The dream of taking the ice for Iraq was Hyaat’s driving force, Angela Aldahwi said.
“She always used to say, ‘I was the first Iraqi skater,’” Angela Aldahwi said.
Even with the difficulties the country has faced, its people are resilient, she said.
“The country always comes back together for sports,” she said. “There’s, like, a pride.”
And Hyaat was a source of some of that pride, her mother said.
“They became so happy,” Angela Aldahwi said. “They built rinks. Hyaat’s had people reach out to her. People were so excited.”
Everything seemed to be on track for Hyaat to pursue her Olympic dream, Angela Aldahwi said.
Then she and her husband gave their daughter a skating jacket for Christmas in 2012. The jacket had an embroidered picture of ice skates and the word “Iraq.”
“Immediately upon seeing the word ‘Iraq,’ Defendant Alf became belligerent toward the Aldahwis, and she announced that no skater would be allowed at the rink who was Iraqi,” the suit claims.
Things came to a head in January 2013, when, according to the suit, an employee of Palm Beach Ice Works called Angela Aldahwi.
“You and your daughter are no longer allowed at Ice Works,” the employee said. “You cannot train or participate in any activity.”
A second employee, joining the call by speaker phone, told Angela Aldahwi they were being banned because Hyaat Aldahwi hoped to skate for Iraq, according to the suit.
Being barred from the rink wasn’t just the loss of a place to skate, the Aldahwis said. It also meant losing access to Hyaat Aldahwi’s coach, who coached other skaters at the rink, one of whom was Lori Alf’s daughter.
Hyaat Aldahwi said she continued skating, competing at various events.
“The threats and abuse by the defandant continued,” the Aldahwis’ lawsuit states.
Hyatt, the suit claims, “experienced serious panic attacks, withdrawal, depression, lack of sleep, and loss of appetite.”
Her skating suffered, too
“Hyaat is now petrified to skate in front of the Alfs,” the suit states.
Meanwhile, others joined in taunting the Aldahwis.
At one point, the lawsuit claims, when Hyaat and her mother walked into a rink, “people stated, referring to the Aldahwis, ‘Look, here comes ISIS!’”
“The Aldahwis inquired as to what they were talking about, and they stated, ‘The Alfs told us about the lawsuit you have against them.’”
Ranis said the Aldahwis’ suit does not spell out where, when and to whom those alleged comments were made, points he has raised in his motion to dismiss the suit.
Hyaat Aldahwi said her friends in the tight-knit skating community felt they had a choice: Lori Alf or her and her mother. They chose Lori Alf, she said.
“When a former friend had a death in the family, Hyaat sent her a communication that expressed her condolences and included her name,” the lawsuit states. “The individual wrote back, ‘I do not know who this is.’”
Hyaat, now 18, said the experience was traumatic.
“I did lose a few friends over it,” she said. “No one wanted to talk about it. No one knew how to talk about it.”
Angela Aldahwi said she remembers telling her husband that their daughter had been banned from the rink.
“He said, ‘What did you do?’” Angela Aldahwi said. “I said, ‘We’re Iraqi. That’s what we did.’”
After a recent fall during a competition where the Aldahwis said Alf watched Hyaat while she was on the ice, Hyaat told her mother she no longer wanted to skate competitively. It’s been a decision her mother has struggled to accept.
“I said, ‘You love the sport. Don’t let someone take this away from you,’” Angela Aldahwi said. “She said, ‘Mom, I can’t do it. It’s too much.’”