Bay Area Palestinian saved lives, but not her own

Maha Khalaf has died. But five other people didn't.

The 29-year-old Palestinian American who brought Jews, Arabs and others together in a nationwide bone marrow drive died on July 29. But through the well-organized search she funded and established along with her friends and family, at least five other matches have been made.

"So we've saved five people's lives," said Khalaf's sister, Nancy Khalaf, a San Francisco dentist.

"More Arabs and Jews need to get on the registry. There are a lot of people in need and not a lot of Arabs and Jews on the registry. We have to get as many people on there as we can."

Maha Khalaf grew up in Santa Clara, attended Santa Clara University and graduated from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. She had been a successful San Francisco lawyer before her diagnosis with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma roughly three years ago. Her illness triggered a move from San Francisco to her parents' home in San Bruno.

Though Khalaf's insurance company classified her as "Caucasian," she soon found that Semitic people are highly underrepresented in national bone marrow registries. This led her to launch, a Web site devoted to add people — and diversity — to the registry.

Khalaf poured at least $100,000 of her own money into the project, and her family gave roughly $50,000 more. More than 5,000 names were added to both public and private registries.

Khalaf's story appeared in news outlets across the nation in June when her uncle, Dr. Omar Khalaf of Birmingham, Ala., specifically reached out to Alabama's Jews.

Citing genetic similarities between Jews and Arabs, Omar Khalaf, Rabbi Yossi Posner of Chabad of Alabama and Richard Friedman, the executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, set up a marrow drive at a Jewish community center.

Speaking to the Bulletin at the time, Maha Khalaf was overjoyed by her uncle's outreach program.

"This is a huge opportunity to get to a whole group of people I would not have been able to reach if my uncle hadn't bothered to target it," she said.

"Anything that gives me hope makes me happy."

Khalaf proved to be incredibly resilient, consistently brushing aside doctors' dire predictions.

She was given a year to live more than three years ago. In April, she was told that she'd be dead in 48 hours. And while Khalaf was nearly always strong and even humorous, she was realistic about her situation.

"I'm a fighter, apparently, but all I hear is 'as soon as possible,'" in reference to her need for a marrow transplant. "When [doctors] say 'as soon as possible,' it's not a joke," she told the Bulletin in June.

"If my efforts are futile for myself, I really would rather find a match for someone else."

Khalaf is survived by her sister, Nancy of San Francisco, and parents, Rola and Hanna of San Bruno. The Khalaf family is originally from Ramallah.

Nancy Khalaf said she hopes to create a foundation in Maha's name. Donations to the National Marrow Donor Program can be sent, c/o Nancy Khalaf, 2349 27th Ave., San Francisco 94116.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.