Hanna Ruax.

Hanna Ruax. (Illustration by Julianna Cecere/KQED)

Everyone said she was a bright light in a big world.

I met Hanna Ruax only once, over drinks at a favorite bar in the Mission with her and her fiancé Alex Ghassan the night before they died in the Oakland warehouse fire.

First impressions ran deep. Alex was a good friend, and I had been badgering him to introduce me to the amazing woman he’d met in Finland. When we sat down, the conversation took off like a shot. She told me about her jewelry design business, her yoga studio in Helsinki, and her far-flung travels around the globe — including, at length, about one especially remarkable trip she made across Siberia from the Urals to the Pacific.

Hanna Ruax and Alex Ghassan
Hanna Ruax and Alex Ghassan.

As I wrote in a remembrance for Alex, Hanna was luminous — not just for her beauty, of course, but also for her energy, confidence and irrepressible optimism. There seemed to be no end to her enthusiasm for the people whose paths she had crossed in her 32 years. And while we lamented the coarsening of political dialogue in America and Finland, Hanna spoke with gritty, upbeat determination about “not sitting down” when it was time to “stand up,” referencing her own activism on behalf of Syrian and other refugees in Helsinki.

Hanna seemed to me every inch the true Finn: bold and forthright, punctuating her points at least three times that evening with slaps to my shoulder (and I’m not talking love taps.) She spoke about her parents and how different they were from one another, and how much she loved them for those differences. On a lighter note, she reported that Alex had taught her to swear like an Oakland hipster, and then proceeded to show off her newly acquired skill with impressive acumen, as Alex looked on beaming. Through it all, Hanna kept returning to people, the human race, their essential goodness and the great opportunity we humans have to connect to each other.

Hanna wrote the following on her Facebook page last Father’s Day:

Today we celebrate Father’s Day in Finland. Thank you Dad, Yrjö Timonen, for giving me tools to survive and succeed in my life. I admire how you made it from a small village in the countryside to become a successful business man. You give me inspiration to be a successful entrepreneur, too. Even when times get rough, I’ll always find a new way to bounce back as you have done so many times. Thank you boo Alex G for sharing and opening your life and letting me be part of your and your sweet little girls’ lives. I admire you in so many ways, and love seeing not only the inspiring artist but the kind-hearted daddy in you. Happy Father’s Day to all daddies, new and those who are already gone from this world (RIP great granddad Yrjö-ukki and granddad Vaari).

Looking for more about Hanna’s life in Finland, I reached out to her dear friend and “yoga sister,” Meri Mort. Meri sent this beautiful remembrance from Helsinki:

Hanna Ruax
Hanna Ruax

Hanna had a drive for creativity and she saw beauty everywhere. As a child she played piano and danced. She also loved to go hiking to the Koli national park in eastern Finland and swimming in the lake at their summer cottage. Yoga came to Hanna through her mother, and before she turned 30, she was the “boss lady” of the yoga studio her mother had founded. The yoga studio was a cozy spot in the center of Helsinki and everyone felt welcome there. Hanna was a gentle and inspiring teacher. She taught her signature classes, “Reggae yoga” with a live DJ. The fun was contagious. Hanna enjoyed organizing parties and making tasty dishes for her friends. Her crew was a colorful bunch of lively, creative people who loved her. She was never judgmental and always saw good in people. She was always ready to fight for the rights of those in need. She even started an anti-racism demonstration after reading about a violent act that took place at the Helsinki railway station. She was a bright light who always had time to listen, give insightful advice, laugh and dance!

It is difficult and far beyond the power of words to convey the depth of the loss of such a bright light at such a young age. When there is so much that we can’t understand at a time like this, there is comfort in knowing that this remarkable woman’s life will shine on for years to come in the memories of those who knew her. And as her friend Meri wrote, she and Alex “can now travel together to the stars.”

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For more of our tributes to the victims of the Oakland warehouse fire, please visit our remembrances page here.

For a printable poster of the illustration above, see here.

Hanna Ruax, Jewelry Designer and Yoga Teacher, ‘Saw Beauty Everywhere’ 27 December,2016David Markus