Flight to Freedom
How Unconditional Love Freed Me From Abuse
I am an American Muslim woman, and this is my story of freedom. I was born in a small town in Kansas to a single mother. When I was three, my mother met and married my stepfather, who was from Lebanon. I accepted him as my own father.
My stepfather raised me to believe I had been chosen by God to be saved by him. That he brought me salvation by guiding me to the religion of Islam and by giving me the honor of sharing his family name when he adopted me.
Slowly, so I wouldn’t notice, he took control through his words and then his actions. He told me that women had half a brain. He showed me that I couldn't trust myself but that I had to give my full trust to him. He made me believe the world was a dangerous and scary place and he was protecting me from it. He taught me that love was earned: it was given, and it could be taken away.
Because I couldn't disagree with him, he taught me that he had control over my mind. And because I couldn’t show my feelings outside of happiness, or risk flaring his temper, he had control of my emotions too. Sadly, I learned that he also controlled my body. He would put me in the closet as punishment, and he began hitting me at the age of four.
When I was just five years old, my stepfather started hitting me in the face. He hit me for so many years that I began to dissociate from myself whenever he did. In Islam, you are never to hit someone in the face because it is humiliating. If he had followed any teaching of Islam (which he didn't, aside from refraining from eating pork), I wished he had followed that one teaching.
Because I had learned to trust him over myself, I believed him when he said I was bad. I believed I deserved his punishment. I began praying to Allah at this time because I believed only Allah could hear my prayers, forgive me, and help me be better. I carried the heavy burden of shame for what I had done. I buried my voice when he told me not to tell anyone what happened in our family because I feared being hurt if I did. I tried to live as normally as I could outwardly, but I always had a fear of him in the back of my mind.
My mother was going through her own problems and could not see me or what was happening to me. I believed I would protect her if I remained silent to what happened so he wouldn't take his anger out on her, or worse, so that protective services wouldn’t take me away from her.
From a young age, he told me I would marry a Muslim and someone from his family. So after growing up under his “care,” I felt I had a duty to do what he wanted: I was afraid to be punished if I didn't. The punishment for disobeying and trying to move out of my family home before marriage was being cut off from the family entirely. I had been taught conditional love, and what I feared most, even more than the beatings, was losing the love I was extended by doing what I was told.
Ever obedient, when I turned eighteen and my stepfather bought me plane tickets, I flew alone to Lebanon to live with my step-grandmother for the summer. There, I met my stepfather's cousin Oussama. I fell in love with Oussama.
After I met Oussama, I clung to Allah for guidance and help even more. I decided to dedicate my life to being a devout Muslim. I began wearing hijab and covering my hair and body even before our engagement was official. When Oussama traveled with his father to the US to become engaged to me, he was silent. He sat beside his father as our fathers negotiated my future: where I would go to college, who would pay for my education, where we would live, if I would work, and when I would have children.
After my marriage, I had a new man in my life whom I tried to please and serve: my husband. While I was loyal to Oussama, I quickly realized his childhood family values hadn’t changed: he had to be loyal to his father above everyone, including me. I was just an afterthought. As his wife, I was an extension of his prestige and family honor.
I was not free. But I felt safe. Growing up I was told over and over that I could not survive in the world as a woman or alone. I believed these things because my freedom had been taken away at such a young age. Because I was conditioned to be bonded to a male figure, I didn't know what true freedom meant. Sadly, because of my abuse, and maybe to survive, I believed my captors. They told me that I would be reckless if I had freedom, that I needed their protection, and that I couldn't make it without them. And, most terrifying to me, if I tried to be free, I would be alone and no one would love me. So I never trusted myself to be free. I abided by the rules my abusers laid out for me and worked diligently to maintain those rules and uphold my duty and sense of loyalty to them. I did this because I felt safer surviving under them than being abandoned.
My husband wanted me home whenever he was home, so I didn't often spend time with anyone else. I became so isolated that the only time I was able to get away and see a few female friends was on Sunday when we gathered at the mosque to read the Quran together. He made a big deal about me going, insisting I should do what he wanted, not abandon him for my friends. But I told him it was for Allah too: I was trying to gain knowledge, besides seeing a few friendly faces once a week.
Because I was very quiet and wore hijab, which made me look different from everyone else, few people talked to me at university. When they did, I had nothing much to say. How could I relate to them? They were going on dates or talking about a party they wanted to attend the next weekend. I was home in time to make dinner for my husband every day. They were figuring out who they were, who they wanted to socialize with, who they wanted to love, and how they wanted to live. Those decisions had already been decided for me. Besides, my time was taken up with studying enough between classes in order to be home by four o'clock so I could do the grocery shopping, then make three dishes for my husband to eat the moment he came home from work.
I dressed up for my husband and tried to do nice things for him. I got up early to make him breakfast. Still, he was not pleased. I didn't put enough salt in the food. I didn't clean behind the stove. One day he punched a hole in the wall because I went to my Muslim friend’s wedding and left him home alone. On top of that, when I got home, he was angry I had gotten dressed up for her and not him.
I desired a happy family, but I realized love was earned with my husband too. Part of me deep down knew that love had to be more than this. I wasn't to find out what love truly meant until I gave birth to my first daughter. Right after I graduated college, I got pregnant with my first child, just as my stepfather and father-in-law had decided during their engagement discussion. My stepfather had told me that my education was a “backup plan.” Since I had a husband, I wouldn't need to work; my job was to be a wife and mother.
The moment I saw my baby's face, I knew what unconditional love felt like. When I held her in my arms the first time, I cried and praised Allah. I knew no greater love. And although I had never received unconditional love, I knew I could provide it.
Less than a year after she was born, my husband wanted to move to the Middle East for work. He convinced me that he wasn't making enough money to provide for us and that I needed to support him. So we packed our things and moved to the United Arab Emirates. I felt that if I obeyed his wishes, he would love me for making the sacrifice to go with him.
Once we moved, I became more isolated than ever. I had no friends, no car, no job, no money of my own. Out of desperation, I took a taxi while Oussama was at work to apply for a job at an Islamic all-woman preschool. That way, I could bring my daughter to work with me and be able to work and see other women. He finally relented and let me work. And he didn't want me to be alone with a man in a taxi, so he got me a car.
Finding a slice of freedom by having a job, I thrived among the devout women with whom I had many things in common. But one day after working there for a year and successfully moving up to the position of manager, my daughter had a seizure at the preschool and was hospitalized. My husband blamed my wanting to work instead of remaining a traditional housewife for what happened, and I was forbidden from working again. I felt I had no way out. I was a prisoner. I had no purpose in life. I was so depressed that one night when I was alone in the apartment after I had put my daughter to sleep, I thought that maybe I should just jump out the fifteenth-story window. Praise God, shortly after those horrible nights, I found out I was pregnant. My love for the new life growing inside me, and for my first child, saved me from jumping.
My tiny slice of freedom had once again been snatched away. But something inside me decided I could do something. I could start a business from home. My degree in business wasn’t a backup plan, it was my plan. I didn't want to sit there looking pretty, I wanted to use my mind. I worked on the business plan every single day throughout my pregnancy. I continued to work on it after the birth of my second daughter between feeding and playing with my girls, changing diapers, cooking, and cleaning.
It took me three years to convince my husband to let me open my business. He promised I could open the business if I made another move with him to Kuwait after he lost his job in Dubai when his office closed. I obediently allowed the move, hoping and believing in his promise. Meanwhile, I had begun saving five to twenty dollars a week from the grocery money for my business. After the move, he discovered my savings and banned me from the privilege of grocery shopping.
I was under his constant watch. I didn't have my own money. I couldn't go where I wanted. I couldn't even buy something as simple as a coffee or pajamas without asking my husband. In an effort to maintain some sanity, I met with a therapist. When Oussama found out, he promised he would let me open my business if I didn't try to go back to the therapist or make him do marriage counseling.
I couldn't leave my home unless he approved it, so I created a home business that brought the world to me. People from all over the world came to my creative play center, where I taught parent and child classes daily on the lower levels of our building. I taught art, sensory, cooking, and phonics, then added music, gymnastics, ballet, and more. Three years into the business, I hired and led over ten women from many different faiths, ethnicities, and nationalities who all helped the business to thrive. Finally, the creative learning center was well known and the most popular place for families to come to learn and engage with their children. It was a dream come true. But all that time, no one knew my secret: the only way I was allowed to do this was if I gave all my earnings to my husband.
The best part of opening my business was that I began to believe in myself and the possibilities of what I could achieve in life. And even more amazing were the friendships I developed with the women who worked with me and who brought their children. I didn't go out with my new friends unless I told him, but one day I decided to go out without telling him. I went to a non-Muslim friend's house. She was one of the moms who attended classes at my play center. Because her husband wasn't home, I was able to remove my hijab, knowing no man would see my hair. I had a wonderful time with my daughters and my friends, but when my non-Muslim friend went to take a photo of me and my daughter, I ducked under the table so she wouldn't have a photo of me without my hijab on.
My youngest daughter, then five years old, looked under the table as I crouched so my image wouldn’t be captured and asked, "Why are you hiding?" I realized in her voice and eyes that I was in fact hiding. All the fear and shame from years of being told I wasn’t good enough for love, safely tucked away under my hijab, was keeping not only me from being free, but it would keep them from being free too. I realized that little girl who had been hit in the face and locked in a closet was now preventing my children from being free. And she would continue to do so if I kept hiding her pain away.
That's the moment unconditional love began to rescue me, and, in the end, it would set me free. Hiding so as not to be seen, led to being seen, and to seeing myself for the first time in my own truth outside the lies I had been conditioned to believe.
This was the turning point. It started with removing my hijab, an outward symbol that was also my first step to breaking free.
I stopped wearing hijab because I realized I had been hiding behind my veil in an attempt to cover my fear and shame. I started finding my identity again through art, journaling, and spending time outdoors rollerblading, all of which I taught my children to do alongside me. When we were confined to our apartment, I gave them markers to color on the walls. They drew a castle with a huge fire-breathing dragon guarding it. I drew swirls all over the wall: swirls of the future, swirls of a new way to look at life.
I was learning to be free mentally before I could be free physically. I knew I needed help, so to continue to expand my thinking beyond the control I was under, I started meeting with a therapist in secret by phone. The therapy gave me courage that I could stand up for myself and ask for what I wanted. When I told my husband I wanted a divorce, he told me he would never divorce me and that I had to listen to him. He said if I tried to leave the house without his permission, he would call the Kuwait police to bring me back, which they would do because I was his wife and he had the power. Then he threatened that if I tried to divorce him, he would take my children away to Lebanon, and I would never be able to see them again.
I was so afraid that if I tried to be free, I would lose everything I loved: the business I worked so hard to build, and, more importantly, the two small beings I loved unconditionally, my daughters. But I had to do something. Unconditional love meant that my children deserved freedom: the freedom to be loved, to make their own choices, and to live with autonomy over their own lives.
The only thing standing in our way was Oussama. Unfortunately, he held all the legal power. After asking again for a divorce, he used physical violence to try to control me. It worked, in that I felt broken. But that brokenness drove me to know that somehow I was going to get us out of Kuwait. I would have to leave my beloved business that I had worked so hard to build behind to save my daughters.
I called the American Embassy to help me get new passports since my husband kept ours from me, and I told them I was being hurt at home. They said there was not a safe house in Kuwait and that they could get me a passport the next morning so I could leave. But they informed me that they would need permission from the father to issue the kids’ new passports. I wasn't leaving without them. How would I get us out? I had no help.
One night while Oussama was out at the gym, I searched the house for the tenth time for our passports. If I could just get our passports, I could get to the airport and get back to the US. I found them, but left them in place in case he checked for them before he went to bed. When he returned home, I had to pretend everything was fine. Even while praying behind him that night as he led me. He didn't know the power I held in asking Allah to help a mother who loved her daughters enough to risk beatings or imprisonment so that they could know freedom. After he fell asleep, I snuck out of bed, got the passports, and hid them in the oven, the one place that was too below him to go: he had never once touched the oven in thirteen years of marriage.
Then I called my mother, finally asking for her help after all those years. I told her I had found our passports, so I needed help finding a flight out of Kuwait and back to the US. I had to get out the next day before he noticed the passports were missing.
After my mom purchased the tickets, I started to make a plan. In the morning, I made breakfast and packed the kids’ lunch bags, knowing they would never eat them because I was planning to go pick the girls up after their father dropped them off at school. I had to make it so our routine appeared the same so Oussama wouldn’t suspect anything. Then I kissed my girls goodbye, pretending everything was normal. When they left for school with Oussama, I printed out the plane tickets, packed a few small bags, and took some of the money I’d earned but had obediently given to my husband. I forged a letter allowing me permission to leave with my daughters because I couldn’t fly my girls out of Kuwait without Oussama’s consent. With the help of a friend, I picked up my daughters from school, faking that I needed to take them for doctors’ appointments. So my blonde hair wouldn’t raise any alarms at the airport, I put my hijab back on to match my passport photo. I had the kids change out of their school uniforms into plain clothes.
When I got to the airport, I knew I would have to have my fingerprint scanned in order to travel out as a foreigner, and I believed my husband had barred me from travel by placing a travel ban on me. My already racing heart was beating out of my chest as I approached the counter. By some miracle, when the gentleman at the airport asked me a question, he was so disarmed when I replied in Arabic and introduced my sweet daughters that he forgot to ask for my fingerprint, and he let me pass.
I got on the plane, but we weren’t free yet.
We had two more flights, with a twelve-hour layover in Turkey. During the layover, my husband alerted the police, and they found footage of us escaping at the airport.
So by the time we landed in Amsterdam, before our final flight to America, I had been reported missing. The security guard at the airport confiscated our passports and questioned me:
Why did you book the trip the night before, just twelve hours prior?
Why don’t you have any luggage?
Why don’t you have return tickets?
And where is your husband?
I showed him the forged letter giving me permission to travel to the US. I held my breath. If he alerted the international police, or held us and sent us back to Kuwait, I was facing imprisonment, beatings, and, most terrifying, the loss of my children. While all the other passengers were boarding the flight to the US that would leave in minutes, we were still being held. The guard looked me in the eyes when I told him I needed to talk to him. I thought that if I could just explain what would happen if he didn’t let me get on the plane, he would understand.
Instead, he read in my eyes everything I needed to say, then he said, “Wait here.” He returned with our passports and said, “Go.” I grasped the three passports in my hand, knowing the gate for boarding was about to close, and he said, “Get on the plane.”
I grabbed my daughters’ hands, and we walked out to board the plane. I was shaking as we found our seats, and I could hardly believe we were about to be free. When the plane took off, I knew life would be hard in the US; I would have to start over and rebuild my life without knowing how to do many things I had been kept from doing, things as simple as having a mailbox and receiving mail. The day we landed back in America, I promised myself I would never let go of my freedom and that I would raise my daughters to know the importance of living a life that's free. Their choice. No one would tell them who to marry, where to live, whether they could work or not, where they could go, or who they could be friends with.
Unconditional love was what set me on the journey of fighting for our freedom. I may have rescued my daughters, but it was they who rescued me first by giving me the ability to love so fiercely that I could find the courage to start a new life.
Now I am sharing my voice and story with others so we can free more women and call for their safety. I wrote a memoir about growing up Muslim in America that details how I escaped to finally be free called Hidden Calling: A Mother’s Courage Unveiled. I understand that my journey to freedom is powerful, and I want to help others; however, the abuse I endured does not define who I am.
Two years ago, I wanted to be part of my community here in the US like the one I created in my business in Kuwait. So I started an art business to teach children the joy and freedom of expression through art. Then I began to mentor women on how to open their own art studios. I did this so I could encourage women to have the power to start their own businesses, and they too could be financially independent, as I have learned to be. Now, seven years after my escape, and after turning forty, I applied to get my MBA and was accepted by a local university. My education is still the plan.
I am free to finally live the life I deserve and my children deserve. I fought for our freedom, and I will savor the joy the rest of my life. Every woman and child deserves to have their voice heard and to live the life they choose.
About the Creator
Alicia Thriver is an author, artist, speaker, and advocate for abuse prevention and awareness. Her upcoming memoir, Hidden Calling, follows her harrowing escape from the Middle East to protect her two daughters. More at: hiddencalling.com
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
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Original narrative & well developed characters
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