If Maria Could Overcome Her Past, So Can You
And she hopes her story will help
If you had Maria as your server or bartender, you might envy her bright eyes, pretty face, and confident stance. She is twenty-nine years old and very slight, but her vibrancy and enthusiasm defy her tiny stature.
Yet there’s so much more to Maria, more than you would ever imagine. I will spare you the most brutal details, although no one spared Maria.
I will tell you enough, so you’ll always remember:
Everyone you meet has a story, and you don’t know anything about it.
To chronicle the abuse Maria endured as a prisoner in her own home in Pakistan might make this story too much to bear. . . with incest, rape, beatings, and death threats. It was a life where you were most vulnerable at nighttime because you couldn’t lock your door, so anyone could come into your bedroom, and as Maria said, “do anything they wanted to you” and “no one would believe you”.
And when they finally did believe you, they tied you to a chair and “beat the shit out of you” for telling the truth.
No one likes to hear the truth when it reveals them to be the villain in the story.
Maria grew up, a brown girl in a strict Pakistani family living in New Jersey. Her father moved the family back to Pakistan so they could, in his words, “learn about their culture” while he stayed behind in New Jersey to work. Life in Pakistan quickly became increasingly unstable.
When she was nine years old, she saw her mom kissing one of their male cousins.
And then there were other men.
Without her father around, her older brother had free reign to come into her room at night and continue what he began back home in New Jersey.
Their household in Pakistan was devoid of rules until her father arrived for the occasional visit. Suddenly, everyone in the house arose early, was on their best behavior, and her mother’s male suitors were nowhere to be seen.
Maria lived in a world where wrong was right, and lies were the norm.
It was a life shrouded in secrets where you “didn’t know how to be with anyone” because if you couldn’t trust your own mother and brother, how could you trust anyone?
As a teenager, Maria found solace in her studies. Books and education became her life raft, and a place she could hide. Friends came easily because she was pretty and popular. . . and American.
But these peers were not friends to Maria. They were just people who liked her, but didn’t really know her. And the more people who were drawn to her, the more lonely she felt because no one understood her pain or knew her secrets. And if they did, how much would they like her then?
Maria retreated further into herself. Her father was absent, her mother didn’t seem to care, and her brother continued to sexually abuse her. She wasn’t able to sleep in her bedroom with its unlocked door because, “Anything could happen to me when I was sleeping.” She had nowhere to go, and no one to trust.
With the support and guidance of her uncle, Maria eventually went to medical school. There, she met the first man who she says, “liked me for me.” He would bring her food and flowers. He was kind, patient, and understanding. He would visit her at the hospital, and it was here that she could get a glimpse of a life beyond her home
With burgeoning confidence and a bit of hopefulness, Maria mustered the courage to tell her mother about her brother’s abuse.
“When I told her about my brother — she believed me. And then I got the shit beat out of me. My mother never missed a day to tell me how much she hated me — that I was never born — and wished I would die.”
It was as if her mother blamed Maria for her own loneliness and isolation, and soon after she set out to find Maria a husband. “She figured she could get paid to marry me off because I was an American citizen.”
One potential suitor asked for some privacy when he came to court her, and her mother agreed. At the time Maria was sick with a fever and feeling exceedingly weak, but she had no say in the matter. When they were alone in her room in a far corner of the house, it became readily apparent what he expected.
He bit Maria on the throat by her trachea so she wouldn’t scream, and when she didn’t comply, he bit her again on — this time on her stomach before he raped her. She fought him and ran out of her room — a wild look in her eyes — hair and clothes in disarray . Her mother asked without really wanting to know the answer, “Is everything okay?”
Everything was clearly not okay . . . but he replied, “Sure. Everything’s fine.”
But everything was not fine. While her mother began to make wedding plans, Maria retreated into herself. She didn’t see any way out. “I wanted to kill myself. I tried to overdose on antidepressants, but it didn’t work.” In her desperation, she somehow found the strength within herself to find another way out.
She decided she must leave Pakistan, and had a friend willing to help her do it. From her mother’s safe, she stole a gold jewelry set, her passport and social security card, wrapped it up and put it in her school bag. She sold the jewelry set, and bought a plane ticket to New York. Over the next two weeks, she took clothes to work instead of books, and he would add them to a suitcase for her.
If her mom and brother knew this friend was helping her, they would kill him.
She bought the plane ticket for the day she was scheduled to go shopping for her scheduled wedding reception. She stepped away with the excuse of looking for the bathroom. She had a burner phone, and she went out the back of the shopping place, grabbed a rickshaw, and went to the airport. Her friend met her there with the suitcase. He told her, “You deserve to be free.”
She was 23 years old.
When she arrived in New York, Maria slept on a few friend’s couches, and stayed briefly with her dad who eventually kicked her out for not following his rules.
She slept in her car for a little over a month — in the wintertime. She would park at an apartment complex behind a pick-up truck, and sleep under a pile of her own clothes to keep warm.
Maria is tiny. She was scared. She said, “When you can’t use your muscle, you use your brains.”
She spent her days at the library. She sent out resumes. She found a room to rent for $100 a week, with a landlord who agreed to rent to her without a security deposit or first and last month’s rent. She got a job in retail. And then as a hostess. And then at a massage studio.
She went on her first real date when she was 26. She fell in love. She describes it as “beautiful”. It helped her understand how lonely her mom must have been without her father. “Our dad sent her so far away to deal with everything on her own. She was alone. But how was that my fault?”
Maria loves listening to people’s stories. “It’s the reason I got into bartending, and why I’m trying to start my own podcast for motivation.” She also loves helping people. “There are people that are going through this is in some way or another. I want people to learn from my story.”
When asked about where she is going from here, she’s not exactly sure. “I can’t say anything about the future. I’m growing. It’s a beginning.”
Maria is a woman who has been able to find compassion for the mother who abused her, and for the man she is in love with but who is unable to commit. She is a woman who has found the courage to trust other people with her story in spite of living a life that cautioned otherwise.
When it likely would have been easier to wallow in self-pity and drown in an invisible chorus of “why me”, she chose to self-publish her own book, start her own business, and tell the truth. Her passion to share her story with the hope that it could help others is stronger than any of the forces that have tried to silence her. And she is not finished yet.
Maria is not defined by what happened to her. Instead, she has defined for herself what it means to be a survivor.
Maybe she will return to medical school. Maybe her bartending business will take off. Maybe she will write another book. But that is not what matters most to Maria. What matters to her is that perhaps her story will inspire one other person — show them that they too can rise from even the most unimaginable circumstances.
Maybe they’ll even tell themselves when they think they can’t go on, that they can — because Maria did.
This story was originally posted as a feature on the Streets of Philly Blog.