Zahra Haider
May 29 · 5 min read

When I was a kid, I loved going grocery shopping with my mother.

We’d excitedly peruse the large grocery store Carrefour in Dubai, but eventually, at some point, we’d both be distracted and separate. And whenever I’d realize she wasn’t nearby, I’d frantically begin searching for her. I was extremely anxious as a child (I still am) and I was very attached to my mother (I still am). My frantic searching would evolve into a severe panic attack. In the midst of my decreasing oxygen levels, I’d wonder if she wandered off on purpose. I genuinely believed she had left me and wasn’t going to come back.

As children, we don’t know any better.

In those few seconds, which always felt like an eternity — I truly believed I was unlovable, or at least capable of being abandoned. Eventually, once I could inhale and exhale at a normal pace, I’d make my way to the store announcer and ask her to make an announcement for my mother to come and find me. Of course, my mom would come running looking rather distraught herself. Hugging her after these moments of panic were some of the most memorable because it was a feeling of immense relief. I can recall the memory as if it occurred yesterday:

The person I relied on and loved more than anyone else came back for me.

When I was nine years old, my father took me back to Pakistan with him. My parents were in the midst of separating — my mother demanded a divorce, my father begged her to reconsider. Eventually, it was time for him to leave, and apparently, for me too. On our way out of the UAE, my father was detained by immigration officers at the airport. It was frightening and triggered my anxiety. I cried hysterically and was on the brink of a panic attack until one of the officers offered me his biscuits he’d been snacking on. At that moment, as a young, anxious and panic-stricken kid — past the panic and diving into my gut, I felt I may have been given a sign to remain with my mother. But instead, my father was fortunate and well-connected in the city and figured his way out of it. I was only meant to go for the summer, and my mother made me promise I’d return. I obliged because of course, I wanted to return to her. She was my best friend. However, by the end of the summer, I discovered I wasn’t going back to Dubai — and my entire life turned upside down.

I spent the next four and a half years of my life rebelling against my father, who was incapable of caring for a child, by posing as a pre-pubescent demon simply so I could see my mother. Generally quiet, I became loud, aggressive and spoke back for the sake of having the last word. I would throw tantrums, and things because I never felt he was listening. I felt deeply unheard. My requests to see my mother went ignored. My father needed to spite my mother by keeping her child away from her as a means of power and control. As someone who is deeply family-oriented, I loved my father — but every fibre of my being rejected the notion of wanting to please him and eventually, I figured, he would snap.

After four and a half years of rebelling, shouting, throwing and anything I could do to upset the man; he finally, begrudgingly, booked a return flight to Dubai so I could finally see my mother.

Before that, for years, nights were spent sleeping with one of my mother’s silk scarves — refusing to wash it in fear of her bergamot-infused perfume fading. I was angry, deprived of maternal affection and for years I held on to the recurring belief she didn’t love me — until I was much older and realized I wasn’t the only one who had struggled with trauma and sadness. She had, too. The Catch-22 of my entire childhood and young adolescence lies in my father’s actions; he took me, then gave me back. When I was sixteen years old, my father abandoned me. He didn’t want to father me anymore, after seven years of ensuring I remained under his care, without a choice in the matter. He grew tired of parenting a rebellious, moody and pubescent teenage girl. Shortly after my sixteenth birthday, he sent me back to permanently live with my mother. I was distraught. I felt I was once more, removed from a place I had established as a ‘home’ forcibly and against my own will. The fear of uncertainty and my anxiety took a swing at me again for a long time after.

My efforts seemed wasted. If the inevitable were to happen, why had I bothered fighting and rebelling my way through them? The truth is, I really missed my mother. And I found my father’s behaviour selfish and despicable. I’ve lost those years. Those years I could’ve spent with my favourite person. Simply out of egomania and a need for power and control. Aren’t these typically the root causes of our issues in the world? A decrease in altruism and empathy and an increase in desensitization, ignorance, and tyranny — doing the right thing has seemingly become an anomaly.

But the reality is the world has proven it permits the mistreatment and abuse of helpless and vulnerable beings — be it humans, children or animals.

And as children, we don’t have much control over our situations or external factors. Nor do we understand our emotions. And of course, unprocessed childhood trauma affects you as an adult. I have developed an inherent distaste for change and severe anxiety because of the uncertainty I was plagued with as a child. Me being separated from my mother (albeit in privileged conditions) is one thing — and the existence of child-separation policy with disgusting conditions was another. Neither of these things should have ever existed. Perhaps if an immigration law prohibiting a minor child from travelling with one parent, without written consent from the other was implemented at the time between Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates — inconspicuous parental kidnapping may not have been possible.

I can only imagine how frightened, uncertain and unloved the children of detainees must’ve felt, or any child who has been forcibly separated from their parents — and the amount of trauma they will have to cope with as young adults. The anxiety, the uncertainty, and feelings of helplessness surrounding events which are entirely out of our control. And it is unacceptable.

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Zahra Haider

Written by

writer with a focus on gendered societal practices, specifically patriarchy and women’s trauma in South Asia. based in Toronto. portfolio: zahrahaider.co

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