I grew up in what I thought was a typical family for the first 15 years of my life. I was born in the United States to religious Muslims from Palestine. When I was 6, my two older sisters were told they were going on a vacation to Palestine to visit family. When my mother told me that they decided they wanted to live there, I was upset and I missed them, but I accepted that’s what they wanted.
I went to school until eighth grade, but my mother never enrolled me in high school. Then, shortly before my 15th birthday, I was asked on a date, and lied to my parents to go. They found out and after two weeks of lockdown, my parents insisted that we go to Palestine to visit my older sisters. We left on the 27th of August 2012. A month later I was forced to marry a 25-year-old man I had only known for two weeks. The day after the wedding, my parents returned home to Illinois.
He worked from 9 to 5, and I would spend my mornings cleaning our house and watching MTV Arabia. Around 2 pm I would go a block away to my mother-in-law’s to help her clean and cook dinner. There I would ask to use my sister-in-law’s laptop to “talk to my mother.” In reality, I was on Facebook communicating with friends back home. One advised me to call the U.S. Embassy. Being a sheltered 15 year old, I didn’t even know what an embassy was. But on October 14th, I called the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, and together we planned my escape.
In the extremist Muslim culture, a woman can barely leave her house without her husband. Before the marriage, my grandmother warned me if I ever tried to run I would be killed, but I didn’t believe her. If I had known that the various stories she told me were true, I’m not so sure I would have fled.
On December 5th, I risked my life by calling a cab and meeting U.S. diplomats in a hotel parking lot. It was nerve-wracking—my driver asked me multiple questions because I was on a cell phone speaking English to an Embassy representative. I wasn’t sure if I was headed in the right direction, or whether he would actually take me to the hotel. I was so relieved when I finally got there, paid my driver and got into the Embassy’s car. That night, I was on a plane back to Illinois where I was put into foster care.
While I was a ward of the Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS) I lived in four foster homes. Each one was a safe place to sleep and better than my original situation, but my first three foster parents were very unreasonable. The first had a lock on the pantry and only she had the key. Most nights, we were left to feed ourselves Ramen. Other nights she was at church until 10 or 11 at night, leaving my older foster brother and I locked out in the winter without a key.
My second foster parent was wonderful for the first few months; she helped me with homework, encouraged me to do well in school and get a job, and we ate dinner together every night. Then, in the blink of an eye, she woke me up early, told me to “pack my shit” and go to the neighbor’s house. I never found out why.
My next foster mom was an older woman, and I was the only child. She was very religious; she said she did not trust me alone in her house but also did not want me out with someone she didn’t know. She forced me to go to church with her, then kicked me out because she couldn’t live with someone who didn’t believe in the same things.
Then I moved into my final home. This family laid down their reasonable ground rules and welcomed me with jokes, laughter and food. Carrie and Marv, who adopted me at 18, are very understanding. Like every teenager, I’ve had my fair share of rule breaking. They didn’t threaten to kick me out. Instead, they treated me as one of their own children and grounded me — which I didn’t like, but was much better than the alternative!
Besides them, the only people I felt truly supported me were my Guardian ad Litem (GAL) and my therapist. They gave me advice about everything from boys to tolerating my foster parents. They encouraged me, telling me that one day I’d be a successful young woman.
Overall, I’m glad I entered DCFS. It changed my life for the better. I found an amazing home, with amazing parents, even if it took me over a year and three foster homes to find it. To any foster child going through the system, your GAL, therapist and caseworker are all there to advocate for you. But make sure to speak up — they can’t help you if they don’t know how you feel. Whether or not the system manages to find you great foster parents, you still have the potential to do great things. You have so much life experience. You’ve already been through the worst — it can only get better from here.
Published on May 31, 2016 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.