This is the story of Lilly A. – my own daughter.
She is the epitome of mental toughness and inner strength,
and I’m extremely honored to know her.
She is so humble, meek, and private, however, that I have chosen to tell her story without using her real name or photo.
Please don’t let that detract from the vastness of her incredible magnanimity.
20 years ago, a beautiful, plump baby girl made her entrance into our world.
I named her Lilly.
It was nothing spectacular, really.
She came into the world just like any other baby – except instead of crying, she immediately smiled.
Her big, brown eyes locked onto mine, and in an instant, I knew she was going to stand apart.
The indescribable, intense love that motherhood brings flooded my body and soul.
I looked straight into her big, brown eyes, and I whispered my promise to her:
“I will do anything and everything within my power to make sure you are safe and loved for the rest of your life”.
Little did I know that, a mere 6 years later, I would break that promise.
In a big way.
I’m American, but I married a man from the Middle East.
When Lilly was just 6 years old, her father defied custody orders and kidnapped her.
She was held in his native country, and despite every effort possible, I could not get her back home to America.
Parental custody issues happen every day to thousands of people, though, so why would this be a big deal?
Let me attempt to give you a tiny glimpse.
In just one day, Lilly’s world was turned upside down and inside out in ways you can’t even imagine.
First, she lost her mother.
Can you imagine the terror that consumes a 6-year-old when, one day, the mother she has spent 24 hours a day with – for her entire life – is suddenly just gone?
She went from living in a free land – where she could express herself freely, wear shorts and swimsuits, sleep over at her friend’s house, and participate in activities like Girl Scouts and sports teams – to instantly being forbidden from doing any of those things.
Not only was she no longer allowed to say what she thought (“children should be seen and not heard”), but she was set down in the middle of a land where no one spoke her language, other than her father and a few of his relatives.
Suddenly, everyone around her was speaking a foreign language she had never heard before. She couldn’t understand them, and they couldn’t understand her.
It’s extremely scary for a little girl.
She couldn’t communicate to anyone except her father, and he wasn’t interested in hearing anything she had to say.
She was a vegetarian one day and the next, she was forced to eat meat and strange food full of strong spices.
She left an open environment where she was encouraged to freely express her true feelings –whether positive or negative – to one where she was commanded to stay silent and keep everything bottled up inside.
One day, she’s Christian. The next, she’s told she must study the Koran and become a devout Muslim. There is no choice. There will be no discussion.
One of the most traumatizing events, though, was the physical discipline. At her mother’s house, it was always hugs, laughs, and talking through feelings and problems. The new environment, however, was pure physical and mental abuse, all day, every day.
It was a phenomenally tough situation for an isolated 6-year-old to cope with.
A Country in Turmoil
While some Middle Eastern countries are wealthy, Lilly’s new country was (and still is) one of the poorest countries in the world.
Electricity was sporadic. She never knew when it would come on, or how long it would last when it did come.
Do you know what it feels like to lay in bed in the pitch darkness and feel scared at 3 am?
You want to turn the light on. You want to look and see if there’s a monster in your room or figure out where that noise came from.
Without electricity, though, you can’t.
So, you lay in bed and pull the covers over your head, shivering with terror.
There’s no mom to run to. No one here will hug you and tell you it’s going to be okay.
The vast majority of this country’s population lives on less than $1 a day, and the rigors of poverty, illness, and starvation are evident everywhere.
4 years ago, however, the bad grew worse.
A rebel group came down out of the mountains and overran the country. The president and government officials fled.
Suddenly, the electricity stopped altogether.
The money was pilfered, the ports were blocked, the airports were bombed and subsequently shut down, and the country’s populace lost access to basic food and medical care.
For the past 4 years, bombs have been dropped day and night on innocent people. Children die in the streets, and most of the country is now starving. Thousands are dying.
It’s a dire situation, to say the least, and no escape is available. The airports and shipping ports have been shut down. And the rebels rule through fear and violence.
Driven by Persistence and Hope
Lilly is all grown up now, though. She’s endured 14 years in this country.
What is she like now?
Let me tell you because that’s the amazing part…
There are no libraries, no books, no Amazon, and no electricity.
However, her father’s family installed a solar panel, so they generate their own electricity for a couple hours during the day.
Lilly takes full advantage of it!
There is one old laptop computer in the house that everyone must share. Every chance she gets, she gets online to learn something new.
She has an insatiable thirst for knowledge.
The rebels have blocked access to nearly all websites. You can’t even access Gmail without a proxy.
But, Lilly finds a way.
She is not permitted to go outside very often, so she makes writes a daily schedule for herself. She makes every hour of her day count (when she’s not made to do chores, laundry, dishes, cooking, cleaning, and other stuff).
From the little bit of time she’s able to access the Internet, she has taught herself Japanese, French, and German. She taught herself to make websites.
She reads and studies a wide variety of topics, especially copywriting, philosophy, and business.
She has taught herself so much – without access to books – that I’d bet everything I have on the fact that she is more “educated” than a typical college junior in America.
Then there’s exercise.
She wanted to run, but girls in that country do not run. It’s not “ladylike”, and it’s not allowed. There are no gyms. There are no facilities for girls to go to for recreation. There are no weights or other exercise equipment, either.
She schedules exercise into her daily schedule, though!
She practices yoga and can do a full split. She does HIIT routines in the small bedroom she shares with her siblings. Her resolve and persistence are stunning.
I, myself, wake up daily and say “I gotta exercise today!”, but too often, I don’t “get around to it”.
Lilly, however, does it day in and day out, with no support, no equipment, no instructional books, and in spite of all the prohibitions put upon her due to “culture” and “gender”.
She inspires me.
Mental Fortitude Prevails
The family members she lives with now will not permit her to make her own decisions.
She wanted to go to college to study engineering or architecture. That was forbidden.
She wanted to cut her hair short. That was forbidden.
That’s tough, mentally.
Imagine for a minute that you are a 20-year-old adult, but you are not permitted to decide whether you can cut your hair!
That’s her life.
The hardest part, however, is the constant verbal abuse.
The people around her have been trying for years to break her spirit. The idea is to break her, so they can re-build her into what they want her to be.
What does that look like?
Every day, members of her family attack with words. They use words like a knife. They jab, then jab again 30 minutes later in the same spot. Then again, and again, and again….all morning, all afternoon, and all night.
It’s “You’re stupid!”, “You’re so selfish”, “You can’t do anything right”, “You’re so bad”, “You disgust me!”.
And there are plenty of actions to go along with the word attacks.
After a while, it gets to you.
I’m sure you understand, because it’s happened to all of us at some point.
But she has no outlet, other than journaling. There are no friends, no one to commiserate with. Nowhere to get away to in order to just to sit and think.
And sometimes, it becomes too overwhelming.
She Could Succumb
She could just give up on her ideals, her dreams, her desires, and her beliefs.
She could let go of herself to become the “puppet” they want her to be.
But she refuses.
Every day of her life, she fights back – silently.
She can’t speak out or act out, and sometimes she gets depressed. But she refuses to stay depressed for more than a day.
She will not accept their judgments and opinions of her as truth.
She uses affirmations and mantras to tell herself that she is worth something; that she is good.
Can you imagine the strength required to survive such a situation and still stay true to yourself?
Do you know what it’s like to be attacked repeatedly on all sides for years on end, day in and day out, but still secretly cling tightly to your hope, optimism, and dreams?
It would be much easier to give up:
- Forget the studying – what’s the point? I’m not going to ever be allowed to use what I learn.
- Forget the optimism and hope – I’ll just embrace the despair I feel inside and quit railing against it.
- Forget my dreams of traveling the world. – Get real! I’m not even allowed to leave the house!
- Forget the exercise routines – I’m tired of trying to work at it every day when they’re always telling me to stop.
- Maybe they’re right. Maybe I am just a stupid idiot who can’t do anything right.
- Maybe I should just believe what they believe, act like they act, think like they think, do what they do. Maybe I should give up my own identity to become what they expect me to be. That’s what they want, after all. Life would be less hostile then.
That would be a lot easier than waking up each day to fight the fight all over again, wouldn’t it?
But, she doesn’t.
She’s a fighter.
She’s a survivor.
She’s my inspiration.
And that’s just a small part of why she’s my hero.