If you know about the recent Texas school shooting in America, it has left many of us shocked. Although school shootings in a different part of the world rarely concern us or make the headlines in our part of the world, this time it was on the contrary. A Pakistani exchange student, Sabika Sheikh was one of the ten students who was killed in the Santa Fe school shooting in Texas – a horrific act of terror that happened a few days ago. It has been a couple of days but I am still as disturbed as I was when I first found out about Sabika’s untimely demise under such terrible circumstances.
Since May is Mental Health Awareness month, I have been meaning to do a blog post on mental health for a while now. In the light of current events, especially with what happened to Sabika, writing this was more than needed for me to let out so much I have been holding on to for so long. By doing this, I hope to open up a conversation regarding mental health and its significance in our daily lives.
I did not know Sabika personally and neither did I know of her existence until she passed away. Then why was I affected so much by her death? I mean yes both of us had gone to the US as part of the same exchange program (YES), she almost a year ago and I almost a decade. She was preparing to come back to her family and friends in Pakistan after 10 months of being away just like I was around this time in 2009. However, as fate would have it, it was her lifeless body that came back two weeks earlier than June 7th, when she was supposed to come out of the Arrivals gate of Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, waving at her family. Why was all this disturbing me so much? I thought to myself. Well, one of the reasons I could think of was that all of us YES program participants consider ourselves one big family; so when one of us is taken from this world so brutally, it would definitely hurt.
However, there was something else too that had been the cause of my disturbance and that I realized when I came across the status update of a friend from India, who had also spent some time studying in the US. You see, news of Sabika’s death had led to the resurfacing of some bitter memories of my time in the US as an exchange student. Old wounds had suddenly become afresh as it was around the same time 9 years ago, I was severely hurt by people who I really cared about in America, people who I had considered family. And that’s the reason why such a traumatic event has disturbed me so much as it suddenly reminded me of my own trauma from so many years ago.
You see, for the past ten years, every time someone found out I got to spend a year in America as an exchange student, they would go like, “Wow, that’s so cool!” or “Wow, you got so lucky!” That would then be followed by me telling them all about the happy times of my exchange experience. But now in retrospect, I think instead of trying to tell those people what a wonderful time I had in America, I was trying to convince myself. Because in reality, even though I may have tried to take away positive things from my experience living in the US, deep down there are memories which have been haunting me for the past decade.
Most of these traumatic memories were of certain individuals who were responsible for mentally and emotionally torturing me during my time in America. One such individual was a woman named Marti Martino, who worked at AYUSA, the organization that was responsible for taking care of the exchange students who came on various exchange programs from different countries. Marti was the Area Coordinator and was in charge of finding host families for exchange students placed in her area. So when Marti got my profile, apparently she was so impressed with my English skills that she decided to host me at her own house, even though Marti was really looking for a French exchange student to host. This was because her own daughter was supposed to go spend the following year in France and they thought having a French exchange student might help her become ready for the upcoming exchange.
Enter Mathilde, the French exchange student who quickly became the center of attention in the Martino family while the little brown girl from Pakistan was made to feel like an outcast. The horrors I experienced at the Martino’s still give me nightmares and bring me to tears when I think about how I was treated there. There was not a day when I didn’t cry myself to sleep, that is on the days I could actually sleep. There were nights when I went to bed so hungry, I had to sneak out in the middle of the night when everyone was asleep and steal cookies from the kitchen pantry to relieve my hunger so that I could fall asleep. The responsibility of every host family is to provide their adopted exchange student with proper food and nutrition but there I was being grossly underfed. Or when I was fed, I was fed pork on the pretext of it being chicken. Once I was praying in my room as it was the month of Ramadan and Marti came and started shouting at me mid-prayer just because I had excused myself to my room for 5 mins while her brother’s family was over. She further went ahead to lodge a complaint against me for disrespecting her family by praying when they were over at the house and not when I would be out at the mall.
There was not an instance when I wasn’t made to feel like an outsider or excluded from family or group activities in punishment for something I didn’t even do. Every move I made was scrutinized, judged and questioned. When Mathilde lost $100, I was the only one who was questioned, my room was searched and I was branded a thief without any proof that I even stole that money. There came a time when the whole family stopped speaking to me and even if I tried to get involved, I would be shut out. On countless occasions, I was threatened by Marti that I would be sent back home and I had to cry and beg to her not to do that as I knew how much shame it would bring to my family in Pakistan.
I remember this one time I was invited to my best friend’s birthday party/sleepover and so were Meghan (my host sister) and Mathilde. However, Marti gave permission to the other two to go to the party and not me. Disappointed, I texted my friend, Savannah that I wouldn’t be able to make it to her birthday sleepover. We then made an innocent joke that my situation resembled that of Cinderella’s where the two sisters are allowed to go to the party while one was told to stay home. Several hours later at 5 am in the morning, I was woken up by Greg, Marti’s husband from my sleep, taken to the kitchen and was accused of calling his wife, Marti a wicked stepmother. You see, the previous night as the clock struck 8, I was supposed to go put my cellphone in the kitchen and little did I know that Marti would violate my privacy by going through my text messages and blowing them completely out of proportion. As a 16-year old, not even in my wildest dreams I had imagined that an innocent comparison about my situation would be used to bully me the way I was.
The worst of it all was that I was only permitted to talk to my family back home once a week for an hour, on Sunday morning from 9 to 10 am. God forbid, if I ever overslept a bit, or the electicity back home was out or the internet wasn’t working, I would have to wait for another whole week to talk to them. I tried really hard to suppress my tears while talking to my mom because I didn’t want her to worry about me more than she already did. This went on for three months until a kind lady, Marti’s partner at work, Nedra (may she rest in peace) noticed how I was being treated by Marti and her family. She found me a new host family and I thought finally my days of crying myself hungry to sleep and being mentally tortured everyday were finally over. And they were. For a while. My new family, the Arnolds welcomed me with open arms and I quickly fell in love with them. They treated me so well and I felt so loved in their home that what happened towards the abrupt end of my stay with them has left a permanent metaphorical scar on me.
You see, the Arnolds introduced me to their extended family as well and one of them was my new host dad’s brother, my Uncle Bill and his family which comprised of his beautiful wife, Anne and their two kids. After meeting me and finding out where I am from, both Uncle Bill and Aunty Anne to my pleasant surprise showed a lot of interest in my Pakistani culture, unlike my new host family. They would cook Pakistani food at home, take me to Pakistani restaurants so that I could have a taste of food from back home every once in a while and generally were extremely kind and affectionate towards me. I also grew fond of my host dad’s old father, who we all called Granpda Arnold (may he rest in peace). Grandpa loved me like one of his own and we became really close; so much so that I was closer to him than any of my other paternal or maternal grandparents back home.
And that’s the mistake I made and ended up paying for it – for loving people who were kind and affectionate towards me and wanting to spend time with them. Nine years ago, on Memorial Day (which is celebrated on the last Monday of every May), something happened that I still cannot make sense of. Since it was almost the end of May and my time with the Arnolds was about to come to an end in about two weeks’ time, Uncle Bill and Aunty Anne requested my host dad to let them take me out to dinner one last time. Suddenly, in the middle of the dinner as we were laughing and eating, Aunty Anne got a call from my host mom. I think I heard loud screaming coming from the other end of the phone. I still don’t know what she said to her but it was terrible enough to make Aunty Anne leave the table and cry profusely outside the restaurant. That scene is still so vivid in my head like it just happened yesterday.
Aunty Anne was told to have me dropped home immediately and they did. When I reached home, it was around 10 pm and the lights were out and everyone had retired to bed. I, too went to bed and figured my host parents would have a conversation with me about what happened that night the following day. I woke up the next day, went to school and when I was in second period English with Mr. Folsom (my favorite class and teacher), I received a note and I was told to gather all my books from my locker and go to the school front desk. I was utterly confused but I did as I was told and upon reaching the front desk, found my host mom waiting for me. I was told that I was being pulled out of the school and that I could no longer live with them. My host mom said that Marti was coming to pick me up in an hour or two so I needed to pack all my stuff and leave.
I cannot tell you how much it hurt at that moment that this was what I deserved for loving these people, calling them my family, calling them mom and dad for the past six months. After all that time, what I deserved was to be kicked out without any explanations, without saying goodbyes to anyone. And for what?? For spending time with people who loved me and were kind to me? And what was worse is that after I was thrown out by the Arnolds, for two weeks my parents back home had no clue about my whereabouts as nobody had bothered to inform them. Worried sick, my father (may he rest in peace) wrote to my host dad enquiring about me. Following is the screenshot of the response he got:
For the longest time, I didn’t know the existence of this email. When I found out that my host dad had sent this email to my father, my heart broke into a million little pieces. I was unable and I am still unable to understand how a 16-year old girl can be held responsible for all that I have been accused of in the email above. And even if there were some grievances the Arnolds had from me, did I not deserve to be sat down and had a conversation with instead of being thrown out the way I was? And what hurt the most was that even after I left, there were accusations that were leveled against me. I was once again accused of stealing my host brother’s money, of my host dad’s mint coin collection and God knows what.
All these years, I kept thinking, why me?? And even though I still don’t have the answer to that question, all I know is that “with all the experiences I’ve had in the US, I don’t feel mentally or physically ready to put myself through even a single day of that anxiety inducing atmosphere / society / culture, again. And I don’t know if I will ever be ready.” This was written by my friend on her experiences in the US as a brown girl in her status update, and I couldn’t have said it any better so I chose to quote her, while keeping her identity anonymous.
These ugly experiences during my time in the US have affected my mental health so much that I still have nightmares about them. I have kept all this inside of me for almost a decade but the recent events couldn’t stop me sharing my story. Mental health is as real as physical health and equally important if not more. I know because I have been battling depression and anxiety issues for a long time and the traumatic experiences I had in the US only made them worse. I recently started therapy and it has given me hope that things can get better.
By sharing this story through this blog post, I hope to reach out to the people I have mentioned whose actions and behavior towards me all those years ago had such a lasting impact on my mental health. Some of these people I have forgiven while some of them I still haven’t. Sharing my pain and talking about it is the first step on the road to forgiveness. Furthermore, I also hope to start a conversation regarding the unfair treatment of people of color by white Americans, even if it is unintentional. I would also like to point out that it is never too late and getting professional help if you are sad or depressed is completely okay and in fact super helpful! And last but certainly not the least, this is a general appeal to people out there: please be aware of what you say or how to treat others as even the smallest of acts can have a lasting impact on someone’s life.
Thank you for reading.
Love & Light,
Edit: Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t speak up earlier or report these incidents while they were happening or later. I was very young at the time and the fear of being sent back home instilled by my Area Coordinator (which would result in a lot of shame for me and my family) had me quiet during my year in the US. Furthermore, since she herself was quite powerful and high in the ranks in the organization she worked for, I was afraid she might twist the narrative and get away. But most of all, it took me a very long time to make sense of the abuse I had to undergo as for the longest time I would blame myself for a lot of things that happened to me. This was mostly because my own father did not support me and when I came back, he said, “tum apna moo kaala kar k aayi ho wahan!” (You’ve blackened your face and brought us shame in America!) When your own people don’t even listen to your side of the story and do victim blaming, that’s when you lose all hope. When I stopped blaming myself for all that happened with me, that’s when I had the courage to break my silence.
Edit 2: After reading my original post, some people have raised some valid concerns and understandably so. From the timing of my blog post, it can be assumed as was by a few people that I “chose” to write all this to “cash in” on Sabika’s death and gain attention. While I understand why it could look that way to some people, I assure you all who share this concern that I didn’t “choose” this sensitive time to share my story; rather the time chose it for me. And I certainly did NOT choose to share it to cash in on that sweet little girl’s death. In fact, it was her death, a traumatic event for all of us agreeably that made me trigger and I had a complete breakdown yesterday to the point where I was in a lot of emotional pain. I completely agree that this time is about Sabika and I have no intention of maligning the YES program or anyone through my blog as I have pointed out earlier while sharing this post. Neither have I suggested that Sabika’s death was racially motivated and if it came across to some of you as such, I hope to set the record straight. This blog only came to be because recent events (Sabika’s unfortunate demise) triggered the trauma I faced during my time in the US. Again, I repeat, this is no way means that the abuse I faced is in any way comparable to that little girl’s death. They are two completely different issues; the only connection they have for me is that it took an unfortunate event like this to trigger a breakdown as memories of my own trauma came flooding back and all I could do was write about it in order to cope. Thank you, nonetheless, for your feedback. I understand how my post at a time like this might have come across to some of you and it’s completely understandable. I am glad that those of you who felt this way voiced yourselves so I could set the record straight about any misconceptions my post may have given rise to. Thank you for the love and kindness again.