By Yasmine Koenig as told to Liz Welch
by Yasmine Koenig as told to Liz Welch
I was 6 years old when my two older sisters went to Palestine to “visit family.” At least that’s what my mom told me.
I was born in Chicago, like my sisters, but our parents are Palestinian, born in Jerusalem. I was four-months-old when our father died — he worked at a gas station and was shot during a robbery. After that, the four of us moved into the basement apartment of my mom’s mother’s house, where my sisters and I shared a room.
I worshipped my oldest sister growing up. She was rebellious and loved pop music and makeup, which my grandmother and mother couldn’t stand. We were raised Muslim, and while my mom didn’t make us wear hijabs — headscarves — to school, we did when we went to mosque on the high holidays. Every other day, we wore long-sleeve shirts and pants or knee-length skirts.
I don’t have too many memories of my sisters, but I do remember how much my oldest sister loved Usher. She was 13 and she’d sing along to his music on the radio in our room. She bought a poster of him, shirtless, and pinned it to the wall next to our bed.
He didn’t last long. My grandmother saw the poster one day and ripped it off the wall. She was screaming at my sister, and my sister yelled right back — she was feisty! But it didn’t matter; Usher was gone. And a year later, so were my sisters.
My mom said they were “going on a trip” to Palestine, but even as a 6-year-old, I’d heard rumors about a diary entry. Something about my sister kissing a boy behind a tree, or writing that she wanted to. I remember large suitcases and both of my sisters weeping as we said goodbye. I cried too, but I was more mad at them for leaving me. Who would I listen to the radio with late at night?
Still, I assumed they were coming back. So when my mother told me that they wanted to stay in Palestine, I got really upset. I missed them so much.
The only time I got to see my friends was at school.
In 8th grade, our class took a field trip to tour the high school. No one wore uniforms, like we did in middle school! I could even wear my skinny jeans there. Yep, as strict as my mom was, she did buy me skinny jeans that were super popular then. I remember being in the store and pointing them out and being stunned when she nodded yes, then paid for three pairs at the register. They were the only things I owned that made me feel like a normal kid.
But right before middle school graduation, I came home from school one afternoon to find my mother and grandmother rummaging through my closet.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
My mother was holding a garbage bag and my grandmother had scissors. They were cutting my skinny jeans into pieces and throwing them away.
I was so confused — she’d bought them for me! When I asked my mom why, she said, “They’re inappropriate and revealing. You’re too old to dress like this now!”
I was furious. All I had left were one pair of baggy jeans, which I hated. For the first time in middle school, I was relieved to have a uniform.
My mother was holding a garbage bag and my grandmother had scissors. They were cutting my skinny jeans into pieces and throwing them away.
As soon as I graduated 8th grade, I started pestering my mom about enrolling me in high school. Every time I asked if she’d done it, she’d say, “Not yet.” In July, she said, “I’m signing you up for an all girls’ school.” But there was a wait list, so then it was going to be online school. I even did my own research and had pamphlets sent to the house, but nothing happened.
By September, all of my friends had started school but me. I woke up every day at 10am and watched TV, cleaned the house, and helped make dinner. I was beyond bored. Meanwhile my mom loved having me around. She didn’t work, and always said that it was important for me to learn how to be a good housewife. I cringed every time she said that — that was the last thing I wanted to be.
In fact, I really wanted a job, even if it was just working at my step-dad’s gas station. Anything to get out of the house. I even asked my step-dad if I could get a workers’ permit, which you can get at 15 in Chicago, and he said, “Sure!” But just like with high school, nothing ever happened. It was another empty promise.
My laptop was my refuge.
Facebook was the only way for me to stay in touch with my friends. I made up a random name that my parents could never guess and chatted with friends throughout the day. If my mom walked into the room, I’d switch the screen to a video game. She had no idea. Earlier that year, when I told friends why I wasn’t in school, more than one told me, “That’s illegal!” I kind of knew I had the legal right to be in school, but wasn’t sure who to tell. My parents didn’t care — it’s what they wanted!
A year passed, and the following summer, I was chatting on Facebook with a guy I knew from middle school.
When he wrote, “Want to go to Chipotle this Friday?” my heart skipped a beat.
I was super excited and typed back, “Sure.”
I told my parents that I was going to see my 24-year-old cousin. She was the only person I was ever allowed to visit. She’s also incredibly cool and promised to cover for me. I met her at her house, and then she dropped me off at the mall and told me to have a great time.
I did! He was cute, and super nice. I told him that my parents were strict and didn’t even know where I was. He was like, “No worries!”
It was the most fun I’d had in over a year. At the end of our date, I told him that I’d be in touch over Facebook, and floated home.
The next night, I was in the living room watching TV when the doorbell rang. My mom answered, and I heard his voice ask, “Is Yasmine home?”
My mother started screaming, “Who are you and why are you at this house?”
He said, “I’m Yasmine’s boyfriend.”
I could see him standing in front of my mom, her back to me, and was trying to wave to him, like, “Go away! This is a terrible idea!”
She threatened to call the police, slammed the door, and then screamed at me: “Go to your room. You’re grounded!”
The next day, my mom went grocery shopping without me and locked the glass storm door from the outside, which meant I was trapped. For the next two weeks, I was literally kept under lock and key when she left.
And then one day, my mother said, “Pack your bags. We’re going to Palestine to visit your sisters.”
I’d only been there once when I was 10; I don’t even remember seeing my sisters then — all I remember is that it was dusty and dry. No green at all. I hated it. Plus, I speak only very basic Arabic, which is what they speak there.
I was dreading the trip. Saying goodbye to my little sister was painful — she was 8 by then. She was the only other person who knew, besides my cousin, about my date. I fought back tears and promised I’d be back soon.
My mom said we’d be gone for a month, but I didn’t trust her. On the way to the airport, I asked to see my return ticket. I wanted proof that it existed. She was indignant as she showed me the ticket, but it made me feel better.
My mother and grandmother and I landed in Tel Aviv, which was as hot and dusty as I remembered. I felt claustrophobic in the cab, which we took to Ramallah, the Palestinian capital. My grandmother has a house there, and both of my sisters lived nearby.
On the way to the airport, I asked to see my return ticket. I wanted proof that it existed.
I was so angry about being there that I wasn’t even excited to see my sisters. I couldn’t believe that they’d left me all those years before. Now, they were both married with kids. But by the end of that first evening, I relaxed with them. I even told them what happened with my Chipotle date, and they started teasing me, like, “You’re such an idiot! With a white guy? Really?”
They thought that if he’d been Muslim, I wouldn’t have gotten into so much trouble. I wasn’t so sure, but it still felt good to laugh with them about it.
About two weeks into our stay, my sisters sat me down and started doing my hair and makeup. I was never allowed to wear makeup at home, so I thought it was cool. When I asked why, they said they wanted me to meet a friend of theirs.
Their friend was in his twenties but still lived with his mom, which my sister called “a problem.” I didn’t understand what she meant by that.
He arrived with his mom and uncle and started speaking to me in Arabic. I barely understood anything except for his asking me how old I was.
I said, “I’m 15. I just finished 8th grade.”
He looked perplexed. So was I.
After he left, I asked my sisters what the meeting was about. They explained that the way to meet suitors is through families. When a family thinks a girl is ready to be married — usually she’s part of that decision — they pass word along to other families that they’re looking for a husband. The couple then meets through the parents, and if it is a good match, an arrangement is made.
A week passed, and once again my sisters sat me down and started putting makeup on me. They said that another guy was coming to meet me. When I asked, “Who?”
They said, “Don’t worry about it. Just have fun.”
The doorbell rang and in walked a guy with his parents. I’m 5’8″ and he was 5’4″, nine years older, and missing half of his front left tooth. Everyone seemed very eager. I was repulsed.
I sat stone-faced the entire time they were there. As soon as he and his family left, my mom and grandmother said that they thought I should marry him. They said, “He has a job and a house.” That’s all it took.
They said, “He has a job and a house.” That’s all it took.
I was furious. By then, I realized that they’d brought me to Palestine to get married and planned to leave me there. Instead of berating them, I immediately started thinking of ways to return home on my own. I had watched SVU. I knew this was totally illegal. I just needed to figure out a way to reach a detective in Illinois who could help me escape.
I also knew then that I couldn’t trust my sisters — anytime I complained to them, they’d just say, “It’s not so bad! You’ll learn to love him!”
He and I met two more times that week and each time, I hoped he’d figure out that I was being coerced. But then, during that third visit, all the men went into one room while the women stayed in another.
My sister, mother, and grandmother were chatting with his mother and sisters when I heard the men read the engagement passage from the Koran, which announces a marriage.
Startled, I said to my sisters, “What are they doing?”
My oldest sister said, “They’re reading the passage.”
I shouted, “No!” and fought back tears.
My worst nightmare was becoming a terrifying reality. I ran into the bathroom, curled into a ball, and dissolved into tears. How could my family do this to me? I thought about running away, but how? My mother had my passport. I had no money. I was stuck. I started thinking about different ways to die. Anything was better than this.
After his family left, I could no longer contain my rage at my mother. “How could you do this to me? I am your daughter!” I shouted. Tears were streaming down my face. I could see my mom was upset, too — she was crying, shaking her head. I think she felt bad about it, but she also felt like it was the best option. I felt so betrayed.
And just then, my grandmother marched into the room and slapped me. “Don’t disrespect your mother!” she said, before turning to my mother and saying, “See? She needs this. How else will she learn to be respectful?’
That’s when I learned that my grandmother had set the whole thing up. She’d met this man’s family at a mall the same week I met him! His parents owned a restaurant and spotted us shopping. They approached her to see if I was an eligible bride for their son. She told them yes, but that I had to be married before she flew back to the States. He had no other prospects, so they were excited I was one.
I never liked my grandmother, but I didn’t hate her until that moment.
The wedding was planned for September 30th, a week and a half away. I was still desperately trying to figure a way out of it. I told my mom, “I’ll find a way to leave.” She replied, “Either you marry him or someone way older who won’t be as nice.”
My sisters said the same. “You’re lucky.” As much as I dreaded what was happening, they made the alternative sound even worse.
A few days before the wedding, my oldest sister finally revealed that she was also married against her will. “I was kicking and screaming the whole way,” she told me. “But I learned to love him. You will too.”
I don’t remember the ceremony — everything is such a blur — but I do remember pulling away when he tried to kiss my cheek and my mother hissing, “Kiss his cheek!” I refused.
At the end of the wedding party, both of my sisters were so excited about my first night with him. They even said, “Text us afterwards!”
The first night was awful. The only thing I’m thankful for is that my husband was not a violent or aggressive man. It could have been so much worse. I get terrible migraine headaches brought on by stress, and I used them to my advantage in the weeks that followed.
He took that first week off of work and we spent most of it with his family. I did the best I could to tolerate being around him and his family while I tried to figure a way out of this mess. To do that, I needed to get on the internet.
When he went back to his job as a mechanic, he’d be gone by 9am. I’d get up, have breakfast and go to his mom’s house to help her clean and make dinner. She had a computer, so one day, I asked if I could use it to talk to my mother and she agreed. Instead, I logged onto Facebook and messaged a friend from 3rd grade and told her where I was and what had happened.
She wrote back immediately, “That’s illegal!”
Once again, I knew that, but I didn’t know what to do.
I had another friend I met through Facebook who lived in Texas. He was Muslim. I told him what happened, and he wrote, ‘You need to call the embassy!’ He even sent the number.
My heart was pounding as I wrote it in a piece of paper and shoved it into my pocket.
On October 14th, I was in our apartment in the afternoon when I finally worked up the nerve to call. I used the Nokia flip phone my husband gave me to talk to him and my sisters.
An American-sounding man answered the phone and I blurted, “I’m a U.S. citizen. My parents brought me here against my will to marry a man. I want to go home.”
After a moment of silence, he said, “Wow, this is a first. Hold for a moment.” He connected me to a man named Mohammed, who asked me for my parents’ names and address in the states.
I gave him all the proof I could think of that I was a US citizen. I didn’t know my social security number and didn’t have my passport. He said that was okay, but he needed proof that I was actually married. He asked for the marriage certificate. I had no idea where it was. Then he asked me for my husband’s last name, and I realized, I had no idea what that was either.
Mohammed told me he’d be in touch once he verified all my information. He called me several times over the next two months. During that time, I learned my husband’s last name, which was legally mine as well.
As I waited for news, I got lots of migraines.
On December 3rd, Mohammed called with the number for a taxi service and the address of a hotel. He told me to be there the next morning at 11am.
The next morning, I waited for my husband to leave and shoved all of my belongings — including the traditional wedding gold my husband’s family gave me — into my suitcase and called the number. That’s when I realized that I didn’t even know my address. I told the driver the name of the closest big store and then stayed on the phone with him, telling him when to turn right or left. He still couldn’t find me, so I ran down to the main street to flag him down praying no one would see me.
I held my breath for the entire 30-minute ride to the hotel. There, in the parking lot, I spotted a blond woman sitting with a guy in a black van.
“Are you with the US embassy?” I asked.
They said yes, and then she patted me down, explaining it was for security purposes, to make sure I was not strapped with any bombs.
I said, “Do whatever you need to do!” I didn’t care — I was so close to freedom.
When they put me in the back seat, I pulled off my headscarf and fought back happy tears: There, with these two strangers, I felt safe for the first time in forever.
We went to the US Embassy in Jerusalem where I spent the day filling out paperwork in order to enter into the foster care system back in the States. I had no idea what that meant other than from this one cartoon show called Foster Home for Imaginary Friends, but agreeing to enter foster care wasn’t hard — at least it was a new start.
That night, a diplomat accompanied me to the airport with two bodyguards, and I was placed on a plane to Philadelphia.
On my next flight, I flew from Philadelphia to Chicago O’Hare and sat next to a 20-something guy on his way to his friend’s bachelor party who asked me how old I was.
He said, “You’re too young to be on a plane by yourself!”
At O’Hare, I had twenty minutes to kill before I was supposed to meet two state officials in the food court, so I went to a computer terminal and logged onto Facebook. I had two accounts at the time: one for friends and one for family. I wanted to see what my family was saying.
A three-page letter from my second oldest sister was the first thing I read. She said she never wanted to see me again, that she hated me, and that if anyone asked her how many sisters she had, she’d say two instead of three. I was devastated.
Then I read a group chat between my two sisters, my mom, and my mom’s sister.
It started, “Yasmine ran away.” “What? Where?” And then someone wrote, “She’s ruining our reputation!” Not one of them wondered if I was okay.
My aunt asked if I had taken my gold. When my sister said yes, my aunt replied, “She could have gotten kidnapped or robbed!”
That was the only mention of concern for my wellbeing.
As painful as it was to read those words, it made me realize that I had made the right choice.
The people I then met in the airport food court introduced me to a woman from Illinois’ Child Protective Services, who took me under her wing. It was 11am, 24 hours after I ran for my life into the streets of Ramallah to escape my forced marriage.
I first moved in with a woman who fostered several kids, and stayed there for six months. It wasn’t ideal — she was very religious and made us go to her Baptist church with her on Saturday and Sunday. But it was still better than what I’d left. This was confirmed when I had to face my mother in court to establish that I should remain a ward of the state, which is what they call kids whose parents aren’t fit to take care of them.
The first court date was two weeks after I arrived. When I saw my mom, I froze. She was sitting in the waiting room and refused to acknowledge me. She didn’t make eye contact; it was as if I didn’t exist. I felt an awful mix of hurt and rage.
A few months later, I had to testify in a courtroom. My mom was there with her lawyer. He showed photos from my wedding and said, “You look happy! And your mom said that you wanted to be married.”
I had to explain to a room full of strangers that I was faking that smile to survive and that my mom knew the entire time that I didn’t want to marry that man. On the stand, I said, “My mom is lying.” That was so painful to have to say — I wept in front of everyone. All the feelings I’d kept inside just poured out.
After that hearing, I officially became a ward of the state of Illinois.
By then, I’d already started ninth grade. I didn’t like my foster mom much. I stopped going to church on the weekends, but she wouldn’t let me or my foster brother stay in the house alone so we were locked out until she got home every weekend and weekdays too. It was hard in the Chicago winter, but the agency didn’t think I was in immediate danger, so I stayed put. Teens are hard to place.
By January 2014, at 16-years-old, I’d been in and out of three foster homes. My strategy was just to survive foster care until I was 18, when I would finally be on my own. So when a couple called Carrie and Marvin came to meet me one weekend, I didn’t hold out any hope.
Carrie and Marvin had two biological teenagers, both with developmental delays. They understood kids and were super warm, but it still took me a while to open up. I really wanted to make it to 18 living with them, but I never dreamed what actually happened next.
When I hit my one-year anniversary with them, they asked me if I wanted to be adopted. I was shocked! I figured I’d leave at 18 and just be on my own — I never thought there was an alternative. But they told me that they wanted me around forever. I cannot tell you how good that felt — to be wanted, by an actual family. I said yes.
No more waking up at 6am to someone saying, “Pack your bags — you’re out!” For the first time in my life, I could put things up in my room and it was okay. It was the first time since being in that van with the people from the embassy that I felt safe.
I saw my mother one last time in court, at the final termination of parental rights. Carrie had asked her for childhood photos of me, and amazingly, my mom handed them to me there.
It was a cold exchange. She was expressionless. At first, I was insulted. It all seemed so easy, her giving me up. But it was really nice to get the photos. She didn’t have to do that.
Now Carrie has them around the house. It makes me feel like I’m really part of her family, like I’m her kid.
I finally reconnected on Facebook with my sister a few months ago, the one who’d said she hated me. She admitted that she wished she’d had the nerve to do what I had done. Now I understand why she was so upset: I got away. She didn’t.
I just graduated from high school — the first in my biological family to do so! In September, I’m going to Illinois State University and just learned that I won a full scholarship, which means my tuition will be waived for the next five years. I plan to study mass communications, and may want to do something with computers, considering they are literally what saved me.
Regardless of what I end up doing for a living, the thing that makes me the most excited is that I get to choose — what I want to wear, who I want to date, or even marry, and ultimately, who I want to be.