Please do not republish anywhere without my expressed consent.


I have gone over how to begin this story in my head a million times over the past 9 years.

I was 15 when my mother first sat down in my room to ask me a question. “How would you like to take a vacation out of the country with me?” A sheltered, shy, insecure teenage girl, I wanted nothing more than to see the world. I immediately said yes. But then she told me why she wanted me to take this trip. “You have all of these cousins back home. Their lives are very hard, they don’t have it like you in America. I need you to come with me to get married, so you can give them a better life.”

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I was horrified at the thought. “NO! GET OUT OF MY ROOM!” I shouted at her. She got up, and with a pained smile, told me she was just joking and left. We didn’t speak about it again for years.

***

I graduated high school but didn’t immediately go to college. Instead, I worked full time and moved into my first apartment with a friend. I could lie and say I was saving up, but I was 18 and honestly had no real concept of money. Everything I made, I spent. I was lured in by credit cards with sky-high limits, it was free money and I felt justified in spending it because I worked 60 hours a week. Growing up with gambling addicts, all I knew of money was that when you win big, you spend big. I suffered major health problems. I coped with the stress of my health problems by spending even more.

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Eventually, I grew tired of my post-high school life working at a convenience store. I knew I couldn’t be a shop girl forever, so decided it was time to enroll in college. I got into my dream school and was offered a generous grant to attend. But the grant didn’t cover everything, even student loans couldn’t make up the difference. So I had to keep working part-time in order to pay for the remainder of my tuition and books, eventually I moved back home. I struggled in school for a while but managed to maintain good grades. I shuffled registration schedules to figure out the best way to complete school as quickly as possible. I tried finding jobs that paid more than minimum wage to keep me afloat.

Meanwhile, my parents had purchased their own business, a shop about 10 minutes away from my school. They also decided to purchase a large house in the suburbs, minutes from the casino and race track. While they never discussed their money problems with me, the writing was always on the wall with them. I was in college supporting myself, I knew they had no money to help.

One day in their shop, they cornered me into having a discussion about money with them. My mother, aware that we were always at odds with each other, had my father do the talking. “We see how much you struggle with paying for school, and how you are trying to keep up with work. And we know you have hospital bills and credit card bills. Your cousins are all the same age as you and they are living comfortably, and we want the same for you.” There it was, they brought it up again. “You don’t have to leave the country to do this, there is somebody here already that needs to stay in the country. It will be easy, and he will pay your debts so that you can finish school.” I told them wouldn’t do it, and then left their shop.

As I left, my sister called. My sister, 8 years my senior and who I had worshiped as a kid. My sister, who ran away from home at 17 while I was asleep in her bed. My cousins told me that she ran away because she didn’t want to get sold into marriage, but I never believed them. She disappeared from my life for 7 years, until she was spotted by a relative with her husband and child. She reconciled with my parents soon after.

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“Hey, so I heard you talked to mom and dad,” she said. I told her what they wanted me to do, and how much I didn’t want to go through with it, hoping she of all people would understand me. “Look at this another way,” she advised, “you would be doing something good for someone else. He doesn’t have a good life at home. This is a charitable act, you are helping out somebody in need.” After hours of discussion, she wore me down. I said I would do it, hoping for dear life that it wouldn’t actually happen.

The next day, my father brought home this man. He was baby-faced, my sister’s age, and didn’t speak a word of English. I hated him on sight. He was visibly nervous, and I did not handle things well. I ran off and cried in my room, only to have my mother come in and scold me for causing a scene. She told me I committed to it, and that it was too late back out. I would be ruining his life and wasting everyone’s time. So I sulked and sat silently while they discussed plans. It was then that completely emotionally shut down.

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A week later, they called me and told me to visit them at their shop after I was done with classes. They had more things to discuss with me. So I showed up, not realizing that this was my wedding day. In a pair of jeans with holes in the knees, wearing a hoodie with the name of my school emblazoned across it, I was driven to a temple and stood completely dead inside as I was rushed through a ceremony.

It was not long after that when we had our first meeting with INS. My father accompanied us to the meeting, pretending to be his interpreter, which was a poor ruse as my father’s English was hardly better than his. I was called in first and asked questions. The agent didn’t have to dig very deep to strike a glaring mistake. She asked what I knew about his past relationships, and I said not much. She asked me if he had any children, and I said no. It was then that she informed me that he was previously married, and the woman to which he was married was pregnant at the time. He was deported once before. I panicked and started crying. I knew I was caught.

“Why are you crying?” she asked. I knew I had to think quick. “He never told me,” I said, which was technically the truth. She continued to pressure me into telling her that this was a sham, but I was so terrified of everything that I just kept repeating myself and crying. She warned that the maximum sentence for immigration fraud was 5 years and $250,000. If I told her everything, I ran the risk of jail time. If it wasn’t me, it would have been my parents. I could never live with myself for sending my own family to jail, no matter how much I resented them.

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They brought up the discrepancy in the interview paperwork. During his interview, he lied and said that I knew about the pregnant woman. Then, he backtracked and said I didn’t, and that it was in the past and that it wasn’t relevant to our relationship. This was a huge mess, and I made it clear again to my family that I wanted out.

Instead, he appealed. I eventually dropped out of school, no longer able to afford to attend. My parents had intercepted any money they said would go to me to cover their own debt. They had to sell their failing shop and used whatever money he gave them. The more lawyers he went to for this appeal, the more I suffered. Agents showed up to do housing inspections, my parents rearranged their bedroom and told me to pretend that it was ours.

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I grew paranoid anytime I saw cars parked outside for too long that I didn’t recognize. I was hiding from everyone. My independent adult life was hidden from my family. My abusive family life was hidden from friends, my marital status was hidden from the world, and my non-marital status was spent hidden from the government. For the longest time, I felt like no one would ever know the real me.

I grew increasingly depressed and irritable towards everyone. My coworkers remarked on how I went from having a new date every week to not dating at all. I couldn’t tell them the truth. I started telling close friends, awkwardly wedging it into conversations. It was the only way I could explain the sudden shifts they all saw in me. While they were all concerned, most of them stayed out of that part of my life entirely. The last thing anyone wanted, or I wanted for anyone, to get caught up in this horribly tangled web and have to answer for me.

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My parents’ big suburban house went into foreclosure, and I was finally able to move away from them. This posed a problem as we were living at the opposite ends of the house, and they still wanted me to keep up the appearance of being married for his appeal. He rented out a two bedroom apartment, but I refused to move in. They eventually relented after hours of arguing, and allowed me to move into my own place. But I still was not allowed to move out of state because it would raise a red flag on the paper trail they were building. So instead, I had to make frequent trips for lawyer visits and pretend I lived there.

I spent hours at my parents’ house, crying and begging for them to please just let me get divorced. They would wait me out, get me so exhausted that I would do anything just to not deal with it anymore. He would show up at my place and pound on the door to beg me to cooperate while I hid in my bedroom with the lights off and all of the doors locked. My mother would bring people over to my place, extended relatives, and have them tell me I was being selfish and that if I only cooperated this would all have been over. I was harassed every few months to sign some papers, go to court appearances, meet with lawyers. I was bribed with gas money, grocery money, whatever it took to get me to get me to show up, even if it meant I was a hostile bitch the entire time.

My relationship with my sister was irreparably damaged. Every time I would cry and beg to be done with all of this, my parents would call her, and she would talk me back down over the phone. “You don’t know what it’s like, until you’ve had a child.” she’d say, as if parenting, debt, and forced marriage go hand in hand. Eventually, she said she no longer wanted to talk to me about this topic because it was so stressful. We tried having normal conversations about our lives, but it was impossible to talk about anything else with the elephant in the room. We eventually stopped talking altogether, I had lost my sister all over again.

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After trying my hardest to move on with having a normal adult life and pretending that I wasn’t living a complete lie, I felt comfortable with trying to date again. Eventually, I met someone, and I thought I was happy. My parents had moved out of state, and the bureaucracy of immigration court had slowed down. For a while, I felt wonderfully average. After our first major fight, I confessed everything to him. He didn’t understand why I couldn’t just file for divorce myself and just leave, but he didn’t push me on it. It should have been a red flag in our relationship, who stays with a person that is secretly married without raising a lot of concern?

Soon after I moved into a new apartment, got a better job, and seemed to have my life in order. That is, until my parents started calling me again, telling me I needed to sign more papers, go to more court appearances, and travel to his apartment to pretend I lived there. I started avoiding their calls altogether, foolishly thinking that if I don’t communicate with any of them, all of this would go away on its own and I can quietly get divorced.

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Then, my mother flew across the country and showed up at my doorstep unannounced. She gave off the air of a classic mom; judging my apartment, judging my weight, telling me to call home more often, telling me how much my father missed me. But we both knew why she was there, to get me to petition for another appeal. I had a panic attack and hid in my bedroom closet. I called my boyfriend and begged for him to help me in some way, any way. He didn’t know what to do, so he did nothing. I had never felt so alone.

I avoided her and left the next morning for work, coming home only to lock myself in my room like a child. I couldn’t deal with this anymore. I couldn’t deal with having my life upended for their gain, feeling like a prisoner in my own home. I was tired being treated like property for so many years. She got upset with me, started calling my sister and brother. She loudly declared that since I didn’t want to be part of the family anymore, I was no longer in the family. She told my sister to take my name off of her and my father’s life insurance, she told my brother she only had two children now. I hid in my bed, with the lights off, and waited for her to get out of my apartment. We have not spoken since.

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My relationship with my then boyfriend fell apart for other reasons. I took it extra hard since it was so soon after my estrangement from my family, who had left me alone to deal with the mess they dragged me into. It was also on the tail end of another medical procedure, which left me physically and emotionally wrecked. I tried turning to friends, but they couldn’t be there for me. I got angry, I lashed out, I was hurting from so many things. Almost exactly a year ago today, I was put on a psychiatric hold.

This past year has been an incredible challenge. I had lost my family, I had my heart broken, and I lost every friend I had up to that point, and I had to build up from it. I didn’t even have anyone to put down as an emergency contact. I was alone, with no one to look out for me but myself. The only thing keeping me occupied and processing how much I had gone through was therapy. I was at rock bottom, and my health was failing in new and interesting ways. Money problems continued to mount, and there was nothing I could do about it but try to save up. After a few months, with nothing left to lose, I decided it was time to call a lawyer.

I spent months saving, living as lean as I could, staying quiet. I let the whole process of facing my biggest fears eat away at me. I found ways to distract myself, and keep myself happy, all the while secretly digging myself out of this mess. I longing looked at my calendar, just waiting for the day to come when this would all be over.

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I’ve struggled with the guilt, of feeling like I am ruining someone else’s life. Of being the kind of person who would cut off their entire family. Of abandoning friends who couldn’t possibly understand what I’ve been going through. I can’t help it, part of me feels like such a bad person. I keep thinking about how all of this would have never happened had I just kept saying no. I never would have had to feel like I was being watched, or feel like a complete fraud to everyone I loved. I could have prevented being harassed, or intimidated, or guilted for not helping someone in need out. I could have walked away at any time, but I didn’t because I was scared.

He lied to his divorce lawyer, saying that this was all news to him. That I blindsided him and that we had been living happily together this entire time. A part of me knows it’s irrational, but I can’t help but fear a little for my safety now. This divorce means that he’s for sure getting deported again, a fact that surprised both my attorney and myself after 9 years of living in the states. My family isn’t around anymore to negotiate with him. They’ve been on his side this entire time. I struggle with knowing that this is my doing. I have made an enemy.

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I received the email I had been waiting nearly a decade for at the end of my work day. My divorce had been finalized. I cried in my car and tried to gain composure for the drive home. Once home, stood on the stoop where my heart had been broken only a year before, and took a deep breath. The sweet smell of the spring storm coming through was liberating. I am finally free.

***

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This story is my own; I am not a representation of all women forced into marriage, but I assure you my story isn’t uncommon. Believe me when I tell you that I know how fortunate I was to be forced into a marriage that was largely hands off. As reported on NPR a few weeks back via the Tahirih Justice Center, as many as 3,000 women in the United States were documented as being in forced marriages in a two year span. I assure you there are countless more you may never hear about. There are laws in the UK to protect victims of forced marriage, and Canada is trying to pass similar laws. But in the U.S. there are no current legal protections in place for victims of forced marriage because it is so commonly mistaken for arranged marriage.

If you or someone you know is trapped in a similar situation, just know that it is possible to escape. Contact the Tahirih Justice Center for support. I spent too long suffering in silence and feeling isolated from everyone, please add your voice to let someone else know that they are not alone.