One day, I got an email from my department advisor. In it was a description of the university’s highest honour, the John H. Moss Scholarship, a $16,000 award that’s given to an outstanding student who intends to pursue graduate work—the Rhodes scholarship of U of T. My advisor encouraged me to apply. No one from U of T Mississauga campus had ever won it, she said. The deadline was only a few days away, but she convinced me to hustle up the paperwork.
A few weeks later, I got an email saying that I was one of five finalists. I arrived for my interview on February 6, 2013. The committee ran through questions about my academic record and leadership experience. I’d written about my abusive marriage in my application, too, and at the end of the interview, the panel asked me how I go on after everything I’ve been through. My polish wore off in that moment. "Every day I feel like giving up," I told them. "But I don’t want my daughters to grow up thinking that being abused is normal."
Forty-five minutes after my interview concluded, I got a phone call. John Rothschild, chair of the selection committee and the CEO of Prime Restaurants, was on the other end of the line with a few other panellists. "Congratulations," they said. "You’re our winner this year." I couldn’t believe it. I grabbed my daughters’ hands and danced wildly around the house with them. I wanted to tell the whole world.
Samra and John RothschildSince then, John has become a friend, a mentor, and the closest thing I have to a father figure. He taught me how to believe in myself again. He says if I ever get married again, he wants to walk me down the aisle.
In September of that year, I started my master’s in economics. By the time I graduated, I was surviving off OSAP, and my debt load was piling up. I wanted to stop borrowing money as soon as possible, so I decided not to pursue a PhD. Instead, I accepted a job at the Royal Bank of Canada, where I work today as a commercial account manager.
Around the time of my graduation, I was named the top economics student at U of T. At the award ceremony, a journalist introduced herself to me (her daughter was in my class). I told her my story, and she published an article about it in a Pakistan newspaper.
As my story circulated through the community, I received hundreds of messages from women all over the world trapped in forced marriages and looking for help. So many of them sounded like me five years earlier, isolated and helpless. Women who show up at shelters or call assault hotlines or leave their homes find themselves completely alone. Without any help, they return to their abusers or fall into new relationships that are just as bad. Once, while I was TAing at U of T, a father barged into my office yelling. "You’re pushing my daughter to get her master’s degree!" I couldn’t believe it. To me, it was natural to offer encouragement—his daughter was the top student in my class. "She’s supposed to marry a boy in Egypt. Stop poisoning her with your Canadian bullshit," he barked.
Years ago, a woman wrote to me asking if we could talk on Skype. She was a Canadian university graduate whose parents forced her into a marriage in Pakistan after she finished school. Brutally abused for three years, she returned to Canada to have her baby. She wanted to leave her marriage. After we finished talking, I drove to her house and encouraged her to do it. "No one will ever love me again," she said. Three years later, she graduated from a master’s program and got a job working full-time in Toronto. I realized I couldn’t stop abuse from happening. But I could offer friendship to women in similar positions to my own.
I started a non-profit called Brave Beginnings that will help women rebuild their lives after escaping abusive relationships. John Rothschild, my mentor, provided our start-up funding, and we’re piloting the project this year.
For the past three years, I’ve lived in a three-bedroom condo in Mississauga with my daughters, who are now 15 and 10. I serve as an alumni governor at the University of Toronto, and I speak about my experience for organizations like Amnesty Inter-national. I’m happier than I ever imagined I could be. I want women to know that they deserve a life of respect, dignity and freedom—that it’s never too late to speak up. It infuriates me that many women are expected to uphold their family’s honour, yet they don’t have any themselves.
Last April, I called my ex. I wanted to help him repair his relationship with our older daughter. It had been four years since we had spoken in person. I decided to meet with him. Despite everything, I believed that my girls deserved to have their father in their lives. I sat in a coffee shop at Eglinton and Creditview Road, desperately hoping that I was no longer scared of him.
I saw him walking across the parking lot, and waited for an avalanche of fear to hit me. It never came. Sitting across from me, he was just another person. To my surprise, he apologized. "I cannot believe after everything that you’re still willing to help me repair my relationship with our kids," he said. That day in the coffee shop, I finally felt free.
A few weeks ago, I lay in bed cuddling with my youngest daughter. Every night, we snuggle for 10 minutes before she goes to bed, just the two of us, unpacking the day. Out of the blue, she said, "Mom, I think Daddy’s family picked you because you were only 16. They thought you were just going to do whatever they told you to do and they’d be able to make you into whoever they wanted you to be." And then she paused. "Man," she said. "They picked the wrong girl."
Congratulations to Samra Zafar for her courage, determination and for her amazing success. She is a wonderful example of hope for women who struggle to escape abusive relationships and achieve their dreams. Never lose hope.