When my daughter turned three, I learned about a parent drop-in centre called Ontario Early Years, funded by the Ministry of Education. Located in a Streetsville strip mall, the space was bright and cheerful. My daughter would make crafts or play with Play-Doh, and the parents would gather in a song circle with their children and recite nursery rhymes. My husband took my daughter and me there a couple of times. Eventually, he let me walk over on my own. I looked forward to those two afternoons a week, when I’d be allowed to step outside by myself without fear, when I’d feel fresh air on my face.
In 2005, I told my husband that I wanted to go home to visit my family for four months. It had been five years since I’d last seen them. When he told me he didn’t have the money, my father sent plane tickets for me and my daughter, who was four by then. On my way to the airport, I asked my husband for $10 to buy myself a coffee and my daughter a snack. "Bitch, go ask your father for that too," he told me, as he dropped me off at Pearson. When my parents picked me up at the airport, they almost didn’t recognize me. I’d lost so much weight I looked skeletal.
My family were shocked. The bright, confident girl they knew had been replaced with a skittish, scared young woman. It took a couple of months for me to realize I could go to the mall on my own, or to the grocery store. These were small triumphs, but they helped build up my confidence. By the end of my visit, I was resolved not to go back to Canada. As soon as I delivered the news to my husband over the phone, he unleashed a flood of apologies. He told me he’d never hurt me again. He promised we’d move out of the house, that we’d live alone together like we used to.
He wore me down. In August 2005, I returned to Canada. We moved into a new apartment, and my husband was paying both his parents’ mortgage and our rent, leaving little money for anything else.
At first, he was kind again. But within a few months, I got pregnant with our second daughter, and the abuse resumed. I needed an escape plan, so I began tutoring and babysitting children in our apartment building, slowly saving money for five months until I had enough for my daughter and me to fly to Karachi, where my sister was getting married. This time I wasn’t coming back.
My father had been diagnosed with kidney failure before I’d arrived in December, and over the next few months I watched helplessly as his condition deteriorated. One day, I sat with him in the ICU. "Papa, if something happens to you, what am I going to do?" I asked him. "Realize the strength you have inside of you," he told me. "Go back to Canada and find a way to get out of your marriage." He died two days later.
My husband arrived in Karachi that week for the funeral. Sex was the first thing he wanted. It wasn’t until he’d finished that he asked me how I was feeling. I said I was fine, got up and walked to the bathroom. I turned on the shower so he wouldn’t hear me cry.
This time I got a small room in the basement, with bare walls and a little window in the corner. My daughter slept in her crib in the room next door. In June 2006, I gave birth to my second daughter. I was miserable.
And yet my father’s words had ignited something in me. I knew I was smart, and I knew the only way out was through school. I studied in my room every night, finishing the last course I needed for my GED, a Grade 13 economics credit.
A few months after my younger daughter was born, I earned my diploma, and decided to apply to university again. I knew my husband would never let me leave the house to earn money for tuition, so I resurrected my babysitting service, telling him I was earning money for the family. I co-opted my mother-in-law with the promise that she’d earn easy money taking care of kids, and my husband even let me buy a van to drive my charges around. I was making between $2,000 and $3,000 every month, and though I had to turn over my earnings to my husband, I managed to sock away a few hundred dollars here and there. It took me two years to save enough for one year of school.
In 2008, I applied to U of T’s economics program. I was accepted. Nothing was going to stop me from going. "Who’s going to pay for your tuition?" my husband asked. "I am," I responded. My in-laws were so angry about my decision that no one in the house spoke to me for six months. I didn’t care. This was my chance to get out. It had taken me nearly 10 years, but I’d gone from victim to survivor.
To be continued....