Samya felt overwhelmed when she truly started thinking about crossing several states and being on her own once she arrived in Texas.
“To put it perfectly, I was a deer in the headlights,” she said. “I had never had a job, a car, a license, or any financial responsibilities. No one in my life prepared me for this because my future was supposed to consist of marrying a Middle Eastern man, cooking, cleaning, making babies, and serving my husband.”
Metroplex Atheists was instrumental in bringing her here and getting her on her feet in the ensuing months. President Terry McDonald remembers the first time he heard Samya’s story.
“My first knowledge of Samya was that a couple that are members of our group announced they had volunteered to help a young woman who was trying to break free from her family,” he said.
Money was collected from the entire group. Other members contributed directly to Samya by taking her shopping and helping her get settled into her new life.
Randy Word, a member of Metroplex Atheists, was involved in coordinating the donations and sending out e-mails to coordinate her trip and the process of getting a legal name change and new identification. Word put up the $1,500 for the name change, which took about a month to complete.
“Changing her identity took a lot of work from Metroplex [Atheists] as a whole,” he said.
Word said the group’s decision to help Samya goes back to their humanist point of view.
“We kind of take the Golden Rule to the next level and simply say, ‘Do no harm and help others,’ ” he said. “It comes down to empathy and compassion for fellow humans. I’m sure a Christian church would have done the same thing based on their values.”
Samya lived with the first couple for about six months, she said. She eventually moved on because she was starting to feel like a burden.
“I had to find a new place because there wasn’t any place around that I could walk to for work, and they had their whole family thing going. I wanted to contribute, not just mooch,” she said. “That’s when I started talking to Suzanne, another member of Metroplex Atheists.”
Suzanne, whose full name is not being used in order to protect information on Samya’s location, traveled a lot for work, Samya said, and needed help with her pets while she was gone. She offered Samya a room in her home in exchange for help with the pets and upkeep on the house while she was away.
“Suzanne is an amazing woman, and I am so grateful for everything she has done for me,” Samya said. “She gave me a bike so I could go find a job nearby. I got my first job at a Steak & Shake. I was terrified. I had no job experience, and my co-workers treated me like an idiot.”
Around this time, Samya enrolled in classes at Tarrant County College. After living with Suzanne for close to a year she got her own apartment.
“I wanted to pay my own bills and be my own person completely,” Samya said. “I bought a cheap car, enrolled in classes, got a better paying job and my own place. It was exhilarating to step through my own door to my own place. I was finally truly free, mentally and physically.”
Samya is now in her fifth semester of college. She said the limited schooling she received at home during her high school years hurt her in some ways but prepared her in others.
During those years at home, “Everything else was up to me,” she said. “My parents … didn’t care whether my grades were good or bad.”
One result was that her English and writing skills suffered. But the experience also taught her self-discipline.
“I think I have much more self-discipline. … I had to be self-motivated. I wanted to learn. I didn’t want to waste my brain,” she said. “That’s what I felt was going to happen if I stayed on the path my parents were paving for me.”
Samya’s experiences don’t reflect the reality for most Muslim families in this country, another TCU student said.
“Most females in Muslim families are allowed to live the life they want,” said Lana Ahmed, 33. In Islam, she said, “You must be asked if you would like to marry the man in the arrangement. If you say no, and they force you to do it, then that is bad.”
Samya’s family “is interpreting our religion wrong,” she said. In some countries, “they do that to girls a lot, but most American Muslim families do not.”
Local Muslim community leaders echoed those thoughts.
“I can speak for 99.9 percent of the Muslim community in saying that forced marriage is not acceptable according to Islamic teaching,” said Asra Khan, youth group coordinator for the Islamic Association of Mid-Cities. “Both man and woman have to agree for the marriage to be valid. There has to be a vocal acknowledgement with at least two witnesses who hear the verbal agreement.”
Dr. Basheer Ahmed, a psychiatrist who chairs the Muslim Community Center for Human Services in Richland Hills, agreed that Islam “does not support forced marriage” but that, as in any religion, individuals sometimes distort the principles.
Arranged marriages do happen, he said. Because Muslim culture doesn’t encourage men and women to mingle, he said, young people don’t always have chances to meet, “so the parents will try to find a match. We try to arrange something with a couple of similar backgrounds and interests, but it is not forced.”
But Samya has left her former religion behind and is content in her new beliefs.
“I was in a fog when I was in Islam,” she said. “We are born without the belief in God, and it is then embedded in your mind. I think religion is outdated. It tells you what to think, and the idea of hell is mental abuse to a child, in my opinion. Nobody deserves the hell religion speaks of, no matter what sin they may have committed.”
Her new life is great but stressful, she said. Besides working and being a full-time student, she is involved in volunteer work.
She said she is grateful for all the love and support she has received from everyone around her.
“I’m so happy with all the support I’ve gotten from my friends who I call my family,” she said. “They are what truly motivate me. I couldn’t have done any of this without them, especially Metroplex Atheists.”
She said she isn’t as worried about her family tracking her down as she used to be. Still, she fears that if they found out she was criticizing Islam and religion in general, that could change.
Samya said she has spoken briefly to her father a few times since she left, in an attempt to be allowed to talk with her mother and her siblings, but it hasn’t worked. When she made it clear she wasn’t coming home, he cut the conversation short, she said.
As for the rest of her family, “My mother and sisters refuse to talk to me,” she said. “I’m dead to them.”
Samya said she still gets emotional when she thinks about leaving her family behind.
“I can still feel like I felt then; it’s powerful,” she said. “They are all gone.”
Freelancer Kenneth Kost can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this story first appeared in The Collegian.