Thursday, May 05, 2011

Women's Stories - A Central Asian Immigrant

Last week I got to say dastarhoningiz mubarak bolsin ("may your tablecloth be blessed") for the first time in ages. It's not every day you dine in an Uzbek home. And blessed the tablecloth was: I enjoyed the lovingly made manti and samsa, plates of sweets, fresh nan, hot chai, and the best tomato salad I can remember. (When you go to the market, ask where the produce is from. If the tomatoes come from Central Asia, they are going to be good.)

I wasn't in Uzbekistan, though, I was about 4000 miles away. The woman who had invited us to her house had fled the country of her birth seeking safety for her children and a new life in Russia.

An undocumented worker, G. was making ends meet by working three jobs as a cleaning lady, each of them faithfully paying her wages - unlike a place she'd worked last summer which had never come through with the money. The kids are well. She has some new clothes. And she’d recently been able to move her family into a rather nice brick-and-wood house of the traditional local style, complete with a well, gas heat, an outhouse in the courtyard, and a big garden out back. In this town, that wasn’t considered as desirable as a three-room high-rise apartment, but it’s a good place.

G. has a spring in her step, a smile on her face, and a light in her eye. A bit surprising when you realize she has suffered more in her three decades than many of us do in a lifetime. She was happy to give us the reason for the hope that she has. I listened and took notes.

To Earn a Blessing

Uzbek girls are brought up to work hard. Around the time of the morning call to prayer, she and her sisters would be up sweeping, cleaning, cooking. There was no question but that she would do everything required of her to support and care for her relatives; that’s what people do. Besides, there’s a saying that the one who gets up early in the morning will receive blessings from God. If you want your life to someday get better, you have to get up early to earn God's favor.

A Daughter’s Duty

Things took a difficult turn around the time G. was starting high school. Her father, a truck driver, disappeared. Nobody knew where he had gone or if he would ever return. And he was the main provider for four children. So now, after getting up early to do chores, getting her siblings off to school and completing her own classes, G. would come home and make samsa to sell. Yes, melt-in-your-mouth meat pastries like the ones I enjoyed at her house. She’d take them to a truck stop to sell, not arriving home until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. Then she still had homework to do and would catch a few hours of sleep before it all began again. She was shouldering heavy responsibilities and did not see a way out.

Have a teenager in your house? Can you imagine them keeping that kind of schedule? “As a child in my family I had to work,” she explained. “But I dreamed of becoming a mother,” she added, “so I would not have to do these things.”

A Way Out

You catch the foreshadowing in that last statement, don’t you? G. knows how to tell a story. And this isn’t a happy one. Her home environment seemed to get worse and worse. Her father eventually came home but that did not help much; there was a lot of shouting and fighting, and then a new baby in the house. When G. met a boy, her mother jumped to conclusions and wouldn't listen; her father locked her up. She was accepted to college but not allowed to go. Her life at home had little hope.

“I thought the way to escape was to get married. I met my husband at that time and he asked me to marry him. I was very excited. I went to tell my parents and said ‘I think I love him!’ But I did not know what love was.”

“This man was nine years older than I was. I thought since he was older he would be kind, that he would honor me. But the first day of the marriage he sat me down and said, ‘here I am, I am your God, you have to follow what I say.’ He gave me a list of things I was allowed or not allowed to do during my day. It was posted on the wall.”

Things did not go well. He was a violent, controlling man, impossible to please.

Cycle of Abuse

Within the year G. gave birth to their first child, a girl. It didn't help. Her husband beat her frequently. “He would use chains. He’d tie me up and make me kneel and beg forgiveness for all my sins. Sometimes I fainted and it was only by the will of God that I would awaken.”

After particularly violent episodes he wouldn’t know what to do; he’d take her back to her mother’s or send her to the hospital. If it was as bad as that, he’d apologize. Otherwise not. Sometimes she wondered if he had been drinking. She had no idea he was doing drugs.

Would having more children make her husband happy? After one particular bad beating she had to have one of her ovaries removed. Doctors told her she should not have any more children for six years. “So it was a miracle to have my second child just three years later,” she says. But her husband was not pleased that both babies were girls. “It was while I was pregnant with my third child that my husband me he was going to take a second wife.” G. was so convinced of her own worthlessness that she was indifferent to the news.

Getting Away

Yet the violence was terrible. G. thought about running away. Sometimes her husband would open the gates and tell her she could go. But he’d always come after her and bring her back, beating her worse. “I learned to stay so I would not be hurt so badly." Finally, she got to the point that she started fighting for a divorce.

“In Muslim culture the understanding is that a divorced women is nothing. Such a sinful person. I was thinking of myself that way I thought my relatives will not honor or think of me at all. I would be nothing to them.

"Yet one day I really felt the cries of all three of my children; my husband beat the eight-month-old son. Hearing my children calling out I felt a great desire to run away. When the third child was one year old, I managed to get a divorce.”

Now What?

Her mother had little room in the house, and G.’s brothers (who had he last word) refused her a place there. So she stayed for a while in a house of her uncle’s which was still under construction. Her mother would bring milk for the children, a liter a day, but they had little else. Finally a brother sold their father’s truck, used the money to buy a flat, and moved out; G. was able to go back to her mother. It wasn’t a healthy environment; there was still a lot of fighting and shouting. The family struggled to live on her mother’s small pension, what with two young siblings still at home in addition to G. and her three little ones. Food was scarce, and so was peace.

“That's when my husband started coming around again. I thought I might die if I went back to him, but he would make sure the children had food to eat. Maybe someday his feelings for them would be awakened as well?”

G. returned to her husband and went through the ceremony to remarry him, but things were not good. The beatings were unbearable. “Two times I had bones broken in my hands and couldn't do things at home. I was disabled, trapped.”

“One day a good friend of mine called me. She had gone to America but called and told me, you have to run away and I will send you money. My friend suggested I should come to America. But how could I do that to her, to put on her the burden of me and my three children?”

But the conversation was enough to move G. to action. “I had a few gold chains. I sold them quietly, telling nobody, and bought tickets to leave for Russia.”

Starting Over

She had only one set of clothes, those she had been wearing when she escaped, and sometimes the children went barefoot. But G. met some people who took her in and let her go along with the men to a construction site and work alongside them. “But I would come home and the kids would gather around like chirping birds… I was just happy to see them eating.” When a factory job opened up, G. took it. A required medical checkup revealed a surprise, though: she was four or five months pregnant. Now what?

“I had thoughts about aborting the child. How could I raise a fourth baby? And what would people think? Me there alone, a stranger, without a husband. I was nothing. I knew I was a horrible person. I tried to go to mosque to seek advice and help but they threw me out. They told me I was a sinner and not allowed to stay.”

G. came across a flier for a pregnancy counseling center run by what she would learn was a group of Christians. A Russian woman came alongside G. and befriended her. Among other things, she helped G. decide to keep her baby. She also gave her a book to read that would help her think about where she was going in her life and what she was living for, inviting her to surrender her life to God. After much reading and discussion, G. realized that’s just what she needed. The woman invited her to church. “It just happened to be Easter time. Amazing, this holiday that celebrates Jesus raised from the dead. I repented at that time. … After that, I had life. I was set free. I had wings to fly.”

“You Are My Child Now”

As G. read the pages of the New Testament and came to understand the nature and work of God, she felt like her heart could finally see. And one of the things she saw was that the presence of God had been with her since childhood. She had been crying out to him all along.

Maybe I’m reading between the lines here, but as I listened to G.’s story I started to think God had taken her on a journey back through all the things that had happened to her and touched and healed those memories. Some of the details she included suggested that. At any rate, he gave her the love and acceptance she had not known and strength to start forgiving those who had hurt her. She started to pray for her relatives, and they started contacting her to ask her for forgiveness. Amazing. “It was really hard. But having a relationship with God, he tells me, ‘You have to forgive. You are my child now and I will show through your life how merciful and patient I am.’"

Praise to God

“Praise to God, I have clothes to wear, and my children have shoes, and food. I praise the Lord for listening to my prayers and providing what I need. He knows what's on my heart and he is a provider. He knows what I need and he is never late. How to describe it? It is with great honor I tell everyone that I am a Christian. I was baptized, praise to God. I'm trying to show my family how merciful God has been to me, but just now they can't receive it yet.”

G.’s fourth child, a second son, was born some months ago. I expect (hope?) he'll never know his father. As we sat in her living room, I reached out and touched him. Put my hand on his back, watched him wiggle. Precious life.

G.'s mother was there that day, too. She'd come from Uzbekistan to stay, or visit, I wasn't sure which. She helped with the children. But after hearing G.’s story a few days before I was surprised to see this woman. She had disappointed G. so deeply, had harmed her so greatly, had failed to give her the love, protection, and encouragement a son or daughter needs from a parent. Yet here she was, come to stay and help with the children. She was the one I spoke to in Uzbek, wondering, what might God do in her life, as well?

The story is unfinished. But will you pray for this family?

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