International student from Tunisia makes truce with herself

by Meriam Chebli
Special to Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune

My name is Meriam … I am a 20-year old Tunisian girl. A tired soul with short-dark hair and brown eyes. I was born in a small town near the Libyan Desert called Tataouine … a harsh place invaded by ISIS, where a girl is either a sex slave, or simply an unproductive, desperate human being. I always thought that I was going to end up dead either by getting beaten up, or by committing suicide. Life stopped the moment I realized that I was a prisoner of an extremist religious family, a harsh judgmental Islamic culture, a third-world country and a careless government. But no more worries, because today I woke up in my double-bed, sunshine was coming through my big window and I could smell spring in my green back yard; located in my burgundy home in Eagan.

I used to believe that I suffer from rumination, which is a kind of excessive thinking that results in stress and anxiety. I have repetitive thoughts going in and out of my mind, basically, all day long. From the moment I wake up, it just keep happening; when I am sitting in class, when I am talking to someone, when I am eating a sandwich, when I am taking a shower, even when I am kissing somebody or having a group meeting, it is too strong to be distracted from it.

I can’t forget, and I kind of forgive myself now for not being able to; maybe that’s why I am still functioning and looking like any other normal 20-year-old girl. I feel sorry and angry because God, or whatever is running this life, had to teach me a lesson in the most savage, unbearable way ever. I am mad because I didn’t get to choose myself, my family or my country. I am mad because I didn’t enjoy my childhood, and because I had to wake up for 20 years, feeling disgusted from being sexually harassed, physically harmed and emotionally manipulated.

However, I can’t stop or give up now. I made it to the other half of the world; strong and proud. Today, you will get to know me through this essay. I am invincible, a rebel, and a girl who was supposed to join ISIS and be forced for an arranged marriage. Too bad, their plans got crashed because I was different, still different and will always be different.

Thursday, the 24th of November 2016, I was sitting in the waiting room for my first mental health appointment ever. I never thought I would be meeting a psychologist ever in my life; we didn’t even have a hospital back in that sad place, were I was born. Her name was Sarah, the psychologist, a blond blue-eyed pretty woman who welcomed me to her office with a big smile. She asked me if I wanted a cup of tea, water or anything and I told her that I was fine, I was only there because my school program’s advisor thinks that I am suicidal, or something like that. Sarah kept looking in my eyes for more than two minutes trying to get me to smile at her, but I really wasn’t in the mood that time. I mean do you really think a psychologist can erase 20 years of a savage desert life, spent in one of the most corrupted third-world countries, around the most miserable people you can ever meet? Do you actually think a psychologist can help me forget who I am, so I can start over like a new-born baby? I respect all the hanging diplomas Sarah had in her office, but there is no power on Earth that can change my name, my birth certificate or my passport color.

Sarah told me that she had no limits; that I can start telling her whatever I want whenever I want. I stared at the walls and I had a sudden explosion of thoughts and memories; the feeling was so unhappy that I felt tired before even spitting out my first word for her. I looked down then I naively smiled at her and told her:

“There isn’t something really worth talking about; I just need to sleep more and adjust my diet, can you prescribe some sleeping pills for me? I bet I will be OK by next week.”

She laughed in a cute way like she knew I was just trying to get rid of her, and then she gave me that “you are not going anywhere” look. I was sitting there thinking about how much I lost and how much tired I was; but there was a funny, relaxing feeling … because I knew that I was safe, and that I was having my first mental health treatment ever. Sarah quickly cut my deep thought and asked me how is school going and how am I dealing with my professors? I told her that Saint Catherine is amazing and that the professors are so kind and hard-working. I wish I didn’t stop there, because while talking about my good-looking cheerful American professors, I remembered a face … my fifth-grade teacher in primary school, even though it looked like an isolated island filled with dust and hatred, not a school. She still comes in my nightmares; God knows what she was like. Her facial expressions; that I can never forget, were filled with grudge. Because of her, I grew up thinking a teacher is a monster who is allowed to beat me up and insult me for any trivial mistake. She expected me to be academically perfect, which I now find it as a stupid expectation. How could she punish me for not being a smart kid, in her ugly abandoned classroom with its terrible smell? In that school, with its limited or rather missing resources, and with that uncreative, unethical school curriculum. Education in such circumstances becomes one of the most dangerous assets you can get; when teachers become daily nightmares, and books are a source of ignorance. The way our country ignored us have tarnished our humanity and our ability to love each other. Even a school that is supposed to be a child’s safe haven, felt like a scourge. I don’t think I was ready to be smart by then, not for that teacher at least. Looking at every professor at St. Catherine, smiling good morning every day, feels good and bad at the same time; I feel good because I realize I am safe and better off now, and I feel bad because my childhood was wasted, and because I don’t own even one happy moment from my schooling experience in Tunisia, except meeting my soulmate and best friend, Asma. Which dragged me to another sad thought … how many pure and wonderful people like Asma should be buried and denied from a joyful life until those countries realize the crime they are making against their people? She is a tiny kind creature, who is filled with love and goodness despite the bitter of life she has. I haven’t held any other person’s hand but hers since I was only 5 years old until my 20s. I let go when I traveled to the U.S.; something tells me I will never hold that hand again. Now I know that the great burden I carried in that place was incredibly unbearable that I had to give up my Asma, leave her on her own, to escape it.

I kept going back and forth with my thoughts while Sarah didn’t give up trying to make me communicate with her. Of course, after my mind got tired from recalling the past and analyzing it, it was time for that existential question: Does God really exists? And why me? Sarah said she saw clinical depression’s symptoms when I talked to her. I am glad she didn’t see something worse than that; I have always believed that transferring my depressing feelings to someone by telling past incidents is evil; because the person will end up feeling sad and uncomfortable. One of the stupid reasons why I have been bearing so much tragic weight on my own for years is wishing the utmost best for others but not for myself; I haven’t even celebrated my 20th birthday yet, and I feel like I have missed a lot. I tried to let Sarah feel like she was doing a great job, even though I was dying to shed the tears I was holding inside me and scream to her how angry and disappointed I was that day.

“How is your mother?” Sarah asked. I was about to ask her back “which one of them?” but I quickly analyzed my silly question and estimated of course she meant my real mother. I try to avoid thinking about that mother; a broken, kind French lady who I will probably never hug or kiss her forehead again. That moment I imagined the picture of my mother smiling at me. I still can’t get over the last time I saw her; she got me to the airport in a taxi and ran with me to the gate, she gave me a hundred-dollar box that she converted out of five-hundred Tunisian dinars the day before. I can’t describe how irritating it is to know that your mother worked all month for those five-hundred dinars, so that eventually they are worth only one hundred-dollars or less. Even our country’s currency was always there to remind us how weak we were, and how useless our government was. Mother kissed me goodbye then looked me in the eyes and said:
“Don’t come back, not for anyone; never look back to what used to oppress you.” My mother is an example of a humble rural woman who cooks the most delicious dishes; who have nothing to give to her children but prayers, and blessings.

I freezed my mother’s smile in my mind and answered Sarah with a sigh: “She is fine, she is so proud of me because of what I have accomplished.” I looked up, closed my eyes and I knew I had to keep telling her something:

“I have an American mother now, her name is Gladys, and I love her so much.” After I told Sarah that, I wondered whether the look on her face was impression or confusion. She asked me about what I meant exactly and how can such things happen; I told her it is a human miracle strangely happened in such a selfish world, but simply, a pure-hearted American mom just adopted her 20-year-old Tunisian daughter. Isn’t that amazing? Or maybe it is sad! I don’t know. It is not just that, the contradictions and the nonsense that I have been experiencing for the last five months in my life, feels like the tragedy of the Titanic or the hardship of Anne Frank.

Not so long ago, I was in my tiny house with its peeled walls and its damaged garden. My mother took care of that garden as much as she could; but living in a desert climate was never in her favor. I still remember how it feels like to stay indoors all day long because we had absolutely nothing to do; it feels uncomfortable, unproductive and so unhealthy. ISIS was already hanging in our neighborhoods recruiting boys as soldiers and girls as sex slaves. I woke up one morning, I had that buzzing sound in my ears when everything sounds inaudible and looks unclear. It was one of the signs that I was done; I was done wearing three layers of cloth to walk under 50 degrees Celsius to school, I was done making it to that school to get bullied by classmates and harassed by teachers, I was done spitting out trivial ideas coming out of books required by such corrupted educational systems, I was done being controlled and absolutely done being who I was back there.

“Can I see you again?” Sarah asked.

I stood, smiled at her and told her that I would check my schedule and contact her. I walked out of the building toward the bus station. While I was walking, I certainly couldn’t stop thinking and recalling what happened and what is happening now. All the people that I left behind, my cats and my belongings that I lost forever, the citizenship I abandoned and the country I willingly decided to give up on. Do all these massive sacrifices make me ready for who I thought I was going to be? Does it work when someone tells you, you should love yourself and be proud of what you are no matter what? Is it that simple? I find most people incapable of deep thinking and practical analysis, so I always make my own conclusions. You are not forced to feel pertinence and be devoted to something you believe is wrong! Even if it is part of you, and your duty is to be loyal to it, your clear conscience is your priority, and your freedom is much more precious than all cultures and all identities in the world. My conclusions got me here; I am safe today and my chance for a bright future increased to 90 percent, so I trust my conclusions.

Here comes the bus, I couldn’t handle being ethnocentric anymore; so I run back to Sarah’s office. I faced the reception lady with a big smile:

“Can you schedule an appointment for me for next Monday?” I asked, and so it was. I turned back willing to leave when Sarah came out of her office with lots of paperwork.

“You are still here?” she told me with a joyful expression.

“I realized how lucky I am for having this free counseling – I was just playing hard to get. You also give free treats so I will see you next Monday.”

She relaxed all her body muscles and gave me a hint look like I am going to be her next favorite person. Smiled again like all nice people of Minnesota, and then said “See you then!”