If she can overcome her past, so can you

If you wandered into DiBruno Brothers in Rittenhouse …you might have Maria as your server.

You might want to book her business, Private Label Bartending.  They design cocktail menus to match the theme of your party.   

At a recent fundraiser for a stray cat relief fund, you could have enjoyed a Moscow Mule disguised as a “Russian Kitten” or a “Lint Roller” made with pineapple juice, rum, and blue curacao with a honey rim and “lint” coconut flakes.  At a social networking event for a company boasting farm fresh products, you could have sampled the farm’s very own ingredients in the drinks like their hot peppers in the hot and spicy lemonade.   

Maria is very slight, but her vibrancy and enthusiasm defy her tiny stature.  You might envy her bright eyes, pretty face, positive outlook, and confident stance.  

She is twenty-nine years old. 

But there’s so much more to Maria, more than you would ever imagine.  I will spare you the most brutal details, although no one spared Maria.   

I will tell you enough, so you’ll always remember:    

Everyone you meet has a story, and you don’t know anything about it. 

To chronicle the abuse Maria endured as a prisoner in her own home in Pakistan might make this story too much for the reader to bear. . . with incest, rape, beatings, and death threats.  It was a life where you were most vulnerable at nighttime because you couldn’t lock your door, so anyone could come into your bedroom, and as Maria said, “do anything they wanted to you” and “no one would believe you”.   

And when they finally did believe you, they tied you to a chair and “beat the shit out of you” for telling the truth.   

No one likes to hear the truth when it reveals them to be the villain in the story. 

Maria grew up,  a brown girl in a strict Pakistani family living in New Jersey.  Her father moved the family back to Pakistan so they could learn about their culture while he stayed behind in New Jersey to work.  Life in Pakistan quickly became increasingly unstable.  

When she was nine years old, Maria saw her mom kissing her cousin.  And then there were other men. It was startling and confusing. “How do I unsee this?” 

And without her father around, her older brother had free reign to continue what he began back home in New Jersey when she was five or six years old.   

Their household was devoid of rules until her father arrived for the occasional visit.  Suddenly, everyone in the house arose early, was on their best behavior, and her mother’s male suitors were nowhere to be seen.  Maria lived in a world where wrong was right, and lies were the norm.  It was a life  shrouded in secrets where you “didn’t know how to be with anyone” because if you couldn’t trust your own mother and brother, how could you trust anyone? 

As a teen, Maria found solace in her studies. Books and education became her life raft, and a place she could hide. Friends came easily because she was pretty and popular. . . and American.  But these peers were not friends to Maria.  They were just people who liked her, but didn’t really know her.  And the more people who were drawn to her, the more lonely she felt because no one understood her pain or knew her secrets.  And if they did, how much would they like her then? 

She attempted to connect with her mom, to tell her about how well she was doing in school as it was the only thing she felt was going well in her life, that she could be proud of.   “My success was frowned upon.  My mom would brag about it, but only to make her feel better in social circles or to throw it in my brother’s face if he was failing.  My mom never really listened to me.  To her, it was more important to hear about the latest gossip than to listen to her own daughter.”  

Maria retreated further into herself.  Her father was absent, her mother didn’t seem to care, and her brother continued to sexually abuse her.  She wasn’t able to sleep in her bedroom with its unlocked door because,  “Anything could happen to me when I was sleeping.”  She had nowhere to go, and no one to trust. 

With the support and guidance of her uncle, Maria eventually went to medical school.  There, she met the first man who she says, “liked me for me.”  He would bring her food and flowers.  He was kind, patient, and understanding.  He would visit her at the hospital, and it was here that she could get a glimpse of a life beyond her home.  But it didn’t negate her fear, and her reticence to trust.  She told him, “I don’t know how to love you.  I can’t give myself to you.” And then, “If my mom and brother find out, they will harm you.” 

“My mom came to know that there was this person interested in me, and it infuriated her.  She didn’t approve of me finding a man on my own.  As soon as I got home – my mom would take my phone.  I was living like a fucking prisoner in my own home.   At the same time, my brother was having an affair which my mom also didn’t approve of.  To cover his tracks, he started leading my mom my way.” 

Out of frustration and with burgeoning confidence, Maria mustered the courage to tell her mother about her brother’s abuse.  One might assume that again, her mom didn’t listen to her or believe her.  Yet, it was quite the contrary.   

“When I told her about my brother – she believed me.  And then I got the shit beat out of me. She beat the shit out of me.  She only glared at him, but beat the shit out of me.” 

Her mother decided it was time to find Maria a husband.  “She figured she could pay to marry me off to someone else because I was an American citizen.”   

It’s hard to know why – perhaps the decision was fueled by a lack of control over Maria and jealousy about the male attention. She began to invite men over as possible suitors, and call Maria a prostitute.   

“How am I a prostitute when you have men looking over me?” 

One potential suitor asked for some privacy when he came to court her, and her mother agreed.  At the time Maria was sick with a fever and feeling exceedingly weak, but she had no say in the matter.  When they were alone in her room in a far corner of the house, it became readily apparent what he expected.   

He bit Maria on the throat by her trachea so she wouldn’t scream, and when she didn’t comply, he bit her again on  – this time on her stomach before he raped her.  She fought him and ran out of her room  – a wild look in her eyes – hair and clothes in complete disarray .  Her mother asked without really wanting to know the answer, “Is everything okay?”   

Everything was clearly not okay . . . but he replied, “Sure.  Everything’s fine.” And her mom, of course chose to believe him. 

“My mom would believe anyone except for her own daughter. My mom would never believe me. If I did try to tell her the truth, she would get mad at me and beat the shit out of me.” 

“My mother and brother were working as a team now.”  Her mother called the man she was seeing and his family, and cursed and threated them.   “My mom told me to say yes to the man she chose, and  my brother told me if I chose the man I wanted to- they would kill him and ‘they’ll never find his pieces.’” 

Maria knew they had the connections to make this happen, and get away with it.  Maria became the scapegoat for her mom’s helplessness and unhappiness.   

“She never missed a day to tell me how much she hated me – that I was never born – and wished I would die.” 

“I signed papers that declared us married, and he pressured me to go to events with him because I was his wife.   Maria resisted because she had studying and exams that she didn’t want to miss.   

He would assure her that what was spoken between them was private.  “You’re my wife.  This is between us.”   

Yet, he was calling her mom behind her back to complain about her.  Her mother would then yell at her,  “What did you go and say to him?”   

Maria became quiet and compliant.  She didn’t see any way out.  “I wanted to kill myself.  I tried to overdose on antidepressants, but it didn’t work.   Somehow, I came to the realization:  ‘Why am I trying to kill myself for people who aren’t worth it?’”  

She decided she had to get out of Pakistan.  She stole a gold jewelry set, her passport and social security card from her mom’s safe, wrapped it up and put it in her bag.  She sold the jewelry set, and bought a plane ticket to New York.  Over the next two weeks, she took clothes to work instead of books, and had a friend who would add them to a suitcase for her.   

If her mom and brother knew this friend was helping her, they would kill him.   

She bought the plane ticket for the day she was scheduled to go shopping for her wedding reception.  This time, the fact that her mom never let her have her phone served her well.  They couldn’t track her or call her when she stepped away with the excuse of looking for the bathroom.   

She had a burner phone, and she went out the  back of the shopping place, grabbed a rickshaw, and went to the airport.  Her friend met her there with the suitcase.  He told her, “You deserve to be free.”   

She was 23 years old. 

When she arrived in New York, Maria slept on a few friend’s couches, and stayed briefly with her dad to facilitate the divorce.  Her dad eventually kicked her out when she refused to follow his rules. 

She slept in her car for a little over a month – in the wintertime   She would park at an apartment complex behind a pick-up truck and sleep under a pile of her own clothes to keep warm.   

Maria is tiny.  She was scared.  She said, “When you can’t use your muscle, you use your brains.” 

She used the resources at the library.  She sent out resumes.  She found a room to rent for $100 a week, with a landlord who agreed to rent to her without a security deposit or first and last month’s rent.  She got a job in retail.  And then as a hostess.  And then at a massage studio in Philadelphia. 

She went on her first real date when she was 26.  She fell in love.  She describes it as “beautiful”.  It helped her understand how lonely her mom must have been without her father. “Our dad sent her so far away to deal with everything on her own.  She was alone.  But how was that my fault?” 

Maria loves listening to people’s stories.  “It’s the reason I got into bartending, and why I’m trying to start my own podcast for motivation.”  She also loves helping people.  . “There are people that are going through this is in some way or another.  I want people to learn from my story.” 

When asked about where she is going from here, she’s not exactly sure.  “I can’t say anything about the future.  I’m growing.  It’s a beginning.” 

Maria is a woman who has been able to find compassion for the mother who abused her, and for the man she is in love with but who is unable to commit.  She is a woman who has found the courage to trust other people with her story in spite of living a life that cautioned otherwise.   

When it likely would have been easier to wallow in self-pity and drown in an invisible chorus of “why me”, she chose to self-publish her own book, start her own business, and tell the truth.  Her passion to share her story with the hope that it could help others is stronger than any of the forces that have tried to silence her. And she is not finished yet. 

Maria is not defined by what happened to her. Instead, she has defined for herself what it means to be a survivor.   

“I am more than a survivor.  I’m a warrior!” 

Maybe she will return to medical school.  Maybe her bartending business will take off.  Maybe she will write another book.  But that is not what matters most to Maria.  What matters to her is that perhaps her story will inspire one other person – show them that they too can rise from even the most dire circumstances.   

Maybe they’ll even tell themselves when they think they can’t go on, that they can – because Maria did. 

Words by Beth Pandolpho, Photos by Tony Juliano

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