Would You Like Chicken Or Beef?
By Lilas TahaDomestic Violence (Photo credit: UMWomen)
It was dinnertime, and I was ready to eat anything the waiter would put in front of me, be it chicken, beef or any high protein combination! But my client hadn’t made her choice yet, and so I waited for her to make up her mind.
She was restless, shifting her eyes around the restaurant, looking more and more embarrassed and uncomfortable. I forgot about my protesting stomach and took a couple of deep breaths while I continued to wait.
I have been with this client since eight in the morning, when I picked her up from the police station. The day ran away from me as I explained every detail about what would happen once her case was viewed in court, went through the horrors of her many years of abuse at the hands of her husband, detailed the protective order proceedings, filled out forms, and finally transferred her to a safe shelter. All the while, I listened to her unspeakable story, felt her pain, and tried very hard not to cry myself. It was an emotional train wreck of a day for both of us. I was physically exhausted and mentally depleted of any positive attitude. She was going through a never-ending nightmare and it was my job to hold her hand as she woke up.
So I just sat there, surrounded by appetizing aromas, stomach churning and nerves tightly stressed, waiting for my 37 year-old mother-of-four client to make a decision by herself probably for the first time in a long time. Pretending to carefully study the menu to give her more time, I realized how we tend to take so many things for granted. The many freedoms that we exercise each day without even processing their importance or knowing how lucky we are to have them in the first place. This woman was not able to make the simplest decision on what to eat in her present state of mind. How did she reach this point? What mind altering process did her abuser use to reduce her to this level of mental handicap?
She finally looked up at me with a nervous smile and said, “I’ll have what you’re having.”
She was a victim of domestic abuse, I was her advocate, and this was the beginning of a very long road in our relationship. She needed me to tell her what to eat, just like she’d been told what to do most of her married life. But I couldn’t start the journey with her on that same level of dependence. As much as I wanted to take charge and dictate to her what to order, I couldn’t let her go down that road with me. I had to distinguish myself from the one entity that she’d been unwillingly relying on for survival for so long, and I had to not tell her what to do.
After a good 15 minutes of sipping water and munching mentally on the food on the adjacent table, I decided that she was not capable of making a decision yet. I was too hopeful, and I had to do something to end this limbo. So I extended my hand to touch hers and gently said, “Everything is good here, it’s always hard for me to decide. I think I will have the beef shawarma.”
I could tell she was relieved, so I proceeded to make the order. I figured since she talked non-stop all day about her agony, that she might want to enjoy her meal in relative silence. I avoided asking questions, or making remarks about her life past or life to be. She actually didn’t ask any questions in spite of the fact she had so many unknowns in her immediate future. It was relaxing to both of us. I dropped her off at the women’s shelter afterwards, and she gave me a long hug. I promised I’d visit her the next day and left.
Eight months since that dinner, my client was on her way to independence. She had her children with her and a protective order under her belt. She held and maintained a job, and for the first time in her life, was financially independent from her abusive husband. She moved into an apartment in a safe neighborhood, had a family lawyer pleading her divorce case in court. She learned how to drive and found a decent enough car, and she was going to night school to better her chances in life.
She had come a very long way. I want to say that I am proud of her, but I cannot claim any of her accomplishments. They were all hers. Her courage, her determination, her struggle and her command on her life. I cannot imagine a more courageous step taken by a woman trapped by fear than the one she took to ask for help. She had no knowledge of any laws in this country, thought her husband would take away her children and deport her if she ever called the police. She didn’t even speak a word of English. Yet, she made that step. What honor it was for me to be by her side.
(Lilas Taha is the author of “Shadows of Damascus”, a contemporary novel inspired by current events, and can be reached through her website at http://lilastaha.com)
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