Escaping an abusive father

I am revisiting stories from my archives that have left a mark. The story of Baraa Melhem shocked Palestinians in the West Bank and revealed how vulnerable and inadequate social services were; not only to monitor and prevent such incidents, but also to help someone start over with their life. 

Baraa Melhem nervously skitters in and out of the kitchen, her eyes downcast, as she offers guests coffee. She softly whispers ‘merci’ in response to a ‘thank you’ and scuttles away, avoiding prolonged eye contact – apart from an occasional glance at her mother, seemingly seeking assurance.

This is the very mother she had once begged not to visit her at her father’s home in the West Bank town of Qalqilya. This house was where she had spent almost half of her life; imprisoned in a tiny, dank bathroom, held captive, beaten and abused by her father and her stepmother. She had been rescued by Palestinian security forces in late January after ten years of imprisonment, after an aunt finally came forward to the authorities.

Baraa now grapples with both immediate desires and far-reaching dreams. ‘I know that I have a tough job ahead of me,’ she says, ‘but nothing could be harder than years of imprisonment by my own father. I want to be a psychiatrist one day and help people who have suffered – but I hope no one sees me with pity. I just want my dignity and a future now.’

Aside from those aspirations, Baraa has a more primal and, perhaps, more easily attainable wish. Sleeping on a mattress on the floor of her siblings’ room in her mother’s house in East Jerusalem, she says she hopes one day to have her own bedroom and bed ‘like a normal girl.’ The normal girl she has not been for the past decade.

‘When her mother visited, her father’s cruelty would increase, and he would strip her of her sheets and blankets and pour cold water on her,’ says the social worker Hala Shreim. ‘Her father kept Baraa in sheer terror and isolation for nine years,’ after she had run away from her home at the age of 11. Shreim added that Baraa had been convinced her that the house had hidden cameras and microphones, so that on the few occasions when she saw her mother she kept silent. Her father also threatened to rape her until she became pregnant, she says, to keep her from escaping. Then, she said, because her illegitimate pregnancy would have shamed the family, he could murder her, using ‘honour killing’ as a justification.

At 21, an unknowing visitor might think Baraa was moody, but could never imagine the horrors she has lived through. As she vacillates between shy glances, robust pacing and cleaning, and wide smiles, the shock and heartbreak of her experience are almost unfathomable. ‘Merci,’ she says again, offering biscuits. When asked where she learnt French, she smiled and answered: ‘Radio Monte Carlo.’ Surprisingly eloquent, Baraa cites news, cultural stories and horoscope readings as her favourite radio programming: her lifeline to the outside world during her years of captivity.

During her long ordeal of physical and mental abuse, when she was released from the bathroom only to clean the house late at night, a small radio was her only solace. It is painful interviewing Baraa, and her discomfort at media presence is tangible. Her mother questions the benefit of speaking to reporters, tersely asking: ‘Will the world forever know my daughter as the bathroom torture girl?’ Eyes fastened on her mother, Baraa slowly nods in agreement. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Some of the questions have been insulting – detailed queries into what I was fed. I asked a journalist last week if they were trying to make me relive the experience.’ As she speaks, the acute presence of innate character and strength flash across her face – startling, considering her experience, yet this quality is undoubtedly what enabled her to survive. It is no small irony that Baraa means ‘innocent’ in Arabic.

The only time Baraa seems on the cusp of breaking is when her mother recounts the horror of the stepmother. ‘They would leave razor blades in the bathroom,’ she says, ‘and when Baraa would come out at night to clean, her stepmother would casually ask: “You are still alive? Why don’t you kill yourself?”’ Baraa blinks rapidly and disappears into the kitchen. Her mother lets out a string of invectives against a paternal uncle who she says had called earlier to offer money if Baraa would recant her claims against her father and her stepmother. They are charged with abusing a minor, unlawful imprisonment and encouraging suicide.

‘Imagine!’ she says. ‘No concern for what she went through, just trying to keep his brother out of jail.’ Then she speculates that perhaps they should take the money. ‘We are happy Baraa is with us,’ she says. ‘But we did not anticipate the expense of an extra person in her household.’ She adds that the father being in jail would serve as vindication, but asks if it really helps her daughter’s needs for an education and a new beginning.

The mother’s modest two-bedroom apartment is cramped, lit by the flicker of fluorescent lights overhead, with one barred living room window and a tiny space heater battling the creeping cold. Baraa’s mother and her second husband share the space with Baraa’s brother and her two half-sisters – robust girls under the age of 4 – now with the addition of Baraa herself. The mother first married when she was fifteen, halting her own education. She describes her first husband, Baraa’s father, as cruel, abusing both her children. She managed to flee with her younger son but had to surrender custody of Baraa, who was four when they divorced.

Her second husband is an educated and well-spoken man who works for the Ministry of Religious Affairs and whom Baraa now calls ‘Baba’. While terrified of her first husband and discouraged from visiting her daughter, Baraa’s mother says she would occasionally take the two-hour West Bank public transport from Ramallah to Qalqilya, a town encircled by Israel’s wall, a 45-minute drive from Tel Aviv. Baraa says her father’s punishment for such visits became too great for her to bear, leaving her begging her mother not to come anymore. He would, she says, throw cold water on her, take her blankets from her floor mattress and even shave her head and eyebrows.

When the news of Baraa’s story broke across the West Bank, many asked her mother how she could have allowed such a thing to happen. Maha Abu Dayyeh, director of the Ramallah-based Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling, says these harsh judgements may be unjustified. ‘In the West Bank, divorced women have options to challenge custody cases in the courts,’ Dayyeh says. ‘However, in cases where the father is abusive and the mother is not economically empowered or educated, she is socially handicapped. In this case, it sounds like Melhem’s mother was a traumatised women herself.’

According to the chief justice of Sharia Courts, Sheikh Yousef Ed’ees, Sharia governs personal status including custody. In Baraa’s case, as in most custody disputes involving girls, the law stipulates that a boy at 15 years of age can choose to live with either his mother or his father, but that a girl must live with her father, especially if the mother has remarried. ‘Yet if there are outstanding issues such as abuse, the mother has the right to challenge this in court, and there is legal aid available,’ Ed’ees says. Whether Baraa’s mother had the knowledge (or the desire) to navigate the legal system is, of course, a moot point now.

When the social worker Shreim first heard from Baraa’s paternal aunt, she was unprepared for the severity of abuse. She says that in 17 years on the job, she had never seen such emotional and physical cruelty. ‘Her father had put the house under siege and prevented even his own relatives from entering,’ Shreim says. ‘No one talked about it,’ including Baraa’s teenage half-brother and half-sister, until finally the paternal aunt informed the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Shreim persuaded her to go to the police, enabling legal justification for the authorities to act after the aunt, despite her terror of her brother, made an anonymous complaint. When the social workers entered the house with a police escort, they were shocked at their discovery. ‘When we rescued Baraa, she was in a primitive and terrified state – dirty hair, tattered clothes and wild eyes,’ says Shreim, who is handling the case delicately after the arrest of the father and the stepmother, who are Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

‘We decided to bring her to the police station so she truly understood she was free and let it sink in she was liberated,’ she says. ‘It took time for her to comprehend we were actually there to help her.’ When she first was taken outside, Baraa – who said she had been fed only bread, olive oil and an apple a day – said the pale winter sun had blinded her. ‘Is that the sun? Is that the sun I was dreaming of?’ she asked the police, adding that she was startled by the sight of people. ‘Are those the people I was hearing on the radio?’ she asked.

Shreim describes erratic shifts in Baraa’s behaviour in the following days, between extreme fear, joy, anger, laughter and sadness. The young woman told her she wanted to live with her mother. ‘I was personally relieved when the reunion was successful,’ Shreim says. ‘It would have been heart-breaking to see her in an institution for lack of options.’

‘Baraa also said she hoped to be self-reliant, live in dignity, and find a way to secure an education for a future,’ Shreim says. Now the Ministry of Social Affairs is looking into options with the Ministry of Education to find Baraa a suitable school or test her for home schooling. Counselling also is being addressed. Baraa’s mother acknowledges the difficulty her daughter faces when leaving her house. She becomes tense and defensive in public places.

When news arrives that the Ministry of Social Affairs is coming to visit, her mother urges her to try on her new clothes. Standing in front of the mirror in form-fitting black jeans and a black jumper, the former captive Baraa is suddenly transformed into the image of a normal young woman. ‘See the rhinestones on the pocket? See how pretty?’ she asks, turning her back to the mirror, a smile spreading across her face.