As a teenager, Samra Zafar spent several hours a day studying in her home in Abu Dhabi. Her dream was to attend a prestigious university, then become a doctor. If her grades weren’t any indication, the 16-year-old girl was well on her way to achieving her goal. But Zafar’s parents had other plans.
One evening, her mother announced that Samra was betrothed to marry a 28-year-old man—one whom Samra had never met. “I felt like I was a piece of property that was being handed off from my parents to this man,” says Zafar, “and I didn’t have any kind of agency or voice of my own.”
A few months later, at 17, she was married and forced to leave her family, friends and dreams behind to live with her husband and his parents in Canada. Within months, she was pregnant. Any flicker of hope for getting an education was extinguished. “It was like living in a dark world.”
Then came the abuse and oppression from both her husband and his family. “It was like living in a state of constant suffocation, constant fear and walking on eggshells,” she says. Worse yet, she was told by her family that this treatment was normal. Somehow, though, as the years went on and the abuse worsened, Zafar managed to keep her eye on the prize–education. She convinced her mother-in-law to allow her to work as a babysitter, and she slowly saved up enough money to enrol part-time at the University of Toronto at the age of 26.
There, she met mentors and friends who valued and appreciated her. “Suddenly, I was being treated with respect for those very things that I had been ridiculed for: my intelligence, my ambitions, my goals, my dreams and my individuality,” she says. Then one day, just a month into school, she noticed a flyer outside the campus bookstore. On it was a list of questions: “Do you feel intimidated? Do you feel like you don’t have a voice?” As she scanned the list, she realized she answered yes to every single question. A few days later she was talking to a counsellor about her home life. The counsellor listened, and reassured her that nothing she was describing was her fault. She also helped her learn about the intergenerational cycle of abuse. By tolerating the treatment she’d suffered at her husband’s hands, Zafar came to understand that she was setting up her two daughters to experience something similar. “I knew that I had to break that cycle,” she says, “if not for myself, for my girls.” After two years of counselling—and enduring twelve years of verbal, mental and physical abuse—she gained the courage to leave her husband for good. While her path wasn’t instantaneously easy, counselling continued to help her. “I still have many moments of self-doubt and guilt,” she says, adding that the trauma never really goes away. Instead, she learned how to move on with it—by developing skills to manage her way through difficult periods.
In 2013, Zafar graduated from the University of Toronto at the top of her class and became the first woman of colour to win the John H. Moss Scholarship Fund. This honour is given to an outstanding student in Arts and Science at the University of Toronto who intends to pursue a second degree or graduate-level studies. Today, Zafar is an international speaker, a bestselling author, a mother of two girls, and a med student at McMaster University.
We believe that Samra Zafar’s journey can provide lessons to anyone experiencing difficult times of any sort. As a child bride she could have conformed to the expectations of her husband and his parents. Instead, she was able to find the strength to pursue her own path. As anyone who has struggled through difficult times knows, the road isn’t easy. “It’s very painful to walk away from people you’ve always sought approval from,” Zafar says. And while support systems exist in Canada, Zafar says the first person we need support and permission from is ourselves. “Because when you go against the normal, whatever that normal has been for you, it’s scary. And the biggest fear is the fear of the unknown: if I jump out of this plane, will my parachute open?”
Zafar now speaks about her experiences in the hopes it will help encourage others to build resilience to address the difficult situations they’re facing. “We all have courage within us. The choice is whether we use it or not,” she says. Being a single mother also taught Zafar the importance of putting herself first. “Your relationship with yourself is the foundation for your relationship with everyone else in your life.” Once you’ve established that base, she says, the next step is to seek out others to become your new support system.
“The more we connect with each other,” Zafar says, “the more collectively and individually resilient we will be, and the more we will be able to heal.” Finally, she believes that being kind to yourself represents an important first step toward building the resilience required to make a major life change. “There’s a lot of beauty after trauma and adversity,” says one of 2022’s Medcan Heroes. “I’m living proof of that. And my mission in life is to help others make that a reality for themselves as well.”
Do you know someone who deserves recognition for their contribution to the wellness of our community? Send us your Medcan Inspires nomination at firstname.lastname@example.org.