“When someone shows you who they are, believe them” – Maya Angelou. Truer words were never spoken. I’ll give you one example of this through my story. I share it in hopes of motivating and teaching life lessons I have learnt the hard way.
My name is Zeenab. I’m Nigerian-British, but have also spent formative years growing up in New-York. Being artistic and creative, free spirited, stubborn, a risk taker, boisterous, and some would say embracing adventure are just some of my character traits. I’m a trained architect and also a trained culinarist. What can I say, I’m not one that is easily put into one box. I’m a mum of 2 beautiful children, and I have lived through, and still living through the after effects of being a domestic violence survivor. It’s been a journey and still is, but I’m grateful and stand on the fact that I am a victor, not a victim.
As a teenager I was withdrawn, quirky and a little awkward, but generally not one who got into trouble. That’s probably why my parents didn’t foresee any problem with me leaving the UK to go to the US to further my studies. I was reasonably well behaved, studious, and didn’t naturally draw any attention to myself. I studied and graduated in Architecture, with a minor in Interior Design. Architecture was something I enjoyed, unfortunately I found it difficult to get sponsorship for a work visa to stay on in the US doing what I enjoyed. After surveying possible options and finding none, I reluctantly returned to the UK, to work on building my career.
Pitstop to UK
25 years of age, in the prime of my life, the world was my oyster right? Erm, not quite. I found that I couldn’t get a job as an architect. To do so would mean I’d have to retrain to get the requisite UK qualifications to practice architecture. Whilst trying to figure that out I indulged in one of my passions, baking. I was good enough to make some money from making cakes, chocolate and sweet treats. This side hustle paid off considerably, such that I started working in retail, and got a contract making pastries and chocolates for Ann Summers. It was a sweet gig, and I was doing reasonably well.
Change of plans
With the architecture dream seemingly not going anywhere, I decided to pursue this other passion and go on to get a professional qualification in culinary arts. When I do something, I’m a go big or go home kind of gal, so I applied for scholarships with some of the best culinary schools in New York. I got not 1 but 5 scholarship offers. UK was okay, but not great, so off I went, back to the US. That was in 2008. Little did I know my life was truly about to change in ways I would never imagine.
Back to the US, forward to destiny
So I did a year’s study “Staging”, which is basically an internship where a chef apprentice works in another chef’s kitchen to get exposure to and learn new techniques and cuisines. The aim after staging is to go on to paid employment afterwards. I graduated top of my class, and started work with a top french restaurant, with dreams of going on to become the next big thing. Timing however was against me, as that was the period of the economic crisis and market crash that rocked US and the world. Due to those conditions, people were losing their jobs left and right, and despite my skills, I couldn’t get sponsorship for a work visa to stay on and work in the US. For the second time, it just seemed like I couldn’t catch a break. Lord, what’s going on! I kept applying with the hope that something would give, and I’d get a breakthrough so I could stay on doing what I loved. In the meantime I did adhoc jobs and kept as busy as I could.
Going back to the UK whilst an option, wasn’t top of my list because there wasn’t really anything there for me in terms of career progression. I’d have to start all over again. My relationship with my family wasn’t great (will come back to this later), so even though they were in the UK, I couldn’t see much support coming from them if I returned. My focus was solely on building and securing a career, I didn’t even have time for a relationship. And then I met him.
Should have listened to the signs
I met my daughter’s dad and was introduced to him by a cousin I was staying with. We exchanged numbers, chatted, but there was nothing further, because as I said before, I wasn’t looking for a relationship. I wasn’t attracted to him at first, and wasn’t considering anything more than friendship. At that stage I wasn’t doing great in terms of finding enough adhoc jobs to pay all my bills, so my game plan changed to doing as many jobs as I could find before I had to return to the UK. We started to develop a friendship. Even early on there were alarm ringing bells, like him calling me thirty times a day “just to see how I was doing”, and leaving umpteen messages on my phone. I thought it was weird, a bit obsessive, and a bit controlling. So I shrugged it off by just ignoring the calls especially when I was at work. I never confronted him directly about it, or expressed to him that it made me a bit uneasy. With hindsight, I should have. Domestic violence can start off seemingly small.
The dangers of rationalising
We went on a few dates, and a few months afterwards we became intimate. I was still staying with my cousin, then he suggested that I move in with him. Naively I thought it might be more convenient until I moved back to the UK. It wouldn’t hurt anyone, and he was a nice enough guy. I still didn’t like the controlling nature of his constant phone calls throughout the day, but I rationalised it as something I could cope with, and not so bad. Shortly afterwards, I fell pregnant. I told him, and he took the news well. I spent a couple weeks debating whether or not to stay with him. Again, I rationalised things in my head. There’s a baby on the way whether or not I like it, and he’s not so bad.
More change of plans
Maybe if we get married, we’ll have the chance to build a family, and I’ll get a green card and can stay on. This certainly was not the master plan I’d had in mind when I came, but I thought “I’m in the situation now, so have to make the best of it”. My parents didn’t take the news well at all, and called me all manner of things. You’d think I was a teenager who had gotten pregnant, not the grown 28 year old that I was. It looked like I was well and truly stuck in the situation now, so I decided to stay, with the hope we could build a future together.
3 months in
When I was about 3 months pregnant, we had a misunderstanding over the phone. When he came home, my attempts to talk things through and get him to calm down failed. He hit me. A slap across my face. Domestic violence is such a shock, no matter how strong you think you are. This was the first of other physical, and verbal assaults awaiting me.
At that point, I had now overstayed my work visa, I was pregnant, and with someone who treated me badly. I was between a rock and a very hard place.
To be continued….