Fatima Matar is a lawyer, law professor, and an activist from Kuwait. After speaking out against human rights violations, government corruption, honour killings, book banning, and in support of the rights of the LGBTQ community, she fled her home country in 2018 out of fear of imprisonment and her personal safety. She and her teenage daughter, Jori, sought asylum in the U.S., and they currently live in the Cleveland area while they await their pending immigration trial.
Life in Kuwait
My life in Kuwait felt like a tiny room with a very low ceiling. I couldn’t go far; I had to keep my head down, and I had to stoop all the time. When you are threatened from a very young age that “you better not think that; you better not say that,” it terrorises you. It keeps you small and unsettled.
As a girl, I didn’t have feminist terminology. I never heard words like “feminism,” “patriarchy,” “misogyny,” or “sexism.” My feminism was organic. It didn’t come from a book I read, or a movie I saw — it was a fire that burned within me each time I was subjected to servitude simply because I was a girl. To serve food for men, to clear men’s dirty dishes, to answer men’s angry shouts: I resented this, and I asked, “Why?” Why do I have to help prepare and serve food at family gatherings while my uncles and male cousins sat and drank endless cups of tea, pretending to solve the world’s problems, as I waited on them?
Why did I have to run back and forth to the kitchen, bringing more plates and cutlery? Why did we women hide in another room while the men ate, waiting for our turn to eat after they had finished, when all the dishes had been disturbed, eaten from, messy — dirty with spilled, greasy stew and scattered salad? “This isn’t right,” I would protest. “Shouldn’t the men help, too? It’s their home, too; it’s their meal, too. Why can’t we all eat together?” Why was my brother sent to an expensive private school, while us five girls went to free public schools? And why didn’t I, as a woman, have autonomy over the simplest decision — what to wear? Or the most important decision — who to marry?
At home, I had to fear my father. My mother scolded me into submission and obedience with the warning, “Your father better not hear you say that or he’ll kill you.” The violent, controlling, unkind father was later replaced by an equally unkind, violent, and controlling husband. The third time my husband hit me was also the third time he promised to never hit me again. There was mental, emotional, and financial abuse, too. Growing up, I saw my father abuse my mother, and I wasn’t going to put my daughter through that trauma, so I divorced him, despite my parents’ disapproval and my mother’s declaration that, “All men are violent; it’s a wife’s duty to be patient.” In addition, outside my home, I had to fear the Sheikh, who jailed anyone who criticised him.
Despite the tight control over my life, I did well in college and got a scholarship to get my master’s and doctorate in law in the United Kingdom, a privilege that few women have where I come from. As a lawyer, a law professor, and a feminist, I strongly believe in democracy, freedom of speech, and gender equality — but I couldn’t live by my beliefs in Kuwait. I spoke up about the human rights violation against the “stateless” (tens of thousands of people who are longtime inhabitants but are deprived of citizenship, health, education, and work). I blamed the Sheikh for their tragedy; I called him corrupt and was prosecuted for it. I spoke up about the growing problem of honour killings (femicide) in Kuwait and was prosecuted for that. I called for the rights of the LGBTQ in a country where homosexuality is still illegal, and I organised protests against the government’s ban of more than 5,000 books.
When my imprisonment became imminent in 2018, I fled, knowing that my daughter, Jori, and I would never be safe in Kuwait.
Arriving in America
I visited America as a tourist in 2014 when I took Jori to Disney World when she was nine years old. But we’d never lived in America. I asked my friend Mohammed for advice. Mo, as his friends call him, is one of the Kuwaiti stateless who left the brutal treatment in Kuwait for a better life in the U.S. He’s been studying and working in Cleveland for years; he said the winters are cold, but the spring, summer and fall are wonderful, and the people are great. Mo ultimately helped me find a good school for Jori and an apartment close to her school. But arriving to the United States did not go as Jori and I planned.
Although we carried valid passports and visit visas, the date on our return tickets exceeded the permissible six-month stay, and this raised suspicion. Our luggage was searched, and the documents I brought with me proving my prosecution back in Kuwait were found — translated papers detailing that I’m being tried for my political and religious views, and my social activism.
We were detained in a tiny room at the Department of Homeland Security for four days while a place was being found for us at one of the detention centres in the south. Two old, dirty gym mattresses covered the floor — they were our beds. Three cameras watched me and Jori from every angle, and the florescent lights that were never turned off made my eyes water and gave me gruelling headaches, making me grind my teeth in pain. When I asked if I could access some aspirin from my confiscated bag, I was refused. When we asked if we could read the books we had in our luggage, we were refused that, too. We went four days without a shower, with access only to a dirty public toilet. We lay there in terror, not knowing what would happen to us. I couldn’t voice my greatest fear to Jori: Will they separate us at the detention centre?
Thankfully, we weren’t separated at the detention centre in San Antonio. We slept in clean, tidy bedrooms, had 24-hour access to showers, and meals were plentiful and served three times a day. There was a clinic, a library, a school, and an open, spacious lawn area where kids can play and where I jogged every morning. Pro bono immigration lawyers were available to help us prepare for our Credible Fear Interview, which had become the main worry for Jori and me during our time there. ICE agents conducted these interviews with detainees to determine who had enough reason to fear going back to their homeland and, therefore, is eligible to stay — and who didn’t and was deported. The criteria of what constitutes Credible Fear is purposefully left vague and broad and up to ICE’s discretion. Jori and I were comparatively lucky; we passed the CF interview and left the centre after two weeks. Some families have been there for many months.
Karen Walrond has been many things in her life — a lawyer, speaker, photographer, author, leadership consultant, and a mother. She was born and raised in the Caribbean, met her husband-to-be in London, and they are now raising their teenage daughter, who they adopted at birth, in Texas. Walrond and...Read more
We arrived in Cleveland in mid-January of 2019. Our immigration lawyer told us it would take a year for us to receive Social Security Numbers and work permits, which meant I had to make my savings last us a year. Despite our release from detention, we are still required to appear before an immigration court and convince a judge we had enough reason to seek asylum in the U.S. — and the date for our trial is still yet to be determined.
When I finally got my work permit in late February 2020, the pandemic hit. I searched for a college teaching job (something relevant to my law degrees) but to no avail. I told myself I could do any work, so now I work at Target and I’m a caregiver, caring for an 11-month-old baby. I also built an app called Beu Salon. Beu allows cosmetologists to serve their clients at home. My two great loves — painting and writing — have generated some income, albeit small and sporadic.
Single parenting in a new country during a pandemic
I like to think that the difficulties I faced as single mother have given me character and strength. In Kuwait, it is still shameful to be a divorced woman; everywhere I went in search of an apartment for Jori and myself, I was rejected on the grounds that I was a single mother. Landlords looked at me and spoke to me with disdain and disgust. They refused to look me in the eyes when they told me that they only welcomed tenants who are families. Everything I needed to do for my child required her father’s presence and permission. I couldn’t enroll her in school without his signature; I couldn’t renew her passport or issue her a civil ID. It terrified me that hospitals in Kuwait declined a mother’s consent if her child needed emergency surgery — only the father’s consent was taken into account.
In the United States, I am not discriminated against on the basis of being a single mother, although it’s true that in many narratives, single motherhood is still seen as an unfortunate state. But Jori and I have a special bond; we lift each other up, we make each other strong. We talk about everything — even the awkward stuff. We have inside jokes, and we understand each other’s body language. It’s always been me and her against the world. We’ve been on adventures. We didn’t just dream of a better life; we took risks to have a better life.
I’ve always asked Jori’s opinion in everything I did, and always took her opinion seriously. This has given her confidence and wisdom, and the belief that she matters and what she thinks matters. I divorced my abusive husband when Jori was three years old, but had she been old enough at the time, I know she would have encouraged me to leave.
Jori loves her school in North Olmsted, Ohio, where she’s made two good friends, but the isolation of the pandemic has been hard on both of us. When we arrived in the U.S., Jori was 13; now she’s 15. I can no longer be everything to her as I was when she was a little girl — there are so many things her friends give her that I can’t. She (and all the other kids) had to continuously adapt to extreme, rapid changes: First the schools were closed, and everything was taught online. Then the school reopened and the kids had to go back full time. Then the number of COVID cases rose, the school closed again, and the students went back to online learning. Now they’re doing the hybrid system, attending in-person classes two days a week, and distance learning three days a week. Soon, they’re switching again to in-person classes full time.
The pandemic has drained us emotionally, and the cold winter has made it hard to even go hiking. I often repeat to myself the Voltaire quote, “The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude,” but I’d also like to sit in a café with a friend, or go to the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Looking ahead, there are still uncertainties: the pandemic, our immigration trial. But Jori and I remain hopeful. We’ve immersed ourselves in our new community — we’ve walked sheltered dogs, we’ve helped sort out clothes for the homeless at churches, and we’ve marched in Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder. This is our home now.
Every time I am overwhelmed by the uncertainty, I remember what Jori said to me when I was terrified and tearful as the airport police took us from that tiny room they detained us in, to send us to a detention centre in Texas. I considered asking them to send us back to Kuwait out of fear of being separated from her, but Jori said, “We didn’t come this far, only to come this far.”
I know I’ll get a teaching job at a good local college, my app will grow, I’ll be able to publish my memoir, and sell more paintings. And Jori will have everything I didn’t have growing up: Full autonomy over her body, mind, and critical life decisions. She’ll have the ability to be outspoken without the threat of violence and imprisonment, and to dress however she pleases. She’ll be able to love and marry whomever she chooses, to travel, to study, to dream, and to grow.