How One Young Woman Escaped Childhood Abuse and a Forced Marriage

by Adam Grannick for the Moral Courage Project

Nashwa el-Sayed grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, in a violent home. Her father and stepmother both beat her, and she was forced to become a maid in her own house. She grew up believing her biological mother had died after abandoning her as a baby. Then at the age of nine, everything changed.

Nashwa returned home after a particularly horrible day at school, and found her father standing with someone, a “foreign looking woman.” Nashwa's father told her, “this is your mom.” As it turned out, Nashwa was not from Alexandria. She wasn't even from Egypt. She was a native New Yorker. She had spent her early years in Queens, where her father had physically abused both her and her mother. Even after Nashwa's mother filed for divorce and gained custody, Nashwa's father was still allowed to see his daughter, unsupervised, which was how he was able to abduct her and take her to Egypt. Nashwa was shocked. It was as if a door to an alternate universe, free of abuse and harsh restrictions, had opened. “I learned that I have another place that I belong to,” she explains.

Even though her mother had to leave, they stayed in touch. With her mother's help, Nashwa became conversational in English. She began watching American television and listening to American pop music, including the Backstreet Boys and Madonna. Following the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003, Nashwa decided that she wanted to leave home after high school to study international politics. But as high school came to a close, her father made an announcement that hit Nashwa like a thunderbolt. He had found a husband for Nashwa, and she was to be married within four months. “It destroyed me,” she says, “because all my dreams depended on me leaving. They were crushed in a second, and I had to marry this person.”

All you'll see in this video, Nashwa had to make a decision whether to accept this life or take matters into her own hands (with a little help from the FBI). Nashwa wants more people to hear her story because, as she says, “There are two kinds of people who go through this. Some accept it and are in love with the idea of not being able to plan their own life. And there are some who are in disagreement about it [but] can't do anything. People are scared of failure, which is why they don't go after their own happiness.”

Nashwa's video is a message of encouragement and agency to all those who feel alone and trapped: