Sabeen* had survived two abusive marriages. She had entered the first – an arranged marriage – in Lahore, Pakistan, at the age of 21. After almost 10 difficult years, she boarded a plane with her children to start again in Canada. At 35, she then tried marriage a second time. This husband quickly turned emotionally abusive. To Sabeen, living with him felt like “living with the devil,” and she began fearing for the safety of her children. In a matter of months, she found the strength, yet again, to leave.
Sabeen had wanted to attend the University of Toronto Mississauga for a long time, hoping to attain a degree in criminology and sociolegal studies to pursue a career in family law. But there were so many roadblocks to attending university, including paperwork: She didn’t have her transcripts from the university she had attended in Pakistan. She was dealing with the emotional and financial toll of a divorce in progress, and of being a single working mom. But she thought a lot about applying, anyhow.
One day, her mom sent her a link to a Toronto Life article, with a one-line message: “If she can do it, you can do it.” It was a memoir by U of T alum Samra Zafar, who had been forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 17. Like Sabeen, she had survived emotional and physical abuse. She, too, had two children very young. She, too, had found the strength to leave her marriage. Unlike Sabeen, Samra was much further ahead in her academic journey – and her journey of healing. She had not only earned a bachelor of science in financial economics from U of T Mississauga in 2013, but had followed it up with a master’s in economics in 2014. She was now pursuing a successful career in commercial banking.
After she read the article, an astounded Sabeen looked up Samra on Facebook and messaged her. She wrote, “I feel like this is a sign from God that I have to pursue this and submit an application to UTM.” Samra messaged her right back, and advised her to email her story to the office of the registrar. So Sabeen wrote to them, laying out her entire life story. “I felt, ‘I need someone to open one window for me so I can just jump through and save my life.’”
On a summer day in 2017, she was visiting her parents who were then living in Abu Dhabi. She sat down and checked her email. There was a letter of acceptance from U of T Mississauga. “‘I did it,’” she thought. “I got in.” That night, she messaged Samra. “I thought I heard Samra scream through Messenger. She was so happy for me.”
Since then, Samra has been her mentor, an unofficial position that sees them meet up or talk once a month. The first time they met, at a Starbucks, they talked away the hours over coffee that went cold. “I thought, ‘She is so powerful and confident’ – and her smile,” says Sabeen. “When people go through pain, it’s hard to smile. So for her to be able to smile like that, where her eyes and her entire face sparkle, you can tell she’s come a long way and she’s proud of herself.” Adds Sabeen: “My smile’s kind of getting there now. Going to UTM is my healing process. Doing something for myself is a whole new beginning.”
Their conversations range from academics, to juggling single parenthood with classes, to career goals, to dealing with fears about future relationships. “It’s very holistic,” says Samra. “It’s not just about school; it’s about life.” And because mentoring shape-shifts with each step that the mentee takes, the conversations change, too: When Sabeen started school, she had questions about the credit system. Now, she mulls over whether she should pursue grad school right away or enter the job market.
They also talk about lighthearted things – from the keto diet to dating: “She has a great sense of humour,” says Samra. “There was a time when I went through a breakup and I said, ‘Oh my God, I have the worst luck with men.’” They both just looked at each other. “Babe, I’m with you,” said Sabeen. “We’re both magnets.” In that moment, they burst out laughing.
“Mentoring is very different from teaching or coaching or even helping, because it’s not about what you can do for them. It’s about how you can empower them to do it for themselves,” says Samra, who has mentored more than 30 women – at U of T and otherwise – and also founded Brave Beginnings, a non-profit to support abuse survivors. “My own mentors have never told me what to do. They’ve been my sounding board. They’ve given me ideas. They’ve played devil’s advocate. They’ve given me a reality check sometimes. They’ve connected me with people. At the end of the day, I’m empowered to make informed decisions for myself, which is so liberating. I can actually craft and create the life that I want for myself, and I don’t want to do it alone and I’m not meant to do it alone. That’s the power of mentoring.”
When Samra left her husband in her second year at U of T Mississauga in 2011 and moved into campus housing, she was struggling under the weight of court cases surrounding the divorce and domestic abuse; her own challenges of healing and coping; working multiple jobs; raising her girls; and going to school. It was her university mentors and friends who lifted her up: Students would look after her children when she was at the lawyer’s office. Professors would spend hours motivating her and encouraging her to go on.
One mentor who had a profound effect on her was John Rothschild, a U of T alumnus who was then CEO of Prime Restaurants. He is still an integral part of her life, providing emotional support and encouragement, and helping her navigate fears and hard decisions. “People would hold my hand in the worst circumstances. It just warmed my heart so much, and that is what made all the difference,” she says. “I realized that resilience is not just an individual concept. It’s a collective concept. When people are connected to each other, and when people are comfortable in offering and asking for help, that’s what builds resilience.”
Like Samra, Sabeen certainly knows what it’s like to navigate her way through extreme stressors while attending university and raising children. She tries to schedule her classes so she can be there when her 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter get home from school; then she makes dinner and helps them with homework. When night hits, it is time for her to do her own assignments. Making friends with other students has been difficult given the difference in age and life experience – and Samra helps her with that. “Only she can understand the pain that I feel, the misery of being undermined so much,” says Sabeen. “She went to hell, she came back. And she’s OK. Unless you’ve been to hell and back, you don’t know what it feels like and you don’t know if it’s going to be OK.”
Samra was accepted into U of T in 2004, but her husband wouldn’t pay the tuition fee and she couldn’t get OSAP because of his salary and assets. She started to babysit and tutor, and saved enough money on the sly for tuition. On a proud day in June 2013, at the age of 31, she walked across the dais in Convocation Hall, graduating as U of T Mississauga’s top economics student. Samra is now an alumni governor at U of T and her bestselling memoir, A Good Wife, was recently published by HarperCollins.
A few weeks ago, Samra had a vivid dream that she was back living with her ex-husband and his parents. She was in the basement, and tried to open the door to get out. She was trapped. She woke in a sweat and looked around. She was home in her condo, safe. Her kids came by. “Are you OK, Mommy?” They all hugged.
After Samra has had a nightmare or flashback, or has experienced anxiety, she imagines embracing her young self. “That 17-year-old girl who was forced into marriage or the 23-year-old who was told she couldn’t go to school, I just imagine hugging her and telling her it’s OK. You’re a part of me and I love you, and just saying the things she should have heard at the time.”
Now, as a mentor, Samra is able to support other women who may need an embrace – whether it’s a physical one, or more of a helping hand. She tells them: “The only thing that can heal you is you. Know that the strength lies inside of you, not around you. The people around you will help you realize that strength, and that’s what mentoring is about, but ultimately it’s in there. Once you know that you have that power, then you’re unstoppable.”
*Sabeen’s last name has been withheld at her request.
This article first appeared in the University of Toronto Magazine. Read more of the Spring 2019 issue.