TEL AVIV – An Arab-American girl’s horrific story of being forced by her mother to become a teen bride to an older Palestinian man and her subsequent escape back to the U.S. has gone viral.
Yasmine Koenig was born in Chicago to Palestinian immigrants. Her father passed away when she was four months old and her mother moved with her and her two sisters into her grandmother’s house.
Yasmine recalls being six years old when her teenage older sisters left for the Palestinian territories to “visit family” and never returned. She later discovered that her mother and grandmother, a very religious Muslim, had shipped them off to get married because they were being too influenced by Western culture.
At 14, Yasmine was forced by her mother to drop out of school. Home all day and bored, Yasmine said that Facebook was her window to the outside world.
One day, she met a boy through the social media site and arranged to go to the mall with him. Her mother found out and when she told her enraged grandmother, the latter insisted that Yasmine too must go to “visit family” in Ramallah.
When she arrived there, her sisters, mother, and grandmother made her meet some male suitors. Yasmine wasn’t even aware of what was happening. One of them, a man a few inches shorter than her and missing half his front tooth, was deemed a worthy husband.
At the age of 15, Yasmine was forced to marry him.
“My worst nightmare was becoming a terrifying reality,” she said. “I ran into the bathroom, curled into a ball, and dissolved into tears. How could my family do this to me? I thought about running away, but how?”
Yasmine eventually plotted her escape. She logged onto Facebook and told a friend of her predicament. The friend gave her the number for the U.S. Embassy and after two months of waiting, two officials facilitated her exit out of the country.
Yasmine faced her mother in court until the state of Illinois determined that her mother was an unfit parent.
“The first court date was two weeks after I arrived,” Yasmine recalls. “When I saw my mom, I froze. She was sitting in the waiting room and refused to acknowledge me. She didn’t make eye contact; it was as if I didn’t exist. I felt an awful mix of hurt and rage,” she said.
Yasmine entered the foster system but had difficult experiences with various foster families. Eventually, she was sent to live with the Koenigs who fell in love with her and chose to adopt her.
She returned to school to graduate and is currently enrolled at Illinois State University.
“Regardless of what I end up doing for a living, the thing that makes me the most excited is that I get to choose — what I want to wear, who I want to date or even marry, and ultimately, who I want to be,” Yasmine said.
Yasmine originally shared her story with Children’s Rights for inclusion in their annual Fostering the Future campaign. It went viral with close to half a million shares after Seventeen magazine republished it.
The story has since stirred controversy in the Arab-American community, with one Palestinian-American blogger slamming it for portraying Islam in a bad light.
“I am not, in any way shape or form, belittling this girl’s terrible experience with a shit mother and a crappy hand in life. Let’s get that straight,” Jenan Matari wrote on her blog. “Does this happen? Yes. Does it happen often? Probably. Is it what the majority of us – Arab Muslim American women – go through? Absolutely not.”