Samia Taha is a 56 year old Egyptian/Irish mother of three. She is a lawyer by degree. Her husband, Ahmed Elshamaa, passed away in 2001, leaving her widowed. Since his death, she has fully devoted herself to raising her three kids. We spoke honestly and vulnerably about the effect of his passing on her mental health, her life before family and children, and her decision to raise them in Ireland and the expectations and assumptions made about single parenthood.
MERIEM: What did it feel like to lose your husband so young? How did it affect your mental health?
SAMIA: You know what? It’s funny because I never thought that I would be the person part-taking in this interview right now. I never thought I would be the kind of woman who would dedicate my life to family and children. Growing up, I was a very spoiled little girl. My dad adored me, I was definitely his favourite. I only cared about my career and my looks and my clothes and friends. I was very carefree and completely irresponsible. Despite our culture, or the fact that my mom was married at 16 – I was never taught to clean or cook. I wasn’t expected to. I thought I would get married to someone who would spoil me the way my dad did, and I would just continue my life as a fun carefree girl as a married woman, with a lot more freedom and time. Then, I met Ahmed. He was a doctor. He was also the complete opposite of me. He was responsible. He held everything up for his family. He was talented, not only in medicine, but in singing, writing and football. He could have pursued any of them and he would’ve excelled in it. He was quiet and humble and I was loud and a troublemaker. For whatever reason, he saw something in me that he never let go of. We fell in love. Ahmed fought the whole world to be with me – and then the world stole him away from me anyway. We got married, and we moved to the States, to Chicago, where he was working. It was during my time in Ireland, I was visiting my sisters, when I got a call that he’d been in a car crash. He spoke to me, told me he was fine and he actually wanted me to stay in Ireland and to enjoy the rest of my trip. The next day, he went under coma, which he stayed under for a month and a half before he passed. I visited him twice a day, every day. Deep down, we all knew it was a waiting game for when his heart would give in and stop – but I refused to take him off the support systems. Ahmed fought for me and I was determined to fight for him. I had my first daughter at the time, who was three, my son who was a year and a half, and I was pregnant with my third. When his heart finally stopped – my whole world changed. I felt like I had been hit on the head and was running around dizzy for the longest time. I became depressed and was put onto antidepressants for years. I wore black for 7 years. Not even an single input of grey or white or any colour over the years, always black – at weddings, birthdays, anything. I wouldn’t allow myself to forget. This was also the time when I gained a lot of my weight. I lost a part of me. My other half. No words and no one can express or do justice by the type of man Ahmed was, nor the way he loved me. This man had the power to change the world, simply by being the way he was, in his job, with people, within himself. And he loved me like I was the only woman that could have ever been made for him. He showered me everyday, in songs, letters, wisdom and laughter. He never, ever, let me down – not a single time since the time I first met him. He truly was my knight in shining armour. It’s true what they say; the good die young. I miss him every single day.
MERIEM: How did you manage to get back up onto your feet after enduring such heartbreak?
SAMIA: I went to our family GP, and then I went to therapy. I was on antidepressants, which affected my pregnancy, definitely. I gave birth to Mihar in September, 3 months after my husband’s death. Although therapy helped me, the medication I was on made me feel numb. For as long as I was on them, I didn’t feel like I could properly give to my kids or be a part of their lives. I definitely think medication is necessary in some cases and helpful to lots of people, but just for me and my body, I began to feel like I was distancing myself from my problems and being negligent of my responsibilities, because I was so dazed and numbed from my pain and my reality by the amount I was on. So, I decided to stop taking them. It was hard at first, and probably not wise to do so without consulting my GP, but I woke up one day and knew I didn’t want to take them anymore – that I was going to be okay without them. That was the first step of my journey. Getting myself off my medication. I realised then, that I was solely responsible for my children now, and I would have to start making decisions on my own. It was extremely difficult because I had to be both mom and dad. Sometimes I feel guilty, because I feel like I was so busy trying to be both that I forgot that they need love and care too, not just discipline and protection. I feel like while I was trying to be strong for them, I might have been hard on them in the process. All I knew was that I was going to have to be their rock. Ahmed was no longer around to be mine nor theirs. That was one of the hardest things at the beginning; recognising that while I was losing a husband, my kids were also losing a father. Every time I saw fathers with their kids, I would fear the day I would have to try to explain to my little ones why they didn’t have one too. Every time I saw my sister’s husbands playing with their children, my heart would break for mine. I knew I was never going to be able to shield them from missing the love and warmth of having a father. It broke my heart when my first daughter, who was old enough to grasp that her dad wasn’t around, but still couldn’t understand why, would call my brother (her uncle), dad. She knew she was missing that figure, without being old enough to understand who that figure was. Just that he needed to exist next to a mother. Mom and Dad, together. I remember Meriem’s first day of school – I cried and cried and cried. Their first time for everything, was so hard on me. I hated that Ahmed was not there to witness every milestone they achieved. I hated that they couldn’t share that with him. It was hard to accept that we would never share a single important moment as a complete family together – especially when Ahmed was the one who longed for children and a future as a family, more than I ever did. He dreamt all this up with me. He wrote stories from scratch that he would read to Meriem and Muhammed. He wrote Meriem letters. In the end, he wasn’t around to see any of his dreams for his children come true. Ultimately, I decided to be happy and content with the time I got with Ahmed. I realised that there are some people, (especially in Egypt where arranged marriages can be quite common), who have husbands, or wives – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have love. Losing a husband is one thing and losing the love of your life is another. They don’t often have to be the same thing, but for me they were. I decided to be grateful and to understand how lucky I am to have had real love in my lifetime. That I felt true love. That I will see Ahmed again, and that we will get to make up for all the lost time. I never re-married or was even interested to, simply because I already married the man of my dreams. Some people never get to. I would never trade places.
MERIEM: How did you make the decision to move to Ireland, alone, with three kids?
SAMIA: The decision to move to Ireland was hard, but it was also crystal clear to me that it was my best choice moving forward. I didn’t want to continue living in Chicago. I hated it to begin with, and even more so after it became associated with Ahmed’s death. Our friends in the States wanted me to stay, but I knew I couldn’t. I considered going back to Egypt, but it wasn’t logical. Ahmed’s family wanted me to go back to Egypt, and I wanted to be with my mother after what I had went through, but I knew that Ireland was where I needed to be. I loved Ireland. Well before I got married, I used to visit my brother and later my sisters in Ireland. I loved how quiet it was. I loved the nature and the people. It made me happy. I knew for my children, the education and society they would be raised in, in Ireland, was much more beneficial for them. I knew they would be safe, I knew they would be raised in a society where they would fully develop and grow into their own selves. I didn’t want to go back to Egypt because there’s a very negative outlook on widows, divorcees, or single parents in general. I didn’t want to expose my kids to a society that thought in that way – explaining the death of their father to them was hard enough as it was. Like I said, my siblings were also living in Ireland – it didn’t make sense for me to go and live on my own in Egypt, when my family was in Ireland. I needed them to be around me during that time in my life. Irish people made living in Ireland a very right decision for me. If I had any doubts before I settled in Ireland, once I arrived and put my decision into action, those doubts disappeared. I made friends who genuinely changed my life moving forward. Irish people are one of the world’s kindest and most tolerant nations. I never felt alone. I never felt like an outsider, even before I got my citizenship. The friends I made, helped me raise my kids by giving them a loving community. Two friends particularly, Eddie and Marie, became like grandparents to my kids. All my friends became like extended family members, they surrounded them and gave them so much love. I still have a key to my house kept with select friends, in case of anything.
MERIEM: Was there any fear you had concerning your kids living in Ireland or in a Western society in general?
SAMIA: Of course, but they were slowly put to rest. I was afraid they wouldn’t be engaged with the Arabic language the way they would be if they were raised in Egypt. I worried about installing Islamic values in their lives, and if they would struggle with their faith, living in a non-Islamic country. I realised though, that this would be my responsibility, and that it didn’t matter where they were living. I took them to Arabic and Islamic school every weekend, where they learned Arabic and Quran growing up. I made sure to speak Arabic with them more than I did English and I constantly took them back to Egypt to spend time with their dad’s family. The thing is, a lot of people have a very negative image of their kids being raised away from Islamic countries and societies, but I appreciate it beyond words that my children were not. I saw how my kids’ education shaped them, how their friends respected their differences and how they learned to stand up for the things they believed in. One thing I tried to teach my children was that faith has no colour, language, country or certain qualities you need to have. I taught them to recognise what they believe in, and to hold onto that no matter what and to never let anyone interfere with that. Including me. They don’t let anyone affect their mindsets, but they also don’t allow me to interfere or impose on the values or opinions they hold dear that I might not necessarily agree with. It’s interesting, and definitely frustrating at times, but it fills me with pride that they are so sure of who they are, because I never was growing up.
MERIEM: How has your faith or religion helped you keep yourself above water?
SAMIA: My faith gave me answers when I didn’t even know what questions to ask. When I wanted to stop taking my antidepressants, I would pray to God about if it was the right decision. The same applies for my move to Ireland, and just about every decision I’ve ever made. As you might imagine, there have been some extremely hard days for me on this journey. There have been times when I wanted to give up, times when despite all my faith – I wanted to end my life. Times when I didn’t know what to do, when there was no logical nor visible solution to a crisis I might have found myself in. Then, out of nowhere, God opens a door, gives me a miracle, and tells me to hold on for a little longer. People who tell you to “pray” as a solution to mental health issues, don’t understand mental health. I have guiltily done the same thing with my children at times. I learned that faith is there for you to reach out and use, not for someone to give it to you or try to shove it down your throat. I learned that from my daughter, Meriem, when she was going through one of the hardest times in her own life. I learn a lot of things from my children everyday, and I think the best thing God gave me was three beautiful children to share this journey with. Despite all the hardship of having three kids to raise on my own, the journey following my husband’s death would have been much harder for me if I didn’t have them with me. I might have still been on antidepressants, still wearing black, still numb. I feel a lot more alive now, because of my kids, and because God has been by my side, looking over me and guiding me.
MERIEM: What do you think/how do you feel towards the views many Egyptians and indeed, Arabs hold towards widows, divorcees or any single woman for any reason?
SAMIA: It angers me. Here in Ireland, I was never asked once the reason for being a single mother – no one cares. No one interferes in anyone else’s life. If you want to share whatever the reason is, it’s respected. In Egypt, people interfere with everything in your life, and on top of that, when you do share and confide in people, people judge you and fail to respect something as sensitive in your life, as a loss of a loved one or a divorce. In Egypt, women who are divorced or widowed are frowned upon, and looked at as “less than”. They’re pitied, and treated as if they need to be looked after. People are suggesting they re-marry and trying to shove men and marriages into their lives because they don’t think a woman can survive on her own. When people would see me do a “man’s job” such as speak to employees who might be doing a job for me, or meeting up with contractors for our house in Egypt by myself, or whatever, there was this negative look and opinion held about me. I never cared, but it hurt to know. I see how my children have come to understand that their mom can do anything on her own, she doesn’t need a man to do anything. My daughters particularly have grown up to be the same, and even though they are neither divorced nor widowed, they aren’t even married yet – I see how people in Egypt look at them when they see them travel, interact and do everything for themselves, by themselves, without me, without partners, without their dad. I feel lucky to have avoided that for the most part and for having been able to shield them from that too, by choosing to live in Ireland.
MERIEM: What are your ambitions for your children? What do you want for yourself in the future, after dedicating so much of your life to them?
SAMIA: My biggest ambition for my children is for them to be happy. Happy in who they are. In their jobs and careers. In their families. I want them to be secure, of course. I want them to understand the importance of helping people, and of being kind and generous to people. I want them to stand up for justice and to be honest people. I hope they fulfil their dreams and that their dreams inspire dreams in other people. I want all the hardship we endured together to help them in their lives in the future, and to have taught them that nothing comes easy, but that brighter days are on the way. As for myself, I fear life after my kids settle down away from me. They have been my only priority and focus for the last 20 years. I don’t really know who I am without them. I look in the mirror and I don’t recognise myself anymore. I can’t remember what that little carefree girl looked like anymore. But, as scared as I am, a part of me is excited to discover myself in the future. I want to take on two projects in my future; I want to open an orphanage in Egypt, to help kids who might not have been as lucky as my kids were to know at least one of their parents. I also want to go back to my passion for interior design and fashion. They’re the main ideas on my future plan, and the rest I’ll figure out when the time comes. I want to secure my kids in their jobs first, and then I can start shifting a bit of my time and focus to myself.
MERIEM: What advice would you give to any woman who has recently become a single mom, whether widowed, divorced or other?
SAMIA: I would say, that a lot of people, and they could be close to you or far – but a lot of people are going to try undermine you. They are going to question your ability, as a woman, as a mother, as a human being. I want to say to her, that all the strength she will ever need is in herself. And in her kids. They will give you strength and light when you are too fragile to find it in yourself. They will keep you going on hard days – you are not on this journey alone. You can create the best opportunities and life experiences for your children, and when you see them grow up and become responsible adults – when you reap what you sow with them, and see all your hard work pay off, you will feel so grateful for your journey. I would tell her to be-friend her kids, and to remember that they too are dealing with this circumstance and change in their lives. If she is widowed, I would tell her to keep the memory of their dad alive – to understand that stories and memories help us feel connected to loved ones even when they are no longer here. If she is divorced or single, I would say if possible, to let the kids keep a relationship with their father. I would tell her to keep good friends and family around her, and to believe in herself and to trust in her power. If I can do it, trust me, anyone can. Also, it’s Mother’s Day in Ireland this weekend, so I would like to wish every mother, no matter where they are in the world, whatever their circumstances may be, a very happy Mother’s Day.