When my husband left with my girls, my world was without purpose. My family was my world.
Family Services in Australia told me that there was no agreement with the United Arab Emirates [UAE], and that the only way I would see my girls again was to go there myself. They could not help me.
I was very successful in my career as a university lecturer at Queensland University of Technology. I ran a successful training business, we had a mortgage, a house, a car – but my family was everything to me.
Ostensibly, I saved face with family and friends as much as possible. I didn’t want them to know there was anything wrong. I was successful, I knew how to be successful. I didn’t know how to fail at anything.
I always believed I could, I never believed I couldn’t. I had been brought up in a Christian family, we had faith: I was strong, I could do this.
My husband got his job at a women’s college in the UAE on the premise he was a family man so our three visas were all on his visa. We were dependents to him. This was a blessing as it meant I had a visa and a ticket to the UAE even though he did not want me to come and didn’t send the paperwork to me.
I appealed to him that the girls needed to know their mother, but to no avail – he kept stalling. With only 48 hours left before I was due to travel, I contacted his work, where fortunately an incredibly helpful woman sent through the paperwork to me immediately, quite angry with my husband that he had not done this for his wife! So thankfully I was able to go and live and work in the UAE.
When I arrived, I could not get a phone, a drivers license or a lease without my husband’s written permission (which he would not give me) and under Sharia Law, daughters automatically go with the father/husband. Traditionally it is believed he can look after daughters best, as a provider and a father figure.
Early in our marriage, we had agreed that any disagreement was ours, and that the girls would be protected from distress caused by adult altercations.
This meant that my husband and I did our fighting through the court. Yes I got angry. No I did not agree with him, but I would not fight with him in front of the girls. So I got my own flat and ending up getting my own visa, which took nine months after arriving in the UAE.
We filed for divorce in the Dubai Court, which he was very confident he would win. He was the man, so in Dubai he had to pay for both of our court fees: the man was the one who was considered responsible for his family.
Over the ensuing five years I stood in the court every 2 weeks to fight for custody under Sharia Law. Twice I won and twice my husband appealed, so for the divorce, and both appeals, I showed that I was the better carer, and I won custody each time.
To complicate things, we both re-married in Dubai within a few months of each other. Although it seemed a good decision at the time that would help my custody case, in retrospect it wasn’t. However, life is full of twists and turns; we don’t always make straight-line decisions, and life does not solve things as they do in a half hour TV show.
I am glad I followed the law, even though it meant every 2 weeks in the court. I am glad I never saw myself as a victim, and I never portrayed to the girls that we were victims of anything. My attitude has always been: “you got yourself here gal, now you get yourself out”. Full responsibility, no blame, no victim mentality; work it out, communicate, do the right thing.
It has been a blessing looking back, that we fought in the court. We had to jointly manage the girls, we both organised their birthday parties, for the first couple of years.
I wanted them to know their father, and I didn’t want them to ask me why I took them away too young to remember him. I always spoke well of their father to them, even though at times, that was difficult, I never used them as a weapon. Even to this day, I always put their father in a positive light.
I also didn’t want to have to repeat the process and do everything again once I returned to Australia. I did not want to win the fight in Dubai, and then have another court battle when I returned to Australia. My goal was to do this once, properly, legally, and then to come home for good. I was patient and successful in all my goals.
For the first few years when we returned to Australia, I wept every Sunday in church, just loving the hymns, the sermons, the security of being home and the realisation of how it could have gone. I never let myself think of the alternative. I knew I would only return legally with my girls in my custody.
My girls are lovely inside and out. They are responsible and well-balanced. Ebonyi, the younger one, was very clingy to me for many years, as she was separated from me at three and a half years of age. Many people have mentioned to me over the years, “Wow, they are so balanced, you wouldn’t know they’re from a broken home.”
After we returned to Australia, the girls and I became a foster family and over seven years we fostered approximately 34 children, some for a weekend, some for over a year. This gave us all a huge job to do. I had no money, but I had time. We had a family of three so we could give back to the community as I was so happy and thankful for what I had. It gave the girls company as kids, community support at times, and stopped us thinking about ourselves as we served the community instead.
Personally, I came back to Australia broke – financially and emotionally. It took me years to re-build my strength. Sometimes I cannot believe what I went through actually happened. I have never seen myself as a victim, only as making bad decisions at times. But I have raised two wonderful girls, and we live in Australia, so we have everything to be thankful for.
Michelle and her daughters Mia and Ebonyi are guests on this week’s episode of Insight, looking at how the children are affected in cases of international parental abduction.
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