One woman's journey from prejudice to pride in Kuwait

Updated: Nov 12, 2018

"My America is adolescent because Americans believe first news reports they hear instead of researching it for themselves and developing their own opinion. America still needs to mature to be effective in the world community."

*All the names in the story are changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

When Bilal told Gwen he was from Pakistan, she involuntarily took a step back from him.

A week later, they were standing on the warm sand of a Kuwaiti beach, where she brought up the subject of his nationality again.

They were both in their late twenties. He stood tall and handsome; she was a week away from falling head over heels for him.

“Pakistan is full of terrorists, and it's very violent there,” Gwen said, explaining her uneasiness about his home country. “Should I be worried that I am with you?”

All Gwen knew about Pakistan came from random breaking news stories she caught on TV, and what she saw made her worried. Bilal, who held her hand all the way to the beach and protected her from the passing by cars, now looked surprised.

“Why don’t you google crime in Lahore, Pakistan [his hometown]?” he suggested.

Gwen pulled out her iPhone and did a quick Google search. She found proof to her point – a news story about a Shia Muslim being murdered that day on the streets of Lahore as a result of an ongoing religious war.

“Okay, you are from Dallas, Texas, right?” said Bilal. “Now, let’s Google crime in Dallas.”

They found 10 crimes for the same day – murders, rapes, robberies.

“Random stuff,” Gwen told Bilal.

“You see,” said Bilal. “I should be afraid of YOU. You guys have senseless murders.”

With this simple statement delivered with a laugh, Bilal got under her skin. Their relationship would help Gwen to embrace new experiences and opinions. She, who had refused to leave her hotel room in Dubai because she felt uneasy around covered women and feared to offend them with her mere presence, would seek refuge in nothing else but pages of the Koran after Bilal’s tragic death.

Gwen was born in California to a family of Marines. Her father traveled for assignments a lot, and during her teenage years, Gwen often went to different Asian countries to visit him.

She graduated from the University of North Texas in 2004 with military history and art studies degrees. Within 6 months she landed a job in the HR department for Boeing’s contractor. She was tasked with research and quickly got the hang of finding engineers and pilots with the skillset perfectly matching the job requirements.

For some time, everything fell into line for her. Gwen had a job she liked and was good at, and she got engaged to Peter, her boyfriend of four years. After graduating from college, she and Peter moved in together to a two-bedroom apartment which she lovingly decorated with Asian-themed souvenirs collected during her trips abroad. They had three dogs and talked about having kids.

Then, one March day in 2008, Gwen lost all feeling in her legs and collapsed on the kitchen floor. She waited in a chair for Peter to get home from work because she was too prideful to ask for the help of strangers and call an ambulance.

That evening, Peter rushed Gwen to the hospital, where she had undergone a relatively major surgery several weeks before. Doctors kept her for a week but couldn’t find an explanation as to why her legs were paralyzed, or a way to fix it. They ran the analysis and reviewed the videotape from Gwen’s previous surgery, but the condition remained a mystery.

Only three years later, Gwen found out an answer to what had happened to her. It was a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks nerves and causes paralysis. The disorder was triggered by her surgery, which exposed Gwen to an acute bacterial infection.

Today, Gwen believes she got lucky. People suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome often die, as the disorder strips people of their ability to walk, eat, breathe… Gwen just lost the feeling in her legs. However, back then, when Gwen was released from the hospital in a wheelchair, she didn’t see it as luck. It almost broke her.

Gwen couldn’t bear staying home. She got back to work, still on a wheelchair, even though she had to get it in and out of the car herself. It was tiresome, and Gwen told her physiotherapist she wanted to try to walk again.

It was April 2008 when she fell on the kitchen floor. In July she was walking with the assistance of a walker. By the time her wedding day arrived in December 2008, Gwen was confident enough to refuse to have the walker appear in any of her wedding pictures. She left it standing by the wall in the church, as her father helped Gwen walk down the aisle, where Peter, her husband-to-be, held her hands and helped her to stand.

Gwen never completely recovered from the syndrome. Today, she still can’t walk down the stairs without holding on to something or to someone.

“You know, how your legs feel when they are asleep?” asked Gwen. “That’s how my legs feel every day. They function, but I can’t feel them.”

Bilal helped Gwen to rebuild her confidence, piece by piece. He refused to accept her self-image as a disabled person and constantly challenged her.

Even on their first memorable date on the beach, Bilal refused to hear Gwen talking about her disability. He cheered, “You are a strong amazing woman; you can do this. I’ll be around in case you fall. I can help you get back up, but you can do this.”

But Gwen met Bilal only in 2013. Back in 2008, she was trying to build a family with Peter and restore her ability to walk.

When life seemed to start improving and Gwen could walk again and had a new job recruiting pilots to move abroad and test helicopters, the bad fortune hit again. Peter, who worked as a plumber, broke his knee at work. The injury prevented Peter from getting back to work, and he started staying home.

Watching her husband giving up on himself after the injury, Gwen, who pulled through a life-threatening situation with Guillain-Barre syndrome, started losing respect for him. She thought about divorce but justified staying in the marriage to provide unemployed Peter, who decided to become an artist, with medical insurance.

They tried having kids, but her medical condition didn’t allow her. Once, her doctor told her and Peter that pregnancy would kill either her or her child. It affected their declining relationships even further, and in 2013 Gwen sought a distance from Peter by accepting a three months long assignment in Kuwait.

The company Gwen worked for bought a hotel - a common practice for foreign companies coming to the Middle East, and repurposed the place for the office space and housing for their employees. On the first and the third floors were apartments, and the second floor was devoted to offices. Gwen’s room was on the first floor.

Gwen and Bilal started working closely together from the day one. He was also in the human resources department, and Gwen was teaching him how to sort through hundreds of documents related to the company’s recruits.

“Where is all my paperwork we emailed you? Where is this, where is that?” Gwen questioned Bilal the first day. She was completely mission-focused. Bilal smiled.

“We had this little game where we were sharing a desk and we were sorting paperwork. So, I drew this line on the desk and said, ‘Don’t let your paperwork go over this line, my paperwork,’” said Gwen. “I would randomly push a page over the line, to flirt with him a little bit. He would say ‘No, no, don’t cross the line!’ It became a little joke with us.”

Gwen liked Bilal almost from the first moment she saw him – incredibly handsome and sweet, and she grew to like him even more through working together. She started dropping hints, asking him to show her good places to eat or how to get to the beach. Bilal always said “Inshallah, Inshallah,” [Arabic for ‘If Allah wills it'] in response.

Two weeks into working together, Bilal finally got the hint. On Friday, their day off, they went to the beach together. On their way there, Bilal took her hand into his.

“Why did you grab my hand?’ asked Gwen.

“You are with me; I have to protect you. In case a car comes, I can move you and pull you back. If I am not holding your hand, I can’t react this quick,” said Bilal.

They ended up holding hands until they got to the beach.

Gwen struggled in navigating her relationship with Bilal. She liked him a lot, but she had to put a reservation in trying to be close to him. She was married and was away from her husband for the first time of any length. Even though she felt her marriage with Peter was only on the paper at that point, she wouldn’t allow herself to cross the line from romance to adultery with Bilal.

A week from their first date, Gwen was head over heels in love with Bilal.

“He would walk into the room, and I would light up,” said Gwen.

They developed a small ritual, where he played her favorite song – “Fix you” by Coldplay, in the office loud enough for her to hear it downstairs in her room. It was a signal that his colleague and boss were away, and Gwen could run upstairs to give him a kiss or a hug.

Bilal introduced Gwen to his brothers – as a friend, because they agreed to keep their romantic relationships a secret until the right moment came. Once, Bilal got mad at Gwen for unknowingly spilling a secret in front of his boss and causing a trouble for his brother.

“If I am making things worse for you, why wouldn’t you just leave?” fired back Gwen. “I am just going to finish the project and go back home.”

“No, I am in love with you. I would never, ever leave you,” said Bilal.

It was the first time he said this, and she felt the same way about him.

When the project was complete and it was time for Gwen to return back to Texas, Bilal gave her a present – a framed photo they took together on their first date in Kuwait. She promised to get a divorce and come back to him. Bilal knew about Peter, and he wasn’t okay with her being married until Gwen explained that there was no love left in her marriage for a while at that point.

Gwen never kept Bilal a secret from Peter, but she also didn’t explain the nature of their relationships. This way, when Peter found a framed photo of Gwen and Bilal, he didn’t see anything wrong with putting it on the “international friends” shelf in the living room next to photos of international students they hosted and other friends from overseas.

Back in the U.S., Gwen struggled to fit her new personality into old shoes. She hated to stay home and wanted to have people over all the time. She started feeling more comfortable in the Middle Eastern restaurants than in any of her old favorite places. Her circle of friends diversified, as she became more interested in people coming from different cultural backgrounds.

Most importantly, it was hard for her not seeing Bilal every day. They Skyped six days a week from her office during her lunch break, and she moved out of the bedroom she shared with Peter to the guest room, so she could text with Bilal before going to sleep.

One time, she sneaked to Kuwait for three days under a made-up excuse that she had an interview there and surprised Bilal. They spent three days in a hotel watching TV and going out at night for the Eid celebration.

“Nothing happened,” noted Gwen, but said it was still the best time of her life. After that, she knew she had to get a divorce and move to Kuwait. The last was complicated – the project she worked in Kuwait was over, and the new opportunity didn’t turn up yet. Thus, Gwen returned to Texas, to the guest room in her and Peter’s house, and continued her daily ritual – wake up, delete last night texts with Bilal, go to work and Skype there, text in the evening before going to bed. She would have gathered her courage one day and told Peter she wanted a divorce herself, but circumstances played out differently.

One day, Peter found messages Gwen forgot to delete and the following scene made it easier for Gwen to say she wanted a divorce. She didn’t cheat on him, she explained, Bilal and her were never sexual, but it happened that they fell in love.

Gwen believed her husband was fighting for the financial security their marriage provided him more than anything else. Still, when she came home from work that day, she found a photo of her and Bilal torn into little pieces and carefully piled in front of the empty frame, still resting on the same spot on the shelf. Gwen still has the frame.

It took Peter and her more than a year to go through with the divorce, but several months after the confrontation, Gwen finally found a way to move back to Kuwait and started building a life for herself there – got an apartment, found new friends, and established new rituals. One of them was going to watch cricket games with Bilal every Friday, their shared day off.

Bilal lived and breathed cricket – a popular sport in Pakistan. His life philosophy was heavily based and illustrated with the rules and insights of the game. Often, when Gwen complained about being under pressure at work, Bilal told her, “You are so anxious about everything, you are controlling about everything. You have to let go. You can’t control where the ball would go, how the pitcher is gonna throw the ball. You don’t know if your cricket bat is going to break. But if you worry about all those things you are gonna fail. You just have to let things be.”

Bilal was a part of an organizations sponsoring a cricket team of Pakistani schoolboys in Kuwait. He was “an older brother” for several boys, some of whom were going through tough times. Bilal paid for the cricket supplies and taught them about peaceful side of Islam. Some of those boys, Gwen explained, showed signs of leaning toward extremism - expressed violence at school, started separating themselves from others or just talked about Islam as the only religion that counted.

“He would try to get them on the right path,” said Gwen. “Bilal would say ‘You know that Islam recognizes all religions?’ and then he would quote places in Koran that prove it.”

When Gwen first met the boys Bilal was sponsoring, she faced a mixed reaction. Some boys were excited to meet a Westerner and practice their English, and some were afraid of her.

“You are American,” the boys explained their fear. “Your country would hurt us. They are attacking people.”

“There is more to that story,” said Gwen. “Yes, we are at the war, and yes, people get hurt, but it doesn’t mean you have to hate all Americans. Don’t associate all Americans with bad people.

Don’t categorize me with what you see in the media. Don’t put me on the same stereotype of what you think you see in the movies or read in the papers.”

Eventually, Gwen and the boys started getting along. After Bilal was murdered, Gwen took over sponsorship of the boys, making sure they didn’t have to worry about money and concentrated on their studies. They are all grown up now, and don’t need her help.

Friday days off were Bilal’s everything. He looked forward going to watch cricket matches the boys were playing. That’s why he was crushed when his boss decided to reschedule his day off to Saturday. Gwen called his boss and begged her not to do it to Bilal.

“I have a bad feeling about it,” Gwen plead.

“You are just being paranoid,” the boss answered.

On Friday evening that week, Gwen and Bilal sat together on the parking lot. He was playing with her hair and telling her she was as beautiful to him as always - she got a bad haircut earlier that day. She started crying.

“I don’t think I am going to see you after this night. There is something in my heart saying I am not gonna see you again,” Gwen recalled saying. She begged him to sleep at her place that night instead of going home. Bilal lived in a two-bedroom apartment with five other guys. He and his brothers shared one room, and their three friends lived in the another. Bilal liked the sense of community this living arrangement provided.

That night, Gwen didn’t feel right about letting him go to his room, but no matter how much Gwen cried and pleaded, Bilal stood by going home to his brothers - he had already promised to spend next day helping in his brother’s cell-phone store.

Gwen and Bilal hugged and kissed goodbye, and yet Gwen spent the rest of the evening crying and sending Bilal angry messages about not caring for her feelings. On the next morning, Gwen went to work, while Bilal was off. At 11 a.m. Gwen started feeling nauseated. She started texting Bilal, apologizing for being mean and asking him where he was. At night, Gwen, who still heard no word from Bilal, cried and cried, whispering to herself over and over again, “Where are you? Where are you? I am so sorry for being rude to you.” Then she heard Bilal’s voice saying out of nowhere “Baby, I am here. I am here” and fell asleep. “Because I heard his voice,” said Gwen.

The next day, worrying made Gwen sick to her stomach. It was around the lunch break when she slipped from her desk to the bathroom and checked Bilal’s Facebook page to find repeating over and over posts saying “Rest in Peace, brother. I miss you.” Gwen texted one of the guys who wrote one of those posts and asked, “Why are you saying you miss him? Is he back to Pakistan?” That was when Gwen learned what happened.

On Saturday morning, Bilal woke up because he heard one of his housemates screaming in the other room. Babar, (name changed) one of Bilal’s housemates, stabbed the other one. Babar was a troubled man, from what Gwen gathered later. He was in Kuwait illegally, struggled financially and, quite possibly, not a stranger to drugs. That day, it seems that Babar’s roommate confronted him about stealing money and told him to move out. Babar reached for a knife.

When Bilal ran into the room and tried to take the knife from Babar, Babar was so surprised to see that there was someone else in the house that he stubbed Bilal. Later, Babar swore that he would have never harmed Bilal on purpose – he loved Bilal as his brother, but he was taken by surprise. No one knew Bilal was home, because no one but Bilal’s brothers knew his day off was rescheduled for Saturday.

Bilal, bleeding, ran out to the street. They lived right across the road from the police station, but Bilal didn’t make it and collapsed in the middle of the way. People gathered around him, snapping pictures and posting them on a Facebook page for local news.

There is a law in Kuwait, Gwen explained - as she explains every new hire the company brings in to the country - you mustn’t try saving anybody in danger. If there is a burning car – don’t try to take people out, if there is a man beating a child – don’t intervene, and, if you see a man bleeding out on the street, as Bilal did, don’t put pressure on the wound; otherwise, if they die, the blood is on your hands. If they die while you were trying to save them, you are the murderer.

“If someone would have just put pressure where the wound was, he would be here today,” said Gwen. No one did it because of the law, but no one called the police either. Bilal died surrounded by people right in front of the police station.

When Gwen learned what happened the next day, she broke down. Her colleague found her on the restroom floor and sent her home.

“I knew the night before that he was going to die. I was afraid to tell him ‘I think you are dying tomorrow.’ I was afraid. I was just trying to convince him to stay with me.” Tears are evident as Gwen retells the story over the phone.

She asked his brothers afterward, “Why didn’t you wake him up, if he was supposed to go to work at the shop with you?”

“He was in such peace at sleep, we couldn’t just disturb him,” they explained.

Bilal and his roommate died in May 2015, and in 2017 Babar be executed. According to the Kuwaiti law, Bilal’s family and family of Bilal's housemate killed had three options – forgive, ask for money, or execute Babar. They chose to have Babar killed.

There were seven people hung that day, one of them was Kuwaiti royalty. It was the first execution in four years, and the event made international news.

Gwen never learned what Bilal’s murderer’s name was. It would have given him an identity, she explained, but for her he was just a stranger.

After Bilal died, Gwen cried for six months, every day. She thought of committing suicide several times but never went through with it. Her company arranged her to go back to the U.S. for a couple of weeks of grief counseling, but it didn’t do much. It was Koran that helped her to stop crying.

Gwen kept hearing Bilal’s voice in her head saying, “open Koran, open Koran.” When Bilal was alive, he used to open Koran on a random page when he was sad, and it helped him to feel better. Gwen decided to follow his advice and opened Koran she found on a random page. It happened to be talking about dealing with grief. For the first time in six months, she felt a bit better. She started opening Koran every day because it was the only thing which kept her from crying. In two months, she converted to Islam.

In 2016, Gwen was pulled aside at the automated passport control at the Dulles Airport. She flew to the U.S. for a short visit, and she was exhausted after a 26-hour trip.

“Do you have connections with any extremist or anti-American groups?” asked an immigration officer.

Gwen was never profiled before, but she instantly knew that the reason behind such an unusual interest to her pale-skinned and blue-eyed American self was her new hijab – it had been a couple of months since she converted.

“No, I work for the U.S. Army. So, no, I don’t.”

“Why are you wearing it?” the officer pointed on her hijab.

“Because I am Muslim.”

After seeing the documents proving that Gwen worked for the U.S. Defense Department, the officer let Gwen go.

It was the first time Gwen was back in the U.S. since she converted, and she couldn’t help but notice how uncomfortable people felt around her.

Walking through the airport with her bags or sitting at the food court, she saw people “casually” moving away from her as soon as they noticed her hijab. Or turn away from her and act like they were talking to a person next to them.

“You knew they didn’t want to be next to you.”

It was just three years ago, when Gwen got on a plane to travel to the Middle East for the first time. Back then, it was she who felt extremely uncomfortable around women wearing burkas or hijabs. Now, people were uncomfortable around her. Eventually, she stopped wearing hijab because she didn’t feel that it defined her as a good Muslim, and she got engaged to a man who accepted her story. She still cries every time she talks about Bilal’s death.