I Am a Survivor: Undocumented, PTSD and Islam

My name is Maria Estrada.

I am a nurse. I am a survivor.

On Oct of 2014, I received a call that I will never forget, “Maria, our dad is dead”. My father’s name was Sebastian Estrada. He was a jornalero, day laborer, and two years ago, he died while toiling under the hot California sun. My father suffered a heart attack while he was working. I later learned that he died begging for water. The demise of my father was both the most challenging and meaningful struggle I have faced during my 27 years of life.

My narrative resembles that of the millions of immigrants who have sought refuge in America. My parents immigrated to the United States 24 yrs ago, sacrificing everything they had to give me and my siblings an opportunity for a better life. Growing up, my life was filled with constant fear for my safety. I grew up in a home that was afflicted by domestic violence. I grew up in a home that was afflicted by drug abuse. I grew up in a home that was afflicted by child hunger. I grew up in a home with abject poverty. My family and I feared deportation every day because we were not citizens. At the age of 12, I began working as a caregiver, housekeeper, food server, and picking up cans to help pay for rent and food in order to prevent my family and me from becoming homeless and going hungry. I knew that the only way to liberate my family and myself from a life of poverty was to pursue higher education.

After graduating high school with a high GPA, partaking in extracurricular activities, and working several jobs, I was accepted into San Diego State University. Because I was undocumented, I did not qualify for financial aid, so I was forced to pay for school out of my own pocket. With the unconditional love and support of my older sister, a combination of private scholarships, and working several jobs, I began my university studies pursuing a nursing degree. And that is how I came to Islam. A college friend invited me to an Islamic center, and out of curiosity I attended. That day happened to fall on Ashura, the death anniversary of one of the most important figures in Islamic history. I remember hearing the musibah, the tragedy of Karbala. I remember hearing about Imam Hussein Ibn Ali, his family, and his companions who faced the greatest oppressor of their time. I remember hearing about their driving force, truth, liberation, and justice. I remember hearing about the tyrant Yazid who usurped power through military might. I remember hearing about his driving force, falsehood, oppression, and injustice. I remember hearing how Hussein’s family and companions were abused, enslaved, slaughtered, beheaded while begging for water under the hot sun of Iraq. I remember hearing the last words of Imam Hussein to his oppressors, “I only wish for God to shower them with forgiveness”. I wept inconsolably for this man and his cause. I saw a personal connection between my pain and trauma and the story of Karbala. That day I became a Muslim.

College life was very challenging as a new Muslim and an undocumented nursing student. Despite having many challenges as a new Muslim, the most difficult aspect of college however was being undocumented.

It was illegal for me to drive, I did not qualify for financial aid or private loans, I lived with constant uncertainty of how I would be able to complete my nursing degree. With every challenge that came my way, I had my older sister, family, and close friends help me with financial resources, housing, and transportation. However, the constant uncertainty I faced caused a heavy emotional and mental toll. During my fifth and final semester of nursing school, I was forced to move back home after my older sister relocated to the East Coast. Moving back to the place where I grew up as a child triggering a severe case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

According to the American Psychological Association, PTSD is defined as, “an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events…via intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares”.

Moving back home unleashed many repressed memories from my childhood. Moving back home also forced me to face the pain, guilt, and shame of the labor exploitation that led to my father’s death. PTSD is like living in a dark hole that has no way out. PTSD is like crying out for help, but feeling that not even God can hear you. PTSD is feeling completely alone.

The reason why I am sharing this is to help lift the shame of mental illness and help shed light on the need for seeking professional help. Through the grace of God, I was referred to a psychiatrist by one of my best friends. My psychiatrist diagnosed me with PTSD, Depression, Anxiety, and sleep disturbance. I had to undergo years of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and medication treatment to quell the severe nightmares, panic attacks, and other symptoms that rendered me disabled.

After several years of treatment, the most cathartic therapy was contemplating the tragedy of karbala; understanding that both ease and hardship come from the same place and are for the benefit of the soul. That no matter how great the challenges may be, God does not test a soul beyond its means. I am thankful for having been gifted by God the story of Karbala. I have learned from Imam Hussein how to win the war despite losing the battle. I have learned from Karbala how to identify the systems of oppression. I have learned from Karbala how to create a living legacy by the pursuit of truth, liberation, and justice.

My name is Maria Estrada. I am a nurse. I am a survivor.


Written and submitted by Maria Estrada

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