Trauma, Suffering, and the Fight for One's Own Soul: Nazish's Story

November 20, 2019

Article by Robert Carroll
Photographs by Roxanne Engstrom

In this month's feature, read how one exceptional woman rebuilt her life here in the United States, found the mental healthcare she needed, and overcame the odds stacked against her. Then, at the end of the article, please enjoy the poem, "A Lonely Girl," written by this remarkable person in both English and her native language of Urdu.

Thanks to partners like you, World Relief is able to provide needed counseling for refugees and other immigrants struggling to find help for the mental and emotional trauma that they have experienced.

Nazish is a poet both in words and action—gentle, calm, contemplative, deliberate. English is her second language, but she wields metaphor and turns phrases with charming purpose—an astonishing thing to witness considering she will occasionally pause mid-sentence to find the correct vocabulary. It’s like her heart knows the rhythm of what she wants to say long before her mind can find the words, and her soul is patient enough to make it work.

When Nazish enters the room and meets me for the first time, she smiles warmly, but I can see that behind her smile is uncertainty. I’ve been told she’s a bit nervous to sit down and conduct the interview, but I’ve also been told she’s eager to share her story. According to those that know Nazish, she has decided that she will no longer let fear prevent her from being a positive example for all the refugee women silently suffering from the untreated effects of mental illness. Before her own treatment, the fear she now conquers on a daily basis would most certainly have kept her at home rather than here now, sitting across from me, a stranger, to whom she will soon divulge details of a deeply personal persuasion about an often stigmatized condition for which many parts of the world, including her country of origin, still want her to feel shame.

So, in many ways, Nazish is also a warrior.

“I was very afraid when I first came to the United States,” she admits. “I could not trust anybody.”

She speaks softly. No matter what painful memories she recounts, her quiet tone remains. There are times when the tone of her voice and what she is talking about should feel incongruous—that her gentle sense of calm should betray the severity of the circumstances for which she is describing—but they never do. The gentle way she approaches even the most painful of subjects just feels natural. It just feels right. And don’t mistake her soft demeanor for timidity. Timid she is not. Her words are confident and teeming with clarity. She just doesn’t need to shout in order to speak volumes.

“I was feeling very anxiety [sic]. I was feeling very depression [sic]. When I came to the United States, I was thinking that still I am in Pakistan. Some memories come again in my mind. I had so many bad dreams. I always felt very sad. Even sometimes right now, I feel like I want to cry.”

Photo courtesy of Hawa Images.

Nazish comes from the Pakistani city of Kirachi. Kirachi is the capital city of the Sindh province, a southern region, and is located on the coast of the Arabian Sea, directly east of the Gulf of Oman. With a population of 14.91 million, Kirachi is the most populous city in Pakistan and the fifth-most-populous city in the world. It is widely considered to be the premier industrial and financial center of the country, and yet, even in this booming metropolitan hub, people who suffer from adverse mental health are still scorned

“Many Pakistanis need the counseling—need the mental health treatment,” Nazish laments. But she knows that for many Pakistanis, treatment for their mental health issues will never be a reality.

According to the news outlet, Aljazeera America, “The stigma against mental illness is rampant in Pakistan. [1] Before 2001 and the passing of Pakistan’s Mental Health Ordinance (MHO), which has since “marginally improved” the treatment of Pakistan’s mentally ill, “the law presiding over patients in need of psychiatric attention was the Lunacy Act of 1912.” The Lunacy Act was problematic for many reasons. For example, the act often labels psychiatric patients as “idiots” or “lunatics.”

“I’m not connecting to the Pakistani people right now,” says Nazish. “They made a huge wall between me and them. I do not share anything with them.” Nazish speaks occasionally to her father and one of her two sisters on the phone, but they never discuss her mental health. She knows better than to bring it up.

“I had some friends in Pakistan, but right now I cannot share anything with them.”

According to Nazish, many Pakistanis must go to foreign countries in order to receive affordable mental health treatment. However, this is not why she left her home.

Nazish fled Pakistan in 2013 after a divorce from her first husband became violent and life-threatening. Divorce, especially for women, is also stigmatized in Nazish’s Pakistani community, and a divorced woman is often avoided or mistreated the same way the community avoids and mistreats those with mental health issues. To honor Nazish’s wishes, that is all I will share of the circumstances surrounding her sudden departure from Pakistan, but one can easily imagine why it was necessary for Nazish and her family to flee to Thailand where they waited five years for refugee status in the United States.

On November 27, 2018, Nazish, her second husband, and her three children arrived in the United States as refugees and were promptly resettled by World Relief’s Aurora office in Aurora, Illinois. It was around this time that she met World Relief clincial therapist, Laima Zavistauskas, and according to Nazish, this was when her life truly began to change.

Nazish and her current husband, Sohail, outside their Aurora home. Photo courtesy of Hawa Images.

Upon first arriving in the United States, Nazish was still feeling “trapped.” She admits to wondering at the time if she had made a huge mistake coming here.

“I was very tired with my life,” she remembers. “I was very tired.”

While in Thailand, she had dreamed of a better life in the United States. She dreamed that the move to this country would itself correct her feelings of despair. But it wasn’t until Laima made a visit to Nazish’s house and sat down with Nazish to discuss openly how she was feeling, did Nazish realize that she would not find a solution to her sadness until she first correctly diagnosed its root cause.

For the first time in her life, Nazish felt like someone wanted to listen. She felt like someone wanted to understand. She felt like someone wanted to help.

“She [Laima] gave me the very positive answers,” Nazish says with a slight smile.

“We were processing her feelings,” Laima explained. “I told her that the power is in you, but you must give permission. The opportunity [for healing] is real, but the choices are up to you. This [counseling] is just empowerment. You are the expert of your own life.”

“I was the building,” says Nazish, “but my building was very weak at the time. If the laborer wants to rebuild the building, they put the cement, they put some stones, they refurnish, they make the new building. At that time, I was a very weak building. I want to rebuild, but I can’t. I need some help. Laima supports me. Laima helps me rebuild.”

Nazish recounts how for the longest time her own negative thoughts and fears were making it impossible for her to truly heal. “I was thinking very negative,” she says. “I will go everywhere, but always I think I will face negative peoples.”

According to Nazish, Laima provided her with the tools necessary to heal. She needed to know she had choices, that she had power over her own life, and Laima provided her with that encouragement.

Photo courtesy of Hawa Images.

Through her relationship with Laima, Nazish is learning to trust again. “We can trust the counselors,” she says. “We can trust the mental health doctors.” But, Nazish admits, she needed to come to that conclusion herself. “I was ready to say ‘I will change my life. I will talk with Laima about my life.’”

“Right is right and wrong is wrong,” she elaborates. “If we jumble right and wrong we cannot make the right decision.”

Nazish knows that coming to World Relief and speaking with Laima was not just the right decision, it was a life-changing, possibly life-saving, decision.

“Some bad happens to me so I was assuming I cannot do anything, but now I am trying again. I told my son I want to build my confidence again. I want to continue my studies. I want to get the driving lessons.” Nazish always wanted to be a doctor, but even though that profession may no longer be possible for her, she will not give up on other opportunities. “Maybe a doctor is not possible,” she says without a hint of regret, “but I set short goals now. I will take the mammogram courses. I will take the x-ray courses.”

Nazish beams when speaking of her plans to get a two-year Associates Degree so that she can become a medical technician and work in a hospital where she can help people, but she beams even more when speaking of her counselor and friend.

“Right now I am very close with her,” says a smiling Nazish in reference to Laima. “Because now I am accepting that she is my very good friend. She gave me the solution to my problems.”

I look to Laima and I see her smiling back at her friend.

Nazish ends our interview the only way she knows how. With poetry.

“The positivity is the very important rule in our life.”

Everyone in the room nods and smiles, but Nazish seems to smile the most.

Amen to that.

Photo courtesy of Hawa Images.

A Lonely Girl

Alone she is; alone she will remain.
Every girl’s life remains silent.

Every girl’s heart has a desert of pain, but I remember one thing:
the tears of every girl fall like rain inside her heart’s desert.

A single candle of hope sparks in a season of naïve optimism,
but that candle is snuffed out when the marriage plans start.

The journey from one house to the other, she walks alone.
Alone she is; alone she will remain.
Every girl’s life remains silent.

Not a part of this house, not a part of that house, not a part of her life partner.
An outsider to all parts of life, I don’t know – how can she even live?
The moment the label ‘woman’ is given her,
she is subject to the wishes of all but herself.

Me and my loneliness, we chat with each other.
Alone she is; alone she will remain.
Every girl’s life remains silent.

By: Naz

A Lonely Girl (Urdu)

تنہا ہی ہوتی ہے تنہا ہی رہتی ہے
ہر لڑکی کی زندگی خاموش ہی رہتی ہے

درد کے صحرا ہوتے ہیں ہا ﮟ ﹳ پر ایک بات ہوتی ہے
ہر لڑکی کے آنسو سے اسی صحرا میں بارش ہوتی

اِک امید کا دیا جلتا ہے جب وہ جوان ہوتی ہے
پھر وہ دیا بھی بجھ جاتا ہے جب اس کی شادی ہوتی ہے

ایک گھر سے دوسرے گھر کا سفر جب لڑکی کرتی ہے
تنہا ہی ہوتی ہے تنہا ہی رہتی ہے
ہر لڑکی کی زندگی خاموش ہی رہتی ہے

یہ گھر پر آیا ،وہ گھر پر آیا ،ہم سفر پر آیا
اتنی پرایوں میں جانے وہ کیسے جیتی ہے

لفظ عورت لگ جانے سے پابند ہو جاتی ہے
عزت کے حق سے محروم ہوجاتی ہے

میں اور میری تنہائی آپس میں باتیں کرتے ہیں
تنہا ہی ہوتی ہے تنہا ہی رہتی ہے
ہر لڑکی کی زندگی خاموش رہتی ہے


This article was written by Robert Carroll, Communications Manager for World Relief.
To contact the author, email him at


Roxanne Engstrom is a photographer at Hawa Images and long-time volunteer with World Relief. She has been so changed by her work with the many World Relief clients that she now calls friends. Her desire is to capture the humanity in each of us--people of every ethnic group and culture--through images and storytelling that compel us to widen our view of family and compel us towards change and love.

To contact the photographer, email her at


[1] Javaid, Maham. "Pakistan's Mental Health Problem." Aljazeera America, Al Jazeera Media Network, 7 October 2015,