✦ Jessica Gardner is soft spoken yet her story is one of loud courage. Her choice of religion brought back her life and gave her the quiet strength to build a new future.
As a child, I was often teased because of my wild red hair, freckles, and chubby cheeks. My pale skin would sunburn easily, and so my face was permanently pink, prompting insults like “matchstick” and “tomato” that made me ashamed of my appearance. As I grew older, people would comment on my weight, the clothes I wore, the way I styled my hair, how my makeup looked, who I associated with… to the point I felt scared to leave my home because of the criticism I received on an almost daily basis. I became hyper-aware of how other people reacted to the way I looked and acted, and it created an unhealthy obsession within me to be “perfect”. I developed anxiety, an eating disorder, and my self-esteem was so low that I often found myself in situations where I allowed people to treat me badly and take advantage of me because I didn’t think I deserved any better.
I struggled with this for many years before being introduced to Islam, and now that I have the spiritual support that I do, along with a community of people who love and respect me for who I am, my life has changed completely.
Learning about Islam
Funnily enough, I was introduced to Islam through a Hindu Indian friend of mine, named Anuradha. I got to know the Indian and Pakistani Muslims in the area through her, as the majority of South Asians tend to stick together when living in foreign countries, and they all know one another.
While I do see myself as being very open-minded and accepting, the opinion I had of Muslims growing up wasn’t very good, largely because of how the media portrayed them. I remember watching so many documentaries and news stories on TV labelling Muslims as terrorists and wife-beaters, and for young and impressionable minds like mine, this type of content can be very damaging. Not only is it incredibly inaccurate and biased, but it creates fear and hatred in people that can manifest as violence and discrimination, which, in turn, could potentially lead to an innocent person’s life being lost.
Just because something is unfamiliar does not mean it's bad, and I’m a firm believer in educating yourself on controversial subjects like this, which is why I chose to set aside my personal prejudices and open myself up to learning about Islam through my new friends, and I am eternally grateful that I did.
From chaos to peace
I came from a very dysfunctional family – my father was a violent alcoholic and ended up leaving us at quite an early age, so my mother was forced to raise my siblings and I by herself. While she wasn’t perfect, I can appreciate now how hard she tried to provide for and take care of us. There was a time when our relationship was very toxic, and there was a lot of sadness and resentment in our home, but nowadays we are getting along a lot better, and I’m very grateful for her presence in my life.
Before meeting my husband, I had been involved with an abusive paedophile who’s impact on my life has left me with several trauma-related disorders that I still struggle with today. I was hospitalised many times for my mental health, and by the age of 16, I had already tried attempting suicide. I had this constant, overwhelming feeling of inadequacy, like I didn’t belong on this earth, like I didn’t have a purpose, like I deserved all the bad things that were happening in my life. And then I lost something very important to me, a loss I will never wish on anyone, and it absolutely devastated me. For a brief moment, I felt hope, and then it was gone again. I felt like the world was closing in on me, and all I could do was watch and hope that it didn’t hurt too much.
My friend Anuradha noticed the state I was in and let me come and stay with her for a few days so she could keep an eye on me. During this time, she invited me to go out with her to meet some of her friends, to have fun and try to distract myself from everything that had been happening.
It was then that I was introduced to a few of her Muslim friends in Port Macquarie, and after learning about my situation, they opened their arms to me and cared for me like I was their sister. It was eye-opening for me - I was blown away by their kindness, generosity, and optimism that things would get better. They weren’t the violent, oppressive, religious maniacs that I had once been made to believe; they were actually the complete opposite. Their complete and utter faith in God, along with the love, respect and acceptance they offered to everyone they came across, absolutely fascinated me, and that is when I started learning and reading about Islam myself.
I began implementing certain things into my lifestyle and daily life, like wearing the hijab, eating halal certified meat, and eventually praying multiple times a day. I developed a strong faith in God, and as someone who was previously an atheist, this was a huge change for me. I found that the more I prayed and researched about Islam, the better I felt. Every day, the grief and pain got a little easier, a little lesser, and I found myself resting in the support of not just my friends, but also God.
Whenever I started praying, I felt this wave of peace, calmness, and contentment wash over me. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before, and I can only describe it as being akin to a warm embrace from someone you love.
My experience is not uncommon in that many people have turned to religion because of grief or other traumatic experiences, however I don’t feel like that fact makes my journey to Islam any less special or meaningful.
Since then, I have come to terms with my loss, and by praying and learning about Islam, I have escaped from the abyss that I had spent many years suffering in. I am sure that if I hadn't found this spiritual support when I did, I probably wouldn’t be here today, and that is both a terrifying and comforting thought.
I undoubtedly feel much happier since finding Islam, and while I still get sad and struggle with my mental health, I feel more like myself now, and I am slowly becoming the person I had aspired to be when I was younger.
I would have never imagined that I, born and raised as a Catholic, would end up reverting to Islam, but I believe that everything that happened was a part of God’s plan, and that where I am now is exactly where I need to be. I feel so much love and gratitude for the people I befriended, those who stood by me and helped me to overcome my struggles. I became close to these people, who are mostly foreigners from different cultures and backgrounds, who helped to open the doors to Islam for me and gave me the warmth, sense of belonging, support, and faith that I desperately needed.
I've since come to accept that there will be many people who won’t support my decision, who will make insulting, uneducated remarks that are full of prejudice and bias, but I am choosing not to associate with these people. I have had to cut ties with many of my friends, and even some of my extended family because of their blatant Islamophobia. For me, any kind of discrimination is bad, whether it's religion or race, or simply making negative comments about something one does not know enough about.
Did you know that racism in Australia is illegal?
I'm happy to talk to people and share my experiences with anyone who is curious and willing to listen. I can respect the opinion of each person, and I can only hope that, in the future, they, like me, can have an experience where they come to understand things a little better. And I mean this not just specifically for my religion, but really for any issue in the world. Perhaps if we could simply stop to listen for a bit, or do some digging for ourselves, we would come to see things, and people, in a much better light.
Jessica’s story is one we're not ever going to forget, and a powerful reminder to keep our hearts open. It's easy to claim inclusivity and diversity, but living it, and walking the talk is something else. Brilliant-Online ́s theme for July is precisely about friendship, diversity and inclusivity. At the end of the day, as humans we all want and need connections...to people, perhaps to something greater than us out there. For Jessica, this was how she found a way to connect to life again. If you ever come across a quiet young lady with a now beautiful smile, radiant green eyes and a lovely hijab, say hi to Jessica and you'll know she'll be happy to share with you her experience if you are open to learning. It takes so little to make someone feel like they are seen, they matter and that they belong. Now you'll know the power of your smile and how a friendly hello can make all the difference in a person's day. Thank you Jessica, for your gentleness and wisdom, and for giving us so many insights to your religion.
* كل اركش
*Shukran lak - Thank you.
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