Voices of Survivors: Part 1 Maha's Story

Headshot of Maha El-Birani

Maha El-Birani is a chemical engineer by trade and world traveler by heart. She currently works in Humanitarian Aid as a Water Sanitation and Hygiene Officer, providing aid to Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

On a Friday in April 2005, I woke up at 5AM to put final edits on a grade 12 social studies essay that was due that day. I remember the teacher saying to the class that she would not accept any late submissions under any circumstances. While working away on the family computer, my long-time physically abusive father started a fight with my older sister by joking that she should throw her 11 month old baby off the balcony. He stood towering over her and her son. I tried to protect her by separating them from each other. We rushed to the bedroom to get dressed and ready, leaving the house before the tension escalated. Mama had already left for work. My younger sister went to the kitchen to prepare a bottle for the baby, and we heard screaming. My father had gotten a broomstick to beat us with. He told us we were not to attend school that day because we were ‘bad’. He threw my older sister and her babies out of the apartment without shoes and he kept my younger sister and me inside, swinging the wooden broomstick at our legs and midsections if we were in his way. We called our Mama to let her know what was happening. She rushed home to try to convince him to let us out. He did not allow her through the door and ripped her head scarf off as he threw her out into the building hallway. At this point, my sister and I saw no way out. We called the police. My father was arrested and charged for physical assault. There was an automatic restraining order put on him that he could not return home.

From this incident on, there were many opportunities I see now where our community and public services could have helped our family to prevent the future murder of my mother by my father exactly 7 years later, in April 2012.

Since there was a reported and charged physical assault in our family, police and victim services had direct access to our home. At this point, I feel a few things could and should have been done. Perhaps, a case worker should have been assigned to our home to follow up on the situation. Perhaps, our school should have been notified and we should have been seeing school counsellors.

Unfortunately, none of this happened.

My father was charged and assigned an anger management course with Changing Ways. He went to live with his brother for a few weeks. One day my uncle came for a visit and begged Mama to take my father back because he was causing problems in his household. When she wasn’t convinced, another uncle visited us saying that if we just took him back for a few weeks, they were going to find him an apartment for him to live in. Mama finally agreed. They dropped him off and we never saw them again. They shunned us from the family and community because we had their brother arrested. We were villains from that day on.

So my father attended his Changing Ways Anger Management course. Once he completed it, the organization sent a letter to Mama saying that he never showed any regret or remorse for his actions. We wondered how this meant he had completed the course. But things were calmer at home, so we minimized, normalized, accommodated and adapted as we were used to doing, further isolated from our community. In fact, my best friend’s parents would no longer allow her to visit my home.

Time and life went on. I earned my Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from Western University. Mama earned an Early Childhood Education Diploma from Fanshawe. My sister studied her Masters’ in Western and Religious Thought at McMaster University. I worked at a natural gas distribution company, Mama worked as a teacher in a daycare, and my sister worked part-time at a chiropractor’s office.

Two years before the murder, my father had tried to break Mama’s neck. My sister and I pulled him off her. We called our uncles for help (as they had expressed they wished we had done this in 2005) and they sent their sister to our home to tell us they did not want to get involved. As my aunt left, my sister told her that if they didn’t help us, someone would leave our house in a body bag, and it would probably be Mama. She asked my uncles to meet with her later in the week, but they stood her up.

At this time, I felt the urgency to get him out of our family and our house. I learned about something called a Form 2, where you could have someone admitted into a mental health facility against their own will.  I called some mental health hotlines. This path was a dead end. It would have been temporary, anyway.

Our lives were intertwined financially because we owned a house together. We did not know how to get out. We had all worked so hard to be able to buy the house. My father had always been unemployed and Mama, my sister and I always worked to support the household. Was it fair that we have to leave our home because he was a horrible person? I used to try to think of ways to make him leave. My head would hurt trying to think of a solution. None of the solutions were fair. Should my parents get divorced? Should we go to a women’s shelter? Should we all move out and leave him? Would he follow us? All of the solutions I could think of, resulted in us giving up everything and still living in fear.

We had the same family doctor for over 20 years. The toys in his waiting room were the same ones that had been there when I was 4 and then 24. He knew our whole family. He knew the abuse that went on in our home. He had experienced my father’s violent rage personally and had even fired him as a patient. The year before Mama was killed, our Doctor told her that it was right that had she stayed with my father all these years.

My father had a therapist he saw monthly or quarterly for over a decade. He was diagnosed with clinical depression and needed to see the therapist to get prescriptions for his medications. A few weeks before the murder, Mama called the therapist to tell him that things were getting bad in our home and asked him if he was getting any indications of other issues my father may have been having. He told her that my father never spoke at their sessions. He would remain silent for the hour, take his prescription and leave. Where was his due diligence? The therapist told Mama, if he were ever to get violent, to call the police.

But what if he was too violent? What if it was too late to call the police?

In April 2012, our worst fear occurred. He was too violent. And when my sister and I returned home from our friends on the night of the 11th, it was too late. Mama was by the door, stabbed 25 times and bled out to death.

In the words of the Justice that sentenced my father to 25 years in prison for the crime of second degree murder, “You have every right to be angry. ‘Angry’ is not necessarily a negative emotion. We need anger to make sure we defend those who are defenseless. We need anger to motivate us to change people’s impressions of domestic violence and to end complacency. So anger, hang on to it, but make it a good anger. Make it a positive anger.”