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‘With All My Might’: Losing fear, finding self

With All My Might“With All My Might” by Gabriella Naseem Akhtar van Rij is an eminently readable book by a Pakistan-origin woman who was brought up as an adopted child by a Dutch family. In the author’s own words “Diversity, adversity, conformity, and racism have been huge factors in my early years. I would like to show you, the reader, how I have dealt with these factors, how to stay sane and, especially, how to stay true to your own values.” The author succeeds admirably.

Without spoiling the story for you, Gabriella Naseem Akhtar van Rij was born Naseem Akhtar to a Pakistani mother and evidently deceased father in about 1963 in Gajar Khan, a small village in the northern part of what was then West Pakistan. After 10 days her Muslim mother deposited her with the Catholic Saint Catherine’s Convent and orphanage in Rawalpindi, nuns of which fortuitously detained the mother and were thus able to record the name and birth details of the child. A British couple managed to satisfy the red-tape involved in international adoption at the time and in November 1966 at the age of 3 Naseem, re-named Gabriella by the Catholic nuns, travelled with her aunt- and uncle–to-be to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to her Dutch adoptive parents. Her adoptive father, EU diplomat Johannes-Pieter van Rij, broke the ice with a teddy bear, commencing a lifetime of kindnesses. Her adoptive mother, Marijke (Maria –Constantia) preferred the name Ellen but Gabriella stuck to her given name, commencing a lifetime of courageous independence in her radically new world in Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and thence Canada. Her adoptive family in 1966 also included a brother Kees (12) and a sister Antoinette (9).

Gabriella recounts her encounters with racism at school as a small, dark-skinned child that compounded her fears about fitting in, identity and security. She tells a first lie, informing children at school that her real mother had died in a car accident. Gabriella writes “I think I have experienced racism most of my life in some form or other… when I went to work after 9/11, racism came back in my life; I thought it was over and done with”. Racism is encountered when she is ordered to the non-EU line at an airport despite her EU passport, the situation being resolved when a tall, black French military officer being treated in the same fashion befriends her and successfully sticks to his guns.

A profound sense of insecurity, of being returned to an orphanage, haunted her as a child, this leading to deep-sleep-associated bed-wetting that evidently tried her mother. Gabriella writes “I looked up to the smart, beautiful mother during the day, but at night I was truly scared of her”.  Yet empathy solved this problem, Gabriella writing “When I met the man who would become my second husband and told him about my deep-sleep dilemma, his response was “No problem! I own ten sets of sheets, and the cleaning lady comes in three times a week.” I never wet the bed again.” Gabriella’s anxieties increased when her adoptive parents divorced, and when hostile grandparents sought her expulsion from Belgium and later temporarily gained custody of her daughter by her first marriage (this traumatic episode being eventually resolved after the intervention of her EU diplomat father).

A sad aspect of the book is the divorce of Gabriella from her birth relatives and Muslim Pakistani culture. At one point Gabriella starts studying Urdu in Canada but her desire to visit her homeland Pakistan cannot be satisfied without considerable danger because of hard interpretations of Sharia Law about apostasy whereby Muslims who convert to Christianity can face stoning to death in Pakistan. Gabriella was Muslim by birth, rose in a Catholic orphanage, and was raised as a Catholic in a Catholic Dutch home but is dismissive of religion: “From my first experiences of [Catholic] religion I remember how fake it was. People said one thing in church, but behaved in a completely opposite way in their day-to-day lives.”  In relation to visiting Pakistan, Gabriella states: “I have asked the Dutch consulate and they preferred I did not set foot in Pakistan, as they do not have any way to protect me.”

Gabriella offers the following advice, based on her experience, to parents adopting internationally: “You, as a parent, will have to weigh the odds and realize that you are taking away their culture, their language and their sense of belonging. You better be ready to be a loving and stable family to make it up to this child”. 

I am conscious of this cultural loss problem as the father of 3 Anglo-Indian Australian children. While they have the joy of numerous Indian as well as Australian relatives, they identify strongly with Western and in particular Australian culture, noting that Australia is domestically an exceptionally tolerant multicultural society. They certainly did not experience the racism that Gabriella experienced in Belgium and the Netherlands. Indeed as an Australian married to an Indian, I have been vastly more enriched by Indian language, music, history, writing and culture than my Anglo-Indian “true blue Aussie” Australian children.

The sorts of hostility from in-laws encountered by Gabriella have occurred in Australia to some of my older Indian Australian friends (but certainly not in the case of my marriage). Indeed when in 1956 white Australian June Duncan Owen married her husband Joshua, a Malaysian of Sinhalese and Indian parents, according to June Duncan Owen’s book “Mixed matches. Interracial marriage in Australia”, they faced “disapproval and dismay within June’s Australian Anglo/Scots family and the university community… This was in 1956 when interracial marriage in Australia was not only unusual, but often seen as shameful”. After my Indian wife and I married in 1966 (8 years before the abolition of the notorious White Australian Policy) we had essentially no such problems, although I have always been aware of how relatively “unusual” our marriage was for people of our generation, albeit somewhat less so today.   
Racism, two adoptions, separation from her birth relatives and culture, the divorce of her Dutch adoptive parents, insecurity, 2 unsuccessful marriages (one ending badly and one ending with an amicable divorce), overdose with pills  and the attempted removal of her only child – all traumatic problems with attendant fears that Gabriella faced and conquered. Gabriella states “Whether I am the black sheep in the family or not, I decided to embrace it”. Gabriella provides sensible coping advice to the reader, much of which involves turning negatives into positives and making fear transient. Gabriella writes “It is ok to have fears, but when you conquer them, you will see what a true relief it can be. The growth you feel within is huge. You will feel as if you are lifted off the ground. That is how terrific a feeling it is to overcome fear.”

We all have various sets of health, relationship and personal problems that are variously helped by talking to empathic people and indeed by “swapping notes”. Gabriella embraces the reader, takes the reader into her confidence and offers sensible and humane advice based on her experiences. “With All My Might” is a very useful, eminently readable and humane book for an increasingly multicultural world.

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