Emirati tells how she moved on from abuse and homelessness

A proud young woman forced to sleep rough in a public park and scavenge food from rubbish bins has spoken of her struggle to rebuild her life.

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ABU DHABI // "Maryam" was married at 15, and a single mother a year later after leaving her abusive husband.

While still a teenager she was left without a roof over her head when her mother illegally sold the family home and moved abroad with the proceeds. Jobless, homeless, without a penny to her name and denied state aid by a legal technicality, Maryam was in despair.

The depths to which she fell are a stark reminder of the cracks in society through which anyone can fall, even members of established Emirati families, and how the best-intentioned state-support system cannot save everyone.

At no point, however, did she lose her pride or her dignity - and her fight to rejoin mainstream society is a tribute to the human spirit.

Maryam, a strikingly beautiful woman of 26, was born to a Lebanese mother and an Emirati father 25 years older than his wife.

As a child, her life was never easy. Her parents' relationship was often stormy, and things took a further turn for the worse when Maryam was 13 and her father developed diabetes. He suffered a stroke that left him unable to move and the family dependent on his retirement salary.

By the age of 15 Maryam was betrothed to a man in his forties. At first, she welcomed this. Her mother had taken her out of school at the age of 10 and she hoped married life would mean returning to education.

But the marriage was short-lived and without joy. The couple did not attend a wedding ceremony or share a house. Maryam's husband used to visit her at her father's house, where he abused her.

Forty days after the marriage, a court ruled that he should divorce Maryam because of the violence he had inflicted. "The effects of the beatings showed in the medical examination," the court's divorce document reads. "His beating for her has exceeded the slight beating limit … a severe beating, without a clear reason for it.

"There is nothing that permits him to beat her this way, which had left marks on her body and exceeded the permitted disciplinary limit."

Divorcing her husband was a brave step for Maryam to take, as she was pregnant with his daughter. The decision left her a single mother at the age of 16.

A year later Maryam's father died. And a year after that, the rest of her world fell apart.

"One day I went back to the house and found my things outside," she says. "A stranger told me that my mother had sold him the house for Dh430,000."

Maryam then discovered her mother had left the country three days earlier.

"I was suddenly homeless with Dh500 only in my pocket." She was also forced to surrender the custody of her daughter to her ex-husband.

In desperation, she called a driver who used to work for her father and he agreed to let her sleep in his car.

Then Maryam took on a series of menial jobs at cafes, many of which paid only food and board. She was fired from one job after she refused to go out with a customer.

"If I found something to eat, I ate, and if not then nothing," she says. "I was only guaranteed somewhere to sleep at night."

All the jobs she worked at had one thing in common - they never lasted.

She took to sleeping in the park opposite the Chamber of Commerce in Abu Dhabi and was forced to collect food from the rubbish bins.

"I would spend the days going around cafes looking for a job, and go to the petrol station to use the bathroom and wash up," Maryam says.

At night, after the police patrols left, she and some Asian women went to sleep in the park.

"I used to sleep between their bodies so we could protect each other," Maryam says. "They also taught me how to get food.

"We would wait until people brought takeaway food to the park, and after they placed the leftovers in the trash, we would run to divide what they left and eat it. That was our lunch.

"Two years and 50 days I spent without any shelter or income. Many blamed me, saying a woman with such beauty could live a different life, but I couldn't do that to myself."

Now at her lowest point, Maryam decided to fight for her father's house - the home that should have been hers all along.

The home was a type of public housing offered by the Government, which cannot be legally sold or rented.

By selling it illegally, her mother did not just deny Maryam a place to live - she also denied her the ability to prove she was homeless.

During her long stay in the park Maryam had sought the support of aid organisations for Emiratis, but found she was ineligible because her father's house was still registered under the family's name and she was listed as his heir. Legally, she already had a home, even if in practice it belonged to someone else.

It was not until a chance encounter at a jobs fair that things started looking up. A man with a similar family name to Maryam's managed to find her a job with the chamber of commerce. But her luck was not to last.

Her new circumstances enabled her to apply for a Dh450,000 loan, but her naivety meant she was easy to fool. After one ill-fated business venture she was sent to jail for two months.

Homeless again, she called her lawyer's paralegal, who took pity on her and agreed to pay her rent.

And that's when she knew her luck had changed.

Two weeks ago the highest court, the Court of Cassation, ruled that she had a right to her father's house and that it should never have been sold in the first place.

Now, after 11 years of hell, Maryam can see light at the end of her particular tunnel. Her troubles may not be entirely over - the court also ruled that she must repay the Dh430,000 her mother took for the house, and she has other debts - but she is no longer facing them alone.

The family home is now incontestably hers, the paralegal who helped her is now her husband, and the couple have a one-month-old son. There will be no more sleeping in the park, no more scrabbling in bins for food.

"I'm much more comfortable now," she says. "I have my husband and son by my side."