Yasmine Koenig, 18, says she grew up in a “typical family” for the first 15 years of her life. Although her parents were Palestinian, she and her 3 sisters were born in the United States. After her father died when she was just a baby, they lived with her Palestinian grandmother in Chicago (and her mother eventually remarried). When Yasmine was about 6, her mom took her two older sisters to Palestine on a vacation, but returned home without them Her mother simply told her that her sisters wanted to stay and live in Palestine. Yasmine was devastated, but too small to question what her mother said.
Years passed and Yasmine enjoyed a typical childhood. She loved school and did well. Although she and her family were Muslim, her mother did not force her to wear a hajib or any other religious dress. However, shortly after her 8th grade graduation, things began to change. Though she pleaded, and though it’s illegal in the United States, Yasmine’s mom refused to enroll her in high school. After a year of doing almost nothing, Yasmine missed her friends desperately, and stayed in touch with them via Facebook. Eventually via Facebook she made a date with a guy friend. She had a great time, but unfortunately for her a few days later, her boyfriend showed up on her doorstep—and that was the beginning of a harrowing ordeal that Yasmine could not even begin to imagine.
Yasmine at 8th grade graduation, a year before she was forced into marriage. Photo: Yasmine Koenig, Seventeen Magazine.
Furious that she had dated a non-Muslim, her mother told her that they were going on a vacation to Palestine to visit her older sisters. Suspicious, Yasmine made her mother show her that she had bought her a return ticket. “She was indignant as she showed me the ticket,” Yasmine told Seventeen Magazine, “but it made me feel better.”
However, the return ticket was not the “golden ticket” back to normal life Yasmine hoped it would be. In an essay for ChildrensRights.org, Yasmine tells how she was forced to marry a 25-year-old man just 4 weeks after they arrived in Palestine. Her mother’s plan had indeed been to marry her off and leave her in Palestine. Yasmine was devastated but trapped—at 15 she was about to be married to a man 10 years older than she was, whom she had only known for 2 weeks. She says she wanted to die. “How could my family do this to me? I thought about running away, but how? My mother had my passport. I had no money. I was stuck. I started thinking about different ways to die. Anything was better than this.”
The wedding went ahead as planned, with Yasmine refusing, to her mother’s rage, to let her new husband kiss her cheek during the ceremony. She describes the terror she felt as she was a child, alone with her adult husband, “The first night was awful. The only thing I’m thankful for is that my husband was not a violent or aggressive man.”
Yasmine as a 15-year-old bride, forced to smile for the camera. Inside, she wanted to die. Photo: Yasmine Koenig, Seventeen Magazine.
Yasmine’s parents flew back to the United States the next day, leaving Yasmine as they had left her older sisters.
Within a couple of weeks, Yasmine started to think about escape. She knew her sister-in-law had a laptop, so she asked to get on Facebook to send a message for her mother. But instead, she started sending messages to friends, who were flabbergasted by her tale. One of her friends got smart and said got her the phone number for the U.S. Embassy in Israel. “Being a sheltered 15 year old, I didn’t even know what an embassy was,” Yasmine wrote. “But on October 14th, I called the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, and together we planned my escape.”
In a story that seems like it’s ripped from the movies, Yasmine waited til her husband was at work, called a cab, and met men from the U.S. Embassy at a local hotel parking lot, and got in their van (could this get any crazier??) Because she was a U.S. citizen, they had her on a plane back to the U.S THAT NIGHT. Amazing!
But Yasmine’s story doesn’t end there. Just 15, she had to face her mother in court 2 weeks later in Chicago so that she could be declared a ward of the state. Her family disowned her, including her sisters in Palestine, despite the fact that they had also been child brides against their will.
Yasmine entered foster care, and after 2 years and three different homes, she finally ended up with Carrie and Marv Koenig, who had two teenagers of their own with special needs. Yasmine and the Koenigs came to love each other, but she was still SHOCKED when they offered to adopt her at 18. “My strategy was just to survive foster care until I was 18, when I would finally be on my own.” She joyfully accepted the Koenig’s offer, and they became her forever family.
Yasmine and her forever family at high school graduation. Photo: Yasmine Koenig, Seventeen Magazine.