My maternal grandmother, Khadija, has been on my mind lately for over the past year. She’s in her 90’s right now, her health failing weekly. Her memory has been failing over the past 8 years, as her dementia accelerated after the war in Syria started.  However, I want to remember her as she was and the role model she was to me, almost unknowingly, until I began connecting the dots of my own decisions in life and how they have been shaped or influenced by powerful souls I have been connected to.

Her story also sheds light on another misconception people have about Muslim women. My grandmother’s story has influenced multiple generations of women just within my own family.  My grandmother was born in Syria in 1929, but in the era of the Ottoman Empire where boundaries were ill defined. She grew up in a blend of Syrian and Turkish cultures, learning both languages, yet never actually receiving a proper written education.  In fact, my grandmother taught herself how to read much later in life. I have memories of her, sitting and slowly reading the Quran in Arabic in the early mornings, taking relish in the fact that I wasn’t alone in finding it difficult perfecting my Arabic reading.  Furthermore, my grandmother got married at a young age, like many in that time period…but to my grandfather, who was an enlightened, educated and progressive man-believing all his kids should be well educated, and his daughters had all the same opportunities and choices that his sons had. So, my grandmother Khadija, had a wonderful, happy marriage.  She ended up having 7 kids but also ended up being a widow to 7 kids as my grandfather died young due to complications with diabetes.  So, she was left to support and raise these 7 kids alone.

My grandmother (center in green) the last time I saw her with my kids, in Homs Syria. My eldest aunt who never married but carried the family on the right.

How did she do this? Like many women faced with rough circumstances in life, my grandmother stepped up, hustled and figure out how she was going to survive as a single mom and give her kids all the opportunities they promised their kids when my grandfather was alive. She didn’t do that alone, my oldest aunt had to step up and also help support the family through her own career; but my grandmother ended up becoming a businesswoman, specifically in real estate. She invested the family money into buildings and real estate deals, building and buying property to later rent or sell.  In the end, my uneducated grandmother managed a host of properties in not only Homs, Syria but also chalets on the Mediterranean Sea and in the mountains, always saving and never spending on herself. In fact, she was such a spiritual force in her own soft-spoken way, that she always chose a minimalist lifestyle of only owning as little wardrobe as possible.  She always preferred less, always saved for her family and gave money to those who were in need and worse off.  Yet, no one would ever have guessed the power my grandmother had. She spoke little, smiled effusely, showed her love through cooking and serving others, and was one of the humblest human beings I’ve ever come across. Yet she had power, she always had a vision in mind and never lost sight of what was her goal and focus in life. All of these properties circled back around and came into use when the war in Syria started.

One of those hidden treasures she kept secret was building a mosque in the outskirts of the city, in the country village outside of Homs.  My grandmother worked on this building for decades, it was her legacy project.   She saved money and would invest in the development of this safe haven for years, working on it, slowly but surely. It was to provide a refuge in an area that didn’t have it. I was lucky enough to visit the mosque when it was in development, but not lucky enough to have ever seen it in fully finished form, and sadly never took a picture of it, yet the memories are still there if I can only transcribe them. All of these properties my grandmother built, developed, rented and sold came fruitful to her ultimate mission in life when the revolution started in Syria 8 yrs ago. As the fighting intensified in and around Homs, my grandmother opened the doors for all her units to those families who were fleeing, seeking shelter and safe haven for even a short bit. My grandmother hosted these refugee men, women and children in these properties and especially in the mosque that she had built. Not only that, she always found ways to send food and water, especially bread, to besieged areas of Homs that were cut off by the government from aid.  This was done through underground networks that were trying to feed starving families, literally in the neighborhoods next door that were enclosed by soldiers.  She was always giving, knowing that everything in her life was guided for a special mission, and that became even more clear in 2010. The wealth and the buildings she had collected was to be used for a higher purpose as she was in her late stages in life.

With my daughter Serene, in her peace shirt 2 years before the war broke out, at my grandmother’s chalet on the Mediterranean Sea.

She continued serving in any possible way she could, until ultimately her own house was bombed by government forces. That day, everyone in that neighborhood of Homs, filed out, single file, with nothing on them except the clothes they wore and papers/passports/Id’s they could carry on them. They carried white flags on poles so snipers wouldn’t kill them. My grandmother was carried on the back of my uncle, as bombs continued to drop all around them, in a scene that can only be imaged by those in the West as scenes out of WW2. My grandmother did make it out of Syria as most of my aunt and uncles have, although not all. She has now been in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia since that day she left, although the events of that day-her fleeing from soldiers, leaving behind her home and destruction- has been imprinted in her memory, despite losing much of her other memory and cognition.

Nevertheless, I want to pay tribute to her life, her ability to be an independent woman, and a successful businesswoman despite the fact that she never saw herself as such. In fact, I never saw her in that light until recently when I took on the launch of my own business and traced back elements to who has shaped my life.  My grandmother, Khadija, is the most impactful #bosslady I’ve met. She is a powerful force on this planet, and an unsuspecting one. No one would have ever known the impact she has had on her community and the legacy she is leaving behind.  Yet, I know that there are so many other Muslim Khadija’s like her—Muslim women now and throughout history who have launched and run businesses, with a force and with long lasting impact on their communities.  Their voices may have not yet been heard, but I want to raise and elevate those voices. Like one of the ultimate female examples of leadership in Islamic history, Khadija Mother of the Believers, they are not submissive, nor passive individuals but a force leading their families, communities, and their countries. They are all #KhadijaRising