Understanding Sterlina

That was me in the mid-90s. Was I that different from Sterlina?

I often get nightmares. I used to blame them on the murder mysteries I read as a child or the police drama series I used to watch as a young adult. I stopped doing all that but the nightmares never stopped. I think my subconscious is strongly linked to my conscious. It turns all my real-life worries into horror-movie-worthy nightmares.

Last night I had nightmares of war. The part of the nightmare I remember was about me walking into a room and discovering it was full of Iraqi fighters. They were all pointing huge weapons out of a large balcony, focusing on something, people probably, not far below. I went to their leader, a rather stocky woman wearing a flowery dress with henna-painted fingernails. I was told that if I wanted to leave the room I had to have her permission. I gave her the most innocent I’m-of-no-matter-to-anyone look I could muster and told her that I really needed to go home PLUS I had to go to the toilet anyway. She looked at me very briefly, she was busy, and told me that it was dangerous out there. How was I planning on making my way home? I told her I’d walk to my father’s house which was not far away. I promised her I’d be fine. She allowed me to leave. There were many other woman in that room who were being held captive who were not as lucky. Perhaps they hadn’t tried to ask for permission like I had? Perhaps they knew too much already and could not be allowed to leave for that reason? A very young friend of mine was there. Her father’s house was close to my father’s house. She asked me to ask permission from the leader to take her with me. I woke up just as I started explaining things to the leader. I’ll never know if we both managed to leave.

When I woke up this morning, I tried to figure out what it was I was thinking about the day before that would have stimulated this nightmare. An aspect of this dream is reminiscent of the days of revolution in Cairo in 2011. But I realized that wasn’t what brought this one to the surface.

Yesterday, a friend on Facebook posted an article about an 18-year-old Dutch girl who converted to Islam, wore a face veil, and soon after fled from the Netherlands to Turkey by train, crossed the border into Syria, and married a Dutch-Turkish fighter.

Her story freaked me out.

This morning I figured out why.

Had the Internet been around when I was that age, that girl could have been me.

By my third year of university in Egypt—I would have been 19—I was wearing a face veil, I was proselytizing Islam, I was getting closer to female members of a couple of Islamic groups, and I was romanticizing about marrying a freedom fighter.

Those days, I would have done anything humanly possible to run off to Palestine and save them from Israeli occupation. Many of my girlfriends dreamed about running off to Afghanistan and marrying one of the mujahideen. Had I not been so fixated on Palestine at the time, I would probably have considered that too.

But I knew no one in Palestine. Not a single person. I had no idea how to get there. I dreamt of a big adventure, gathering up an army of men from Egypt and crossing the desert to get to Jerusalem. I didn’t have the connections. I didn’t have access to information. So I just lived in my dream world and continued to study boring medicine.

I wonder how different my world would have been had I had the Internet as my constant companion the way younger generations now do.

The story of Sterlina, the “blue-eyed girl from Maastricht”, is probably not as strange as we imagine it to be.

Her story, and how I—in a way­—found myself relating to it, made me wonder what could be done to save young men and women like her from “that kind of life”.

I dug deep into my memories of a 19-year-old Nadia and asked, “Would anyone have been able to do anything to stop me from fleeing on my own to marry a freedom fighter in Palestine had I managed to find a way to do that?” The answer, I discovered, was a resolute no.

By that age, I was only listening to my “trusted” sources of information.

The course that my life took for several years might have been changed a couple of years earlier. And my thinking changed dramatically—albeit very gradually and slowly—during the years that followed.

But at that stage I was completely settled into a certain way of thinking.

I wasn’t much different from any other young person my age. I was craving for adventure. I was yearning for love and romance. I wanted to belong and to have friends. I had a clear image of what was good and what was evil, and in my head I was on the side of good and I needed to save the world from all the evil it contained. I glorified war as a means to fight against evil and I glorified the war heroes who were brave enough to offer their lives to save others.

I can’t completely “blame” my Islamic upbringing on all this. Of course, all the stories of the prophets that I was made to memorize as a youngster involved fights to the death between good and evil, in which good somehow always managed to prevail in one form or another. But that was not by far my only source for that kind of thinking. I grew up in the United States, watching Hollywood movies, reading books, and listening to the news where the Americans were the good guys who were going to fight all forms of evil, from super-villains, to ugly invading aliens, to the Russians (I grew up in the cold-war era), and thus save the world.

When I was a child, I was made to repeat the American Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school:

I pledge Allegiance to the flag
of the United States of America
and to the Republic for which it stands,
one nation under God, indivisible,
with Liberty and Justice for all.

“One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Those are strong words. They are not bad words in any way. The concept is even exemplary.

My point is that almost every child in the world grows up fantasizing in one way or another about the eternal battle between good and evil. So much of a child’s upbringing is based on over-simplified stories and anecdotes describing that battle.

As a 19-year-old, everything I wanted was very similar to what most 19-year-olds want. The Dutch Sterlina isn’t any different. I imagine her, based on my own experiences, as wanting to be close to God, wanting to please God, and wanting to be “good”. She wants to belong to people who will respect her rebellious nature and perhaps even elevate her because of it. She wants attention. She wants love. She wants adventure. She wants to play her role in the eternal battle of good against evil. None of that is bad in and of itself. The problem is that Sterlina was willing to associate herself with people she did not know and to put herself in a situation she could not possibly comprehend the complexities of in order to achieve her goals.

How did I change? I ask myself.

I grew up is the answer.

First, I became disillusioned enough with the groups I had associated myself with and with their ideologies to decide to disassociate myself from them completely. I don’t think that would have happened if I had a different kind of upbringing. Mine emphasized a good education and encouraged logical thinking.

Second, I found another like-minded group of people who loved God, who craved adventure, and who wanted to change the world. But they had other ways to do all that than those I had learned from my university friends. They were hardly any different from me or from my former friends. It was a small tweak in their ideology. It was because they were so similar that they were able to gain my trust. It was because they were so similar that I allowed myself to listen to them. I wouldn’t have listened to “just anyone” at that early stage in my life.

Third, and only after years of de-conditioning myself, I allowed myself to open my mind to a much broader world where there are so many different ways of thinking and of believing and of “being good”.

Now I want to change the world by helping people deal with their personal issues. Now I want adventure by climbing the tallest mountains and cycling across countries. Now I find love and romance where I never would have considered looking before. I still want to be a fighter. I watched “The Hobbit” the other day and decided, for the zillionth time, that my true calling was to be a warrior princess as fierce as a dwarf, as crafty as a wizard, as agile as an elf, and as brave as a hobbit. I SO want to be that person. That kind of conditioning is very difficult to remove from one’s psyche. Luckily, there is an adult in me that knows how to control that fantasy and to redirect it to other things.

The point of this whole blog post is that I want people to look at young women like Sterlina and to try to understand her. Sterlina eventually returned to the Netherlands and she is currently being questioned by authorities. It would seem from what little information was available in the article I read about her that she may have become disillusioned with her “friends”. She was lucky. She had a loving family who was willing to do anything to get her out of there when she asked for help. But she will most likely face severe consequences, now that she is back home, for potentially associating herself with state-labeled terrorists.

How do we prevent our youth from taking a route of extremism?

We give them a good education to begin with. We encourage logical and free thinking. We expose them to a variety of ideologies and not just to our own. We allow them to choose for themselves. We make safe outlets available to them so they can fulfill some of their fantasies. We give them a strong, loving support network that is always there for them.

And if they seem to be moving down the road of extremism, their only hope might lie in people of similar faith who have not taken the road as far as the extreme; who are happy with the middle ground; who thrive in that middle ground.

It is not, of course, that simple. Many of today’s youth are disillusioned with the local and international state-of-affairs. When equal opportunity and justice are almost myths in today’s world, the youth are bound to rebel. They will find various outlets for their rebellion, depending on what is available to them.

How do we make the world a more just place for our youth to live in? That is a depressing question.

How do we shut down extreme outlets so our youth cannot access them? We can’t. But we can make sure they have less extreme means to express themselves, to be heard, and to feel like their actions can bring positive change.

In a frightening way, we are all, in one small way or another, Sterlina. By understanding ourselves and understanding our youth with all their aspirations and frustrations, we might be able to find a way to help the Sterlinas of today’s complex world.


  1. A good essay. In my youth as a national serviceman I wanted to fight ‘commies’ in Vietnam. Fortunately, life took a different turn for me. I think that the point is that often impressionable young people are misdirected into bad choices by older people who should know better. Isn’t it wonderful when serendipity intervenes and our life moves in a positive direction. In your case, Nadia, it was Monty Python who intervened and you married a cycling Scotsman !! How marvellous is that. I wish you a happy Christmas, and sweeter dreams.

  2. Thank you Nadia for this very interesting blog, I’ve read it three times now as I wanted to make sure I understood it before commenting. The bottom line is that it has shone a light into some areas that I don’t understand but has not provided complete answers.

    On the other hand I’m so glad that you abandoned your head covering. All your posts about cycling/running etc. are always illuminated by your wonderful smile.

  3. I had no idea. It’s important that a friendly adult be able to show youth their own actions of good works, that social change and goodness for community is done by lots of hard work of caring for others, finding productive ways of channelling their hurt energy into that is life-giving/life-touching. Every city, region has social support services, a food bank…go there to help out, learn there and grow.

    Before cycling, I was a volunteer in 2 non-profit organizations on race relations and immigrant services in Toronto for a decade. I was fired up about social justice matters. I was with other highly articulate, caring and energetic people…who were fighting with matters how to: change law, govn’t social policy, bring more funding to immigrant services..

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