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'I came here searching for myself and found Islam'

In the air force at 17. Married with two kids at 22. Divorced by 30. A nervous breakdown at 36. Welcome to the head-spinning life and times of 44-year-old aeronautical engineer instructor Helene Garcia. Here she shares her incredible story of hitting rock bottom and bringing herself back to life

  • “My kids came to visit me and I broke the news to them gently. But they were fine because they could see how mImage Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
  • The barren desert landscape is the perfectplace for peaceful, quality me-time, says Helene. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Fully covered up for class in her role as aviation mechanics instructor. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Young and proud as she joins the Royal Canadian Air Force. Image Credit: Supplied picture

“I joined the Canadian air force at the age of 17. My mother was very ill and couldn’t afford to pay my college fees. My parents were divorced and, as the youngest of five children, I didn’t want to continue to be a burden on her. It was a tough childhood and joining the army was an easy exit from home.

“At the end of my boot-camp training, all of us who graduated were told, ‘Right, what we need most right now is aeronautical engineers. You guys are going back to college for three years to learn how to fix airplanes.’

“I’d never been into anything to do with cars, machines, or engineering, but I loved it. After college, I was posted as a technician on F-18 fighter jets, which I did for 12 years. I recall special moments, such as flying in the back seat of an F-18… it took my breath away. But being a woman, you were always in the minority. Out of 200 guys, there were five or six girls. It was fun, but it was also tough because there was so much unfairness and discrimination – especially when it came to appraisals and reviews. As the years progressed, I wanted to move up the ranks and I was continuously being blocked because of my gender, so I left.

“By that point, I was married with two kids. The army was the best employer in terms of job security, maternity leave and health insurance, but my field meant I was often called up for deployment, leaving my husband at home with the children. The relationship went sour and eventually I couldn’t take the marriage anymore.

“I moved out and, in doing so, had to leave my children. Nobody can ever imagine a mother leaving her kids, but I did what I thought was best for him, and what I thought was best for him would also be best for them. I thought it was best for them to have a happy stable father, rather than not to have a father at all.

“It was a really hard time for me. Suddenly I was without my job and without my kids. I was 29 and felt I had to discover who I was. My husband was 12 years older than me and had moulded me since the age of 18. Also, in the army you can’t have your own mind, so I had been moulded by my job as well. I started on a quest to discover who I really was.

“I started from rock bottom, renting a room, working crazy shift work contracted as an aeronautical engineer for different airlines. I was trying to rebuild my life. When 9/11 happened, the aviation industry was hit hard and lots of companies went bankrupt. I moved from company to company and eventually set up my own business with my boyfriend at the time, who was also an aeronautical engineer. The idea was to have a company offering avionics services to people with private aircraft as, although the commercial aviation industry had been hit hard, lots of people were buying their own airplanes.

“I had $2,000 (Dh7,427) and it took every penny to set the company up. I worked hard for two years, driving all over the place in a little SUV that I had made into a workshop on wheels. Business was good… I was making money, paying rent and paying child support. But I was a workaholic.

“Two years later, I felt like I was on the verge of a breakdown. Luckily, Air Canada Jazz was looking to employ aircraft maintenance instructors. They called and offered me a job – it was like a gift from God… a way out of the stress. I gave it all I had, but little did I know it was just completing the burnout. I carried all the stress and fatigue with me into the new job and they were sending me on business trips, which put my home life under pressure.

By this point, I was sharing custody of my children with their father and I had them every second week. If I was away on a trip, my fiancé looked after them. But it all became too much for him and one day I came home from a trip to find his suitcases packed in the hall. It was just before Christmas and that was the final straw for me. Soon after, the nervous breakdown hit.

“I still don’t know how, or why, it happened exactly when it did. The doctor said she thought I’d been holding on to the stress since the divorce. She said, ‘We all have a nervous breakdown at some point – our stress accumulates and we don’t know how to manage it.’ We all deal with our stress differently. Some people develop stomach ulcers, but for me it was a mental breakdown.
The sick years

“I was on sick leave for almost a year. During that period, I completely changed. I was on medication to stop me from stressing out and worrying. And it worked – but it stopped me from worrying about anything at all. I stopped worrying about paying rent, about racking up credit card debts, about my children going to school… My ex-husband took my son to live with him full-time, but my daughter was old enough to decide for herself and she chose to stay with me. I was drinking a lot to counteract the pills. I was a big mess – financially, mentally and emotionally, and my daughter failed her year at school.

“To keep busy, I started helping an older lady by cleaning her huge house. She was very strict, but she was good to me and we became friends. She said to me, ‘Stop looking for someone in your life. Fix yourself first. You’ve been trying to find yourself for ten years and you still don’t know who you are yet.’

“I took her advice and spent some time by myself over Christmas and New Year to wean myself off my pills. At the start of January, I went back to work, but I couldn’t face the students again. I knew I had changed so much in the year that I had been away, so I went back to engineering and worked night shifts to avoid people I knew. I wanted to live in the shadows. I was ashamed of the mess I had become.

“In an effort to reconnect with myself, I started reading about meditation and religion, and felt very spiritual. One night at work, I opened up about my life to a colleague. He said I needed a change of scenery and suggested going to Dubai to work for Emirates. I had never heard of the company, or even the place! I searched online, sent my application and, three months later, I was moving to Dubai.

“Leaving Canada was the most difficult decision I had made since the divorce. But I had a gut-feeling that this was the only way to fix myself, which gave me inner strength. My son was fine about me leaving, but my daughter was angry. She wrote me a really angry letter to read on the plane, which I have kept to this day. I cried for 14 hours straight, all the way to the UAE, but I’m glad she wrote that letter and got the anger out of her system rather than carrying it with her. Today, we have the best mum-daughter relationship.

The Dubai years

“In Dubai, everything was going well, but I was struggling to gain respect from my students because of the way I looked. I was facing a huge cultural barrier and I wanted to overcome this. I started reading books on Islam and local history and about all the different cultures and religions I come across in my classes. Slowly I adjusted to my surroundings. First I stopped wearing high heels to work. Then I stopped dying my hair blonde and started wearing it a little shorter. Then I started wearing the company uniform. Slowly I stopped hanging out with my expat friends as much and started hanging out by myself more.

“I had purchased a Harley-Davidson and I would spend most of my weekends exploring the UAE and Oman by myself – just me and my bike. All this time I was still learning about Islam and local culture.

“At the end of 2008, I decided to convert to Islam. I started wearing a hijab and stopped drinking alcohol. I admit I have had some relapses, but not for a long time now. Today, I am very comfortable with covering up. When I ride my motorcycle, I adjust by wearing jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a basic scarf.

“My kids visited me in 2009 and I broke the news to them gently. I took them all over the UAE and showed them the lovely tribal villages and the mosques and they came around and accepted the idea. They could see how much more peaceful and how much happier I am now. I don’t necessarily want them to convert – it was more about me getting myself back on track.

I still do angel meditations the way I learnt back home. I go to the mosque and do my prayers, but I would say I’m spiritual and Islam was a guiding light to become a better person.

“I now live a very peaceful life. I focus on one goal at a time and I achieve it. I missed working with my hands, so my garage is my workshop. I’m building my second Harley-Davidson now. Some of my Muslim friends have Harleys and they drop by and we work on their bikes. Other times, friends with 4X4s will pick me up and we go to the desert for a barbecue.

“Ultimately, I want to have a farm here in the UAE and meet a Muslim man. But for the moment, I finally enjoy my life – my work, my hobbies, my cats and my friends. I have fallen in love with this country and the way of life. I want to
live and die here.”