Randa Markos on Growing Up in Domestic Violence and Physical Abuse

Sydnie Jones@syd1138Featured ColumnistSeptember 21, 2015

MONTREAL, QC - APRIL 25:   Randa Markos of Canada stands in the Octagon before her women's strawweight bout against Aisling Daly of Ireland during the UFC 186 event at the Bell Centre on April 25, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

This story contains descriptions of domestic violence and physical child abuse.

Randa "Quiet Storm" Markos entered the 20th installment of The Ultimate Fighter ranked 14th out of 16 fighters. She was a mystery.

None of the other competitors seemed to know much about her. But she quickly proved something of a dark horse, taking out No. 3 seed Tecia Torres via unanimous decision in the first fight of the competition. Beforehand, she said to the camera, "I like to stay isolated, away from my opponent, away from everyone. But right now, everyone's constantly like, 'Are you OK? Is everything OK? Are you worried?'

"You know, it's like, 'just leave me alone."

It was the first indication that Randa didn't need anyone's support and was there for one thing: to win.

She remained largely uninterested in camaraderie, or reveling in the experience of being on the show, or the popularity contests throughout the season. Her disinterest alienated some, but as she said during the show, that was their problem, not hers. In the quarterfinals, she quickly armbarred the much more experienced Felice Herrig.

Although Randa didn't win the show, losing via kimura to Rose Namajunas in the semifinals, she established herself as a skilled fighter with a strong ground game. She was a promising addition to the UFC strawweight division.

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Now, following The Ultimate Fighter and two fights (1-1) in the Octagon, Randa remains rooted in Windsor, Ontario, where she was raised. She is married and works part-time as a pharmacy technician. She trains twice per day, once in the morning in Windsor and then again in Michigan after work.

Randa says, "I get a few hours a day to spend with my family, but we all have sacrifices to make." 

We all make sacrifices—of ourselves, for loved ones. Randa sacrifices time with her family, and they agree to sacrifice time with her. These sacrifices are not always intentional, or voluntary, or good. And when someone sacrifices something of yours, the act becomes a theft.

As a child, Randa went to sleep wishing she would die.

Never having been born was another fantasy. So was killing herself. Running away wasn't an option; she knew her mother Azhar couldn't protect herself from her father. And she says "all of my memories as a child were of him abusing my mother."

Randa thinks it sounds bad, but it's unsurprising her thoughts would turn to hurting her father.

Born in Iraq in the latter half of the Iran-Iraq War, she says it wasn't until she, her sister Revan and her parents fled as refugees to Turkey in 1988 that any of them began to get to know him. In the year they spent there, her brother Robert was born.

Before any of that, her father, Sam, grew up in a wealthy family in Iraq. His father was mayor of the town, an appointment that meant his family was treated "almost like royalty." This was why Azhar's parents arranged for her to marry him—the promise of financial stability and a family name that conferred status. She didn't know him prior to their marriage, and he was in the military the same year they married, 1982. So while Azhar raised Randa and Revan, Sam was gone, fighting.

Sam was a commando at the border of Iraq and Iran. He is a Kurd, an ethnic group spanning several countries, including Iran. Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region, but Sam says Saddam Hussein was powerful enough that he was forced to fight—and forced to fight his fellow Kurds.

Randa says he would frequently talk about the war when she was a child, mostly while drunk, telling her at length about his friends who died and about sleeping in holes dug in the ground where rats would come to try to eat the soldiers—living or dead. When he talked about the war, she says it was like he was still there.

She asks her father what he did in the war. He says he was stationed high in the mountains and recounts a time when he and 127 fellow commandos went out fighting. He was one of three to return. Despite the almost complete annihilation of his team, he says they killed "lots." So many that the valley below the mountain he was on was "all dead people." It was summertime, and the bodies were left exposed, with no one and no time to cover them up.

The smell was so bad he couldn't eat.

When Iran went on the offensive and began invading Iraq, Sam, stationed at the border, witnessed these efforts firsthand.

"The Iranian, they come like a sheep, you know the sheep? They cross the border? They shoot them. All over."

The only version of her father Randa knows is the post-war Sam. It's the only version anyone in her immediate family has had the opportunity to know, including her mother.

In 1986, at his station, Sam says he got into an argument with a man who turned out to be an investigator for Saddam Hussein. While talking about Hussein, Sam said, "He's a loser, motherf----r, why I get killed? For what? For who? For Uday or Qusay?" 

This criticism, Sam says, was to be a death sentence. The investigator, still undercover, wanted to meet at 10 that night, with the intent of killing him. So Sam went to an area between his station and Iran's encampment, pulled the safety pin out of a grenade and held it in his hand, lever compressed. And he waited. The investigator came, with a Kalashnikov rifle.

The dilemma was clear: If Sam was shot, the grenade would fall, in close enough proximity to kill the investigator. If Iranian soldiers came, the danger was evident. Sam lived, though he says the investigator killed two of his friends. As for the investigator, Sam says, "We kill him."

After that, he was done. He went home to Azhar and told her this: "'If I go back, I never come back to you. She told me, 'OK.' My daddy told me, 'OK.' My daddy help me, he bring me to north of Iraq."

Although Hussein was willing to conscript Iraqi Kurds to fight in his army, he later committed acts of genocide against them, including the largest-scale use of chemical weaponry against a civilian population, killing upwards of 5,000 in the initial attacks. Thousands more died in the years after.

One million Iraqi Kurds were displaced to Iran and Turkey. The Markos family made up four of them. This is when Randa says her father's "true side" began to reveal itself, following Sam's time in the war and the isolation of Azhar from her family. And when their visas came through after a year in Turkey, they ended up in Windsor, Ontario, a foreign land even farther removed from everything they knew.

From left to right: Robert, Chris, Randa, Revan
From left to right: Robert, Chris, Randa, Revancourtesy Randa Markos

In Windsor, Azhar was pregnant with their youngest child, Chris, and caring for three young children while Sam, who didn't know English, worked as a dishwasher for 14 hours per day. Sam says he worked to pay rent and have diapers for his children; Randa says they faced constant money problems, amplified by Sam's drinking and gambling.

"Every holiday was destroyed; every Christmas he blew all of our money on gambling and alcohol, and then come home and put us through hell because he was upset he had no money left."

The drinking also amplified the physical abuse at home. When Randa and her siblings were young, she says her father would abuse them with whatever he could get his hands on or grab them by the hair. It worsened as they got older. Not only in the escalation of the abuse itself, but now with the conscious understanding that they had done nothing wrong—he abused them without any "reason" for which they could blame themselves. He was choosing to hurt them because he could.

Randa says her mother was reluctant to acknowledge what was happening, let alone reach out for help.

"She would act as if he did nothing wrong, no matter how bad things would get, just to avoid another episode," she says.

She wanted to call the police, but Azhar wouldn't let her.

"I believe it was because she was afraid to be alone. She had nobody to turn to and was also afraid that her family would find out that she was having such a hard time. And with her family still in the Middle East having a hard time of their own with the war, she didn't want to worry them."

Times got harder, and Sam continued to use "anything he could grab" as a tool for his abuse. A long wooden shoe horn that hung on the wall. A belt. A metal broomstick. A rubber slipper. He threw a pot full of oil at Randa once—"it wasn't hot, thank God." And a heavy glass ashtray, at her head.

"I didn't realize (the wound) was bleeding until I went to the washroom at school. I brushed my hair back and noticed dried blood."

During all of this, Randa was going to school, attempting to function as a "normal" kid and not succeeding.

"I was a very angry child and teen growing up. I hated life. I was behind in school and kids picked on me because I was socially awkward and nobody knew why. "

Trapped between one abusive parent and one abused parent, she found a measure of self-reliance in sports. When she took up wrestling in ninth grade, her parents made her stop—so in 10th grade, she started wrestling again but told them she was playing volleyball instead.

Sports were not only an out that improved her day-to-day life, but they also provided her first opportunity to assimilate: "I felt normal when I was on a team."

She must have always been a fighter; to hear her tell it, she was the first to stand up to Sam. Perhaps he sensed the degree of fearlessness she had in doing so, because Randa says that in retaliation, he instead increased his abuse of her mother.

"He knew that would hurt me more. He started threatening her with knives and even tried strangling her in her sleep once."

It was that incident that compelled Randa to finally call the police on her father—the first time anyone in her family had done so. But her mother and siblings were still scared after Sam was taken to jail in the middle of the night and upset with her for calling.

"They didn't know how he would react or what would happen to him," she says. "We didn't sleep all night. When he came back, he broke through the window, ran at me and grabbed me by my hair. I yelled out that I was going to call the cops again, and that's when he let go and headed out the door."

Despite his arrest and a night spent in jail, not much changed.

"After a few days, things went back to the same routine, walking on eggshells and my mother acting like nothing was wrong.

"My mother was raised in a proper home that deals with their problems behind closed doors and keeps everything covered up," Randa says. She was 18 or 19 when she first called the cops. And she had witnessed domestic violence and suffered physical abuse for all of her conscious life. "A lot of Middle Eastern families would rather put up with these situations, just so other people don't judge them."

It was calling the police several times that brought some order to the household; Randa says each time she called, Sam was held for longer than the previous time. Initially, she says Azhar begged her not to press charges, so they told the police he was drunk and had only threatened them. But as every call and visit to jail failed to result in charges or any real penalty, the reprieve abated, and Sam gradually grew bolder, undaunted at the prospect of further run-ins with law enforcement.

"It took a long time for my mom to believe that she did not need him, and to also not worry about what others would think if they were not living together." 

A long time, marked by escalating abuse. Randa seems to be the catalyst that galvanized the family, her courage emboldening them to no longer passively accept Sam's violent reign. As they began to challenge him, his struggle for control reached new, more dangerous lengths.

"One incident, it was about midnight, I was in my room on my computer and I could hear my dad walking back and forth. He looked really angry and smelled like alcohol. He was trying to open my door because he knew I was the only one up. I kept yelling at him to leave me alone," she says. "He kept walking away and coming back to my door. I opened the door and said, 'What do you want?'

"That's when he put his hand in the doorway as I tried to close the door, and he pushed the door open, grabbed me by my hair and dragged me out of my room by my hair. He kept saying he was going to kill me and bash my head on the ground. I seriously believed him. My brother heard my screaming and ran out of his room, grabbed a hair dryer and hit (my father) over the head to make him let go of me.

"I called the cops again that night, and since then my mother has tried not to give him any more chances."

Randa says they're much happier now that Sam doesn't live with any of them. He lives alone, renting a room in downtown Windsor. Despite his decades of abuse and drinking and gambling the family's money away, his children feel bad for him.

"He couldn't control his mood swings," she says. "He had seen a lot with being in the war, but he refused to get the help that we couldn't give him...I still care for him and understand that he has a problem, but with the way things work with the system, he can't get help unless he wants it."

Sam does not seem to want it. So far, he hasn't acknowledged that he's done anything wrong and maintains that he never hit anyone. So he lives alone, drinking heavily with a few friends he's made and working on occasion after he's spent all his money.

"I still visit him. I call him and make sure he has food and whatever he needs," Randa says. She was the first to stand up to her father, and of her siblings, she says she sees him most often. His other children see him from time to time, but they won't go out of their way for him. 

"I ask myself why I do, sometimes, but I couldn't live with myself knowing that he needed my help and I couldn't be there." Even with the physical distance and separate life she has, Randa doesn't let her guard down. She says her father recognizes this sense of responsibility.

"He tries to take advantage of it, so I try not to visit too much.

"He still doesn't think he has ever done anything wrong." 

This would seem to be an integral part of Sam's apparent willingness to manipulate his daughter. By refusing responsibility, Sam casts himself as a perpetual victim—of curses on his family, of witchcraft, of jealousy and abundant misunderstanding.

"How do you treat your family? Why are you living here?" she asks him.

It's in the middle of a three-minute, 11-second conversation that begins with Randa challenging his claim he never hit them. During this conversation, unlike the others, he says "no" repeatedly—37 times, actually. 

"Somebody, they make (trouble) between me and your mother," Sam says. He's talking about a relative, supposedly jealous of their family, whom he says was the source of discord in his marriage. Randa says he claims this relative used witchcraft to control him, which is why he has done what he has done to their family and why he treated them the way he did. 

He says he tried to tell Azhar this, that she shouldn't listen to "devils" and should let him come home. 

Randa says Sam thinks people are out to get him, watching him all the time. "But he never thinks he has a problem." She tells me, "In the Middle East, that kind of stuff is common to hear about. But he is an alcoholic and will never blame it on that." 

On some level, Sam appears to acknowledge a degree of the fact of his actions, if not his own culpability in them. He offers these excuses, which absolve him of blame and shift the failure of resolution to Azhar for obeying the devils and refusing to let him return. But his voice lacks conviction; instead, his words sound more like a speech performed so frequently that he is now irretrievably entrenched in a story that no one accepts.

It's a confusing stance to blame his actions on a curse while denying he abused anyone. When Randa asks him whether he bit Azhar's hand hard enough to injure it, he says he didn't.

The denials begin seconds into the three-minute conversation, often before Randa is done speaking, as though Sam knows where she's going and has been there many times before. He doesn't wonder—at least, not out loud—why his daughter repeatedly asks him about something that supposedly didn't happen.

Randa: So you're saying you never hit us?

Sam: No. Never ever.

R: So you didn't come in my room and grab me by my hair and carry me to the hallway by my hair and try to bash my head open?

S: No.

R: No?

S: You know how— 

R: Until Chris— 

S: Excuse me. No, no, no.

R: hit you in the head with a hair dryer?

This is the beginning of the conversation. When Sam says, "You know how," it's an attempt, at 0:15 seconds, to change the subject to the good things he has done. But it's interrupted, and he relays an entirely different story than the one Randa tells about that incident. In his story, she and her brother were fighting, and he tried to intervene. That's all. And then he tries again to change the subject.

S: Anyway. Excuse me. You know how many—I don't just help you and your mother, your brother, your sister, I help 10 thousand refugee. Ten thousand. I never charge nobody.

R: Nobody's saying you're not a good person, you haven't done good things in your life.

Given that Randa says her father is aware of her sympathy and concern for him, it's unclear who he is trying to convince. It's after this exchange Randa presses him on how he ended up living alone in Windsor, with his family generally estranged. When Sam defaults to curses and devils, Randa is uninterested in hearing it again. So she asks him about the time she says he punched Revan so hard it knocked her out.

R: You never knocked her out?

S: No.

R: The police weren't there?

S: Yeah, the police were there.  

R: And you told the police, "No, no, she hit me."

S: No, no. No, no, no. That day

R: You knocked her out.

S: Listen, listen. That day, Revan, she take my car, was a freezing day, OK. She take my car, she don't tell me...So, she come back home, I take the car. And my car stop...There's no gas. It was a freezing day. Thirty below. I stick in the car two hours.

R: That wasn't the day.

S: Yeah. Was freezing.

R: No, that wasn't the day, Dad.

S: Yeah, that day! And I take a taxi, I went to gas station, and I put the gas in my car, I come back to Revan, she call police

R: Even if that was the day, why would you knock her out?

S: No, I never touch her! And she call police, (because) I was mad (at) her, she call police, police they come, I was asleep in my room, I was so tired, and freezing. And police, they told me, don't go anywhere. So OK. She make a mistake, she don't put gas. And yeah, the police, they know (about that incident).

R: Oh, is that what happened?

S: Yeah.

It's hard to tell from Sam's murky account, apparently comprised of acknowledged facts, more than one incident and familial misunderstandings, whether he believes it. It doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility that Sam could only bear his versions of the times his daughter recalls in which he's never hurt his wife or children. Or maybe it's just another tool of the abuser, manipulating the history Randa remembers into an outward tabula rasa of the self.

In the TUF house, as cliques developed, Randa remained focused on what would serve her best, indifferent to the potential consequence. When other fighters voted to split practices to avoid training beside their opponents, Randa ignored it. The Ultimate Fighter wasn't a democracy. And, as she said to Alex Chambers in the episode, "I didn't make it this far to work around somebody else because they're paranoid or whatever."

She was immediately ostracized by several fighters, including Carla Esparza and Felice Herrig, who mocked her to each other as they rode to the gym—while Randa sat directly behind them. Ultimately, she didn't care; as she made clear, she wasn't going to squander the opportunity by kowtowing to a decision she didn't make.

Esparza and Herrig also told Randa she was the rudest person they'd ever met, a rubric apparently structured by their definition of cowardice and the extent of her obeisance. Later, at the house, Esparza and Herrig regaled Jessica Penne, Justine Kish and Namajunas with the story, capping it with a chant set to a schoolyard hand-clapping game as the others laughed.

Randa remained soft-spoken and unflappable throughout the season. If her performances on TUF weren't evidence enough, it would be folly to mistake her unassuming demeanor for meekness. It's the quiet certitude of self-sufficiency.

She told the camera, "They don't understand who they're dealing with. It doesn't affect me. Yeah, it hurts sometimes, but then you think about who it's coming from, and you're just like, 'who the f--k are they?'. They're not going to get in my head, they're not going to break me down, I'm not going to waste my mind thinking about them for a second."

This is the lesson her stolen childhood imparted, an intimacy with what motivates people but doesn't have anything to do with her. She says, "My past has definitely helped me with dealing with people. It has helped me understand why people act the way they do and not make me so upset. 

"Like my father, he had been through a lot and was also raised to think that abusing your wife...is just something that goes with having a family. It made me very strong and very independent."

Randa celebrating her win
Randa celebrating her winJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Randa is dictating her life now, making her dream a reality. And she hopes that what she went througha significant part of her story, but not the only partcould help someone else.

"I wanted to share my story because I want people to take what I've been through as an example that you can overcome hard times and you can still follow your dreams. I didn't let what I've been through stop me. Know that you can change your life around and be happy."

Randa has done that. She has moved past the abuse and everything her father did to his family. What seems to affect her mostwhat comes through in her voiceis the anger when he outright denies it happened. She has accepted that she was abused and has set that aside out of compassion.

If she can do that, Sam's refusal to acknowledge what she says he did to them seems self-serving and unnecessary. He either can't do it or won't. 

Randa continues to help him, despite not knowing which it is. To do so requires another sacrificedemands for any acknowledgement. He doesn't give it, but she stays. Years later, Sam is still willing to sacrifice her feelings in service to himself. Fortunately for him, she believes that his motivation is largely artifice, covering raw parts that don't heal, developed over decades spent in a psychological survival mode.

Randa can see her father objectively enough to want to care for him, attributing the abuse primarily to his health and his past rather than to Sam himself. It's a feat of great mental fortitude. Stepping into the cage, by comparison, is one of her easier fights.

Randa was born into strife and has been fighting in one way or another ever since. But now it's elective and the career she's chosen, not a grueling existence she's forced to endure indefinitely. This is her story now, and it's exactly what she wants.


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