Atena Abrahimzadeh will always remember her beloved mother Zahra’s smile.
‘Mum had such a huge heart,’ Atena, 30, tells New Idea. ‘She lit up the room.’
Tragically, that spirit was destroyed by the man who should have cherished it most – Zahra’s husband and Atena’s dad, Zialloh.
In 2010, he murdered his estranged wife during a Persian New Year party at the Adelaide Convention Centre.
Zialloh, known as Zia, stabbed Zahra in the back eight times in front of 300 horrified partygoers, including his eldest daughter.
‘It was a blur as I saw him with the knife,’ Atena says. ‘I ran straight over and when I saw Mum on the floor, face down, my life changed forever.’
Zia killed Zahra, 44, in what prosecutors described as ‘a final act of control’ after the mum-of- three left him following 20 years of beatings and verbal attacks.
‘Dad’s abuse was part of
our lives for as long as I can remember,’ Atena says. ‘To us, it was normal. It was only when I became a teenager that I started realising it wasn’t what happened in other families.’
While to the outside world, the family seemed like the perfect unit, behind closed doors, Zia ruled with his fists.
‘I felt so helpless as a child,’ Atena remembers. ‘I never used to understand what the fights were about. I used to think it was something I’d done.
‘There were so many incidents where I wanted to intervene. I’d grab his leg or try to stand in front of Mum to protect her.’
Zia’s rage wasn’t restricted to his wife, with Atena and her brother, Arman, now 28, also targets for beatings. At the age of just five, Arman was punched in the face over a board game.
Atena was whipped with a belt and had her fingers burned for biting her nails. And when she was in Year 12, Zia told Atena he’d rather kill her and end up in prison than have her ruin his reputation, after catching her chatting to a boy on the phone.
The siblings tried to shield younger sister Anita, now 18, from the worst of the violence, which saw their mum dragged by her hair and beaten unconscious.
‘They made me go to my room to try to keep me out of the conflict,’ Anita says.
‘There was a lot of tension, it was scary.’ It wasn’t until 2009 that the family finally found the courage to break for freedom. But then Zia threatened to stab his wife and burn the house down with his children inside.
‘He said he’d kill us all,’ remembers Atena.
At the next opportunity she had, Zahra drove the children to the police station. Despite getting a restraining order, they spent the next 12 months in hiding, in fear of their father finding them.
After years of having her self-esteem beaten away, Atena and Anita began to see welcome changes in their mother.
‘Her confidence began to grow,’ Atena says. ‘She started
going to the shops
on her own and met friends. It was wonderful to see.’
Tragically, Zahra’s chance to bloom was cut short when Zia inflicted his devastating revenge.
Atena and Arman became Anita’s guardians and had to break the news to her about their mother.
Zialloh, 57, initially pleaded not guilty to his wife’s murder, claiming he’d been hallucinating. He also denied ever being abusive.
‘It made my blood boil,’ Atena says. ‘I just thought, man up. Say what you did.’
However, during his trial at Adelaide Supreme Court, Zia changed his plea to guilty. In April 2012, he was jailed for life with a non-parole period of 26 years. Now, six years after losing their mum, Atena and her siblings have established a charity to help other women fleeing domestic violence.
The Zahra Foundation (zahrafoundation.org.au) aims to empower survivors by providing support and skills to become financially independent.
‘I feel proud of my mum and the person she was,’ Anita says. ‘If we can help other people going through a similar situation she did, then something positive will have come from what’s happened.’
‘Everyone deserves to feel safe at home,’ Atena concludes.