Amal Alyassiri is a mom of three from Iowa. She is also a Muslim American woman who spent her formative years as an Iraqi refugee before coming to America at age 10.
“I had a really big family, and a lot of them were in the army against Saddam Hussein, including my dad and one of my brothers, “Alyassiri, 34, tells PEOPLE. “My brother was captured and he got murdered in front of my mom. It was either that, or she had to watch the rest of her family die. She had to choose which one of her kids had to go.”
From there, the family lived as refugees in the desert, struggling to survive. “Our lives were spent not knowing when the next meal is going to happen, not knowing if you’re going to die that day,” she says. “That really messes with your head, your mind, your life. So I was used to surviving. It helped me make my mind much stronger.”
So what prompted Alyassiri to take on the challenge of Naked and Afraid?
“I took this opportunity to paint a different picture of Muslim women,” she says. “We are fierce, we are strong, and we are able to make our own decisions.”
“Being a Muslim woman, we’re painted in so many different ways,” Alyassiri continues, “We have to be home, we have to be covered up, we can’t do this, we can’t do that. There are a lot of can’ts in being a Muslim woman. But I wanted to show that I can.”
“Obviously, there have been many women on the show, and they all have their own stories, and they’re all beautiful,” she says, “But I have a lot going against me. I have the whole Muslim community rooting against me and not for me, because I’m a Muslim woman and I shouldn’t be out there naked with a man who is not my husband.”
“I want to show strength,” she says. “There are a lot of strong Muslim women who are afraid to step out of their comfort zone. This is my way to put my foot in the door to show that they can do it.”
Not everyone has been on board. Some of Alyassiri’s family members have stopped speaking to her since learning that she is doing the show.
“It’s sad, but that’s really their loss,” she says. “I was doing something that I wanted to do.”
PEOPLE has watched Alyassiri’s episode, and she and partner Duke Brady face more challenges than most. (Without giving too much away, they had to be evacuated due to a hurricane. When they got back to camp, they had to deal with hungry bears prowling around.)
How did Alyassiri feel about the challenges of nature?
“I’ve been through a lot in my life,” Alyassiri tells PEOPLE. “A lot of the things that happened to me growing up were things that I had no control over. They just happened to me. I had no choice. That happened out there sometimes.”
“But the thing is that I had a choice,” she says. “I chose to be out there. I chose to stay. I could wake up each day and know I needed food, fire, shelter and water. I had so much power over my destiny out there. It made me feel very strong.”
The new season of Naked and Afraid premieres March 11 on the Discovery Channel.