She moved to Saudi Arabia eight years ago, fell in love and had a little girl — now, divorced and navigating an unfamiliar system, she's trying to hold on to her child
'A Nightmare': Inside an American Mother's Custody Fight for Her Saudi Arabian Daughter
Credit: Courtesy the Vierra Family

Bethany Vierra’s daily routine begins at sunrise, when she gets up to make pancakes or scrambled eggs for her young daughter, Zaina, a curly haired 4-year-old. It’s the familiar prelude to happy hours of coloring, reading inside their apartment and swimming in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabia capital.

But for Vierra — a Washington state native ensnared in a months-long custody battle for Zaina following an acrimonious split from her husband — each morning also begins a new day of dread.

At any moment, the 32-year-old yoga instructor could be made to surrender her daughter to the Saudi grandmother whom the little girl barely knows.

“Bethany and Zaina might never see each other again,” Kathi Vierra, Bethany’s mom, tells PEOPLE.

Kathi is frank when describing the case: “It’s gone on too long. It’s like that nightmare you keep having and you can’t get rid of.”

Divorced from Zaina’s father, a Saudi businessman, Bethany was recently judged too Western by a Saudi court to keep custody of her daughter. She was blamed for wearing her hair uncovered and for wearing a bikini while in the U.S., and the judge took issue with English — not Arabic — being Zaina’s first language, as a sign of her failure to assimilate. Bethany’s mother says that during the custody fight, Bethany’s ex also pointed to a Facebook photo of her doing a handstand and brought up the fact that she had attended Burning Man, which is reputed for its artistic and libertine atmosphere.

Still, Bethany’s ex-husband, 35-year-old Ghassan Alhaidari, did not receive custody either. Finding neither parent preferable, the judge instead ordered Zaina to be raised by her paternal grandmother — despite previous concerns from both Bethany and Alhaidari that the grandmother could be a damaging influence on the girl.

The judge cited the grandmother’s education and her high status. “Additionally,” he wrote, “the criticisms against [her] are not as strong as what was presented against the parents.”

The judge noted in his ruling that Alhaidari and his mother were living together but wrote that he did not expect that to continue, “knowing that it is in men’s nature not to stay at home and not honor/fulfill the parental role themselves.”

Bethany has accused Alhaidari of using cannabis substances, which are illegal in Saudi Arabia. She also said he could be aggressive and cruel, sometimes volcanic, and she described his behavior as emotionally and verbally abusive. The Vierra family says Bethany has corroborating audio clips of Alhaidari screaming at her, enraged. (In one clip he is seemingly heard yelling at Bethany, “Leave me f—— alone!”)

But in Saudi Arabia, a woman’s testimony is often worth less than a man’s, so Bethany’s own account of her relationship was inherently weaker when presented in court.

She is appealing, but another ruling could take months. For a time earlier this year, she was placed under a travel ban because she unwittingly missed a visitation session with her ex, her family says. He complained to the court, which then issued a warrant against her, according to the Vierras. That charge and the ban have since been dropped.

Says Dale McElhattan, an outside observer and former director of the Office of Hostage Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad: “It’s a crazy mess, and this American woman and her daughter are caught in the middle of it.”

'A Nightmare': Inside an American Mother's Custody Fight for Her Saudi Arabian Daughter
Bethany Vierra (left) with Zaina when she was a toddler
| Credit: Courtesy the Vierra Family

In the custody ruling, a translated copy which has been seen by PEOPLE, the judge noted that Bethany was new to Islam and is a foreigner who “continues to definitively embrace the customs and traditions of her upbringing.”

Saudi Arabia’s monarchy exercises sweeping control over the country and is intimately bound up with a very conservative branch of Islam whose rules and customs shape many facets of Saudi society — and intensely restrict women’s autonomy.

Only recently were women allowed to drive there and they live under a “guardianship” system in which their fathers, husbands or even sons essentially sign-off on many of their daily decisions, including banking, employment and travel. Bethany’s own Saudi residency at one point was in limbo following her divorce, though that has since been resolved.

Zaina has dual American and Saudi citizenship. But the Saudi courts see her only as a Saudi citizen, and their interest is in ensuring she is raised as such. She should be spared exposure to Western customs and traditions, the judge in her custody case wrote in July — even if that meant being separated from her mother.

Zaina remains with Bethany in Riyadh, thousands of miles from Bethany’s family, pending her appeal.

Until then, they wait.

“She’s really struggling,” Bethany’s cousin Nicole Carroll tells PEOPLE. “We are not talking about negotiating who gets a house in a divorce. We are talking about taking a child from her mother.”

In an emotional interview in July, after the judge first awarded her former mother-in-law custody of Zaina, Bethany told The New York Times, “I genuinely thought that there would still be justice served here, and I kind of put everything on that.”

“It’s like 10,000 times worse here because so much is at risk for women when they go to court,” she said then.

In the months since, her case has been covered by CNN, the Today show and international outlets, but Bethany has been reticent and focused on her family. She is keenly aware — and not always comfortable with — how other people are interpreting her situation.

She agreed to be quoted for this article, albeit with reservations. “I’m still afraid of speaking to media on the topic,” she says, “but I will say that there is nothing in this world that makes me more proud than being Zaina’s mother.”

For Bethany, who has an Arabic tattoo on her back that reads “love is giving,” the process has produced the opposite of the personal peace she teaches students at her yoga studio — Saudi Arabia’s first, she says — which she opened in 2018. But she’s adamant that “the problem here is not Islamic law.”

“I do not want this case to be used to enforce Islamophobic rhetoric,” she says.

In recent weeks, PEOPLE spoke extensively to the Vierra family and reviewed court documents and other materials for this portrait of Bethany’s headline-making fight: what drew her to Saudi Arabia eight years ago; how she met the man who became her husband and what drove them apart; and her life with Zaina.

Alhaidari, her ex, did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him by phone and by email. He has not spoken publicly. A man matching his name and background did, however, view a PEOPLE reporter’s LinkedIn page before this story published.

Last week, Bethany shared a short video on Facebook of Zaina singing to her at bedtime. “Please don’t take my sunshine away,” Bethany wrote in the caption.

“What mother could endure that?” says Carroll, her cousin. “It’s just horrifying.”

'A Nightmare': Inside an American Mother's Custody Fight for Her Saudi Arabian Daughter
Bethany Vierra and Zaina
| Credit: Courtesy the Vierra Family

‘I Was Really Excited for Her’

It was to be an adventure. Nothing like this was supposed to happen.

Growing up in Wenatchee, Washington, “Bethany wasn’t shy,” says mom Kathi. “She was always pretty much an outgoing child, very social. … People liked her, and she enjoyed people.”

She was musical, playing piano and guitar and gifted with a singing voice, and she was theatrical, finding roles in school plays, her mom says.

“Bethany loves exploring new places,” Carroll says, “and we would go to San Francisco together and have great conversations about life and our dreams for the future.” The two went boating and swimming together. Once, Carroll coaxed Bethany, six years her junior, into overcoming her fear of riding horses.

As Bethany grew older, she set her sights increasingly far from home.

Described by her family as “deeply intelligent and curious,” Bethany earned multiple college degrees, studying as an undergrad at Central Washington University in Ellensburg and then pursuing her master’s degree in Paris and a PhD in Ireland. She has lived in Senegal, Tunisia and elsewhere.

“She traveled the world,” says Carroll. Passionate about human rights, Bethany received her master’s in Middle Eastern studies from the American University in Paris and then enrolled in a human rights doctoral program at the National University of Ireland. There she researched, among other topics, “perceptions of freedom among Saudi Citizens.”

Bethany first arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2011. She planned to teach at a women’s university in Riyadh while pursuing her graduate degree.

Friends soon introduced her to Ghassan Alhaidari, a Saudi businessman who had attended the University of Colorado in Denver. According to the Vierra family, he seemed charming and kind and their bond deepened quickly.

Two years later, some two dozen friends and family watched them wed on the Portuguese island of Madeira. Mom Kathi remembers it as a “lovely” gathering.

“He’s pleasant, outgoing and charismatic when you first meet him,” she says of her former son-in-law, whom she met once before the wedding.

'A Nightmare': Inside an American Mother's Custody Fight for Her Saudi Arabian Daughter
Center, from left: Ghassan Alhaidari and Bethany Vierra at their 2013 wedding
| Credit: Courtesy the Vierra Family

“I was really excited for her when she got married,” cousin Carroll says. Afterward, Bethany went to live with Alhaidari in Riyadh. She had a new love, a new life and — in 2015 — a daughter they named Zaina, meaning beauty and grace.

“She is a beautiful, intelligent and amazing little girl,” Bethany tells PEOPLE.

Bethany’s mom has visited her in Saudi Arabia several times, never with any issue. Bethany and her husband and daughter also regularly traveled to the U.S., and her mom says their plan was to eventually move there.

“Beth came out every summer to see us for a few months. He’d come out for part of it, and they would go on vacation. We would keep Zaina,” Kathi says.

Within a few years though, Bethany’s marriage had grown turbulent, darkening, love curdling into something else. Bethany felt emotionally and verbally abused by the once-adoring man who now shouted and swore at her.

PEOPLE understands that the couple went into therapy for several months in 2016 and 2017 — though the conflict between them was too deeply rooted. Culture, communication, clashes in parenting styles and emotional needs and expectations: Together these problems shredded their bond, even as they worked for a time to repair it. Eventually, they stopped going to the sessions.

“I was diagnosed with postpartum depression after I gave birth to my daughter. I struggled being away from my friends and family in Saudi as a new parent for the first time,” Bethany said in February, in a local profile on her work as a yoga instructor. “Yoga helped me through that battle, everything I practiced on the mat was a metaphor for things going on in my life. It allowed me to reconnect with myself after many years of being lost, it became something I wanted to share with the community.”

Last November, Bethany filed for divorce. Alhaidari at first resisted the split, the Vierra family says, but then claimed that he had already divorced Bethany months earlier via a Saudi law that allows a man to dissolve his marriage simply by announcing that to his wife.

While Alhaidari eventually agreed to the split, he contested custody of Zaina, setting in motion their legal fight this year.

Says Kathi: “Something changed very quickly during the divorce process.”

'A Nightmare': Inside an American Mother's Custody Fight for Her Saudi Arabian Daughter
From left: Zaina with her grandparents Kathi and Myron Vierra
| Credit: Courtesy the Vierra Family

‘Bethany Isn’t Going to Give Up’

Nearly 12 months after wading into the Saudi legal system, Bethany has not managed to find her way out with her daughter.

According to the Vierras, a key factor was Bethany’s perceived Americanness, as described by her ex-husband, whom the family says painted her in an unflattering light to the Saudi court even though she did things that would not turn heads in the U.S.

Complicating matters further during the custody proceedings, which came to a head this summer, was Bethany’s ex-husband’s sister Leena, who said in an affidavit to the court that their mom had her own problems.

“My mother’s harsh temper made us choose our father’s custody for us when we were children whereas we were being harassed by my mother,” Leena wrote in her affidavit, which was obtained by PEOPLE.

Bethany, according to Leena, had “good morals” and was “capable of raising” Zaina, whom Bethany had spent nights awake with comforting during the girl’s asthma attacks.

The Alhaidari family, including Zaina’s grandmother, could not be reached for comment.

More complicating still is that Bethany’s ex-husband is his mother’s own “guardian,” a State Department source says.

Bethany officially lost custody in July, but the court agreed that Zaina should remain with her during the appeal, the Vierra family says.

If the appeal goes against her, Bethany must relinquish Zaina to her former mother-in-law and seek permission in court to visit the child she has raised from infancy.

Although the judge cited Sharia (or Islamic) law in his multi-faceted ruling, Bethany does not cast fault on the country that is structured around conservative religious principles.

“Islamic law would protect my right as a mother and my daughter’s right to be in my care until she reaches the age of maturity,” Bethany says.

Nevertheless, in practice, Western women typically don’t retain custody of their children in Saudi Arabia, according to international family law expert Jeremy Morley. “I don’t know of any Western woman winning custody of dual-national children in a Sharia court,” Morley says.

Even when she retains custody in Saudi Arabia, a Western mother does not have full rights regarding where her child lives. The State Department cautions that “in [a] Saudi Arabia divorce, Saudi courts rarely grant permission for the foreign parent to leave the country with the children born during the marriage, even if he or she has been granted physical custody.”

A spokesperson for the Saudi embassy did not respond to questions about Bethany. Instead the spokesperson referred PEOPLE to an August policy statement on the embassy web site about “Vision 2030,” a reform initiative described as aiming to empower women in the kingdom.

The kingdom’s leadership has made much of how it has recently eased some strictures on women, though skeptics question the extent and durability of the reforms.

“Vision 2030 recognizes that a successful, modern nation must encourage and empower all members of society, including women,” the statement reads. In March 2018, Saudi women received the right to assume custody of their minor children following divorce unless the divorce was being contested.

There are so many changes coming into play that sometimes Saudi judges are confused about how to apply them, the State Department source tells PEOPLE. Old views persist — sometimes to the mother’s detriment.

While Bethany waits for the decision on her appeal, she and Zaina continue their tenuous existence together.

A typical day begins with Zaina waking her mom around 6 a.m. Bethany prepares a breakfast of homemade banana pancakes or scrambled eggs with chopped spinach. Like other girls her age, Zaina loves unicorns, enjoys books, doing puzzles, playing with dolls and playing pretend. Their grey and white Himalayan cat, Bebe, keeps them company.

'A Nightmare': Inside an American Mother's Custody Fight for Her Saudi Arabian Daughter
Bethany Vierra (right) with Zaina
| Credit: Courtesy the Vierra Family

Kathi says her granddaughter is “doing well, considering,” but Zaina is not unaware of what is going on.

“She overhears things. She sees her mother upset. She knows that her dad won’t talk to her mom, and that he won’t let her mom in the house,” Kathi says. “When she heard that the judge said she didn’t speak Arabic, she ran crying to Beth, counting in Arabic, saying, ‘See? I know Arabic!’ ”

Twice a week Bethany teaches at her yoga studio while Zaina stays with a sitter. Once a week, for a few hours, Zaina sees her father.

At night, with Zaina at home, Bethany reads to her daughter and puts her to bed, to await whatever news the morning might bring.

“To see her as a woman who is having her rights taken away breaks my heart, especially when I think of all the good she has done for others,” her cousin says.

Where Bethany was previously more candid about her situation — openly sharing her distress at her ongoing legal problems over her daughter — she is now guarded, tactful.

“She has been very careful about keeping Zaina with her all the time,” Kathi says.

“I am so grateful to everyone here in Saudi and back home in the United States who have been supporting us and keeping us going,” Bethany tells PEOPLE.

She has her daughter, for now.

Dad Myron Vierra says that, if needed, her lawyer will appeal again: “Bethany isn’t going to give up.”

“She doesn’t want to give up custody,” Kathi says, “or be in a position where she can’t come back.”