AUSTIN (KXAN) — Embarking on a fitness journey can often feel like taking an uncomfortable leap into the unknown. So can forging through life on faith.

“You can have faith in some things and be sure,” says Izzy El-Ubaydy, voted Austin’s best fitness trainer for three years in a row by Austin Fit. “You can have faith, and not be sure.” 

I met Izzy a year ago during one of my sessions with my personal trainer. Izzy is strong. His muscles match his charm — bubbly and powerful. I had no idea how much we had in common — me, an out-of-shape man in my 40s, and Izzy, an athletic 26-year-old. Izzy’s story resonated with me, and it may with you, too. For Izzy, building muscles came easy compared to rebuilding his life after being kidnapped, abused and forced to change his identity.

Izzy El-Ubaydy is a well-known fitness trainer in Austin. What you may not know is that it took him 16 years to reunite with his mother. When he was nine years old, his dad forced him and his younger brother to leave their home in Germany.

“I was just going about my day trading Pokemon cards, and I think our dad just said ‘We have to go,’ and he just grabbed our arms super hard,” Izzy said. “He had all these suitcases ready with all our stuff. I didn’t know what was going on. It was pretty scary. I was asking a lot of questions and my dad wasn’t answering them. The moment we left Germany, I resolved to find my mom one day.”

His dad revealed they were all moving to Texas. Young Izzy thought he would have to learn how to ride a horse. His dad planned the trip, gave them new names and a new family history. But, he didn’t plan for shelter. The three were homeless in Austin for six months.

Izzy spent the first nine years of his life as “Sebastian,” but that all changed when they left Germany. He and his brother were forced to memorize a new life story. He recalls those moments and describes them as being brainwashed. Despite the threats of a father who he described as abusive, Izzy was able to overcome this life challenge.

“I don’t think it affected me in the sense that I knew who I was. My name doesn’t mean who I am. I’m ‘Sebastian,’ and, I’m also ‘Izzy.’ I’m also an Austinite, a personal trainer, a soccer player, a poet, and a warrior. I mean, I’m all the things I choose to be. At a young age I was able to realize that this doesn’t define me. I can either be at the mercy of the circumstance, or I can let the circumstance be at my mercy, and make a couple of choices and follow through on those.”

“If I can find my mom … I can do anything”

Finding his mom wasn’t easy. Izzy’s search meant a daily check of missing children websites. He reached out to embassies asking for help and advice. The search would take him ten long years.. One day, Izzy searched his birth name on YouTube, and a familiar face came up as he scrolled through videos. 

“It was an old picture of my mom holding my brother and I,” he said. “Seeing that— I mean, it was something else. It was out of this world. In the video he saw his mom’s message. “It said ‘We are still looking for you.’ I clicked on it. It had my mother’s email. I emailed her, and the next day I was able to call her.” That day was Mothers Day.

It was a sigh of relief for both mother and son. But, then came the next challenge for Izzy who was set on traveling to Germany. He had to consult with attorneys to help him with his immigration status. At this time, Izzy was 19, and living as Sebastian. It would take him six years to gain citizenship status. Izzy needed to seek asylum, then apply for his residency and wait a while before becoming a citizen of the U.S. 

Izzy El-Ubaydy’s emotional reunion with his mom after nearly two decades since he was kidnapped. (Courtesy Izzy El-Ubaydy)

“At that point I’ve just been hit with so many things,” he said. “I mean, drama just figured out how to catch up to me at a pretty fast rate. At that point I’ve encountered enough things to be, just like, ‘Alright, gotta solve this.’ You realize that you can spend a lot of good time just being sorrowful, or reclusive, or a victim again. Or, you can do something about it. You can still honor your feelings about it and express emotions. And, I’m finding that out to be a cool thing recently in my life — just the art of expression, right? To let those things out.” 

The long wait was challenging for Izzy — self doubt kicked in and he wondered if this was the end of his journey. “If you are really honest with yourself a lot more things that we think are not possible, whether it be weight loss, or having a financial leg up, pursuing your dreams, it is possible — it actually is,” Izzy said.

Izzy went on to say, “If I can find my mom after all these years, and go through all these obstacles, I can do anything. I can go run half a marathon, a full marathon. If I structure and plan accordingly, and I can get my mind right, I can do anything.”

Making the “Faith and Fitness” connection

In Izzy’s life story, I found parts of my own fitness journey.  A year ago, I had a stroke. Before that health scare, I’d made a promise to take care of myself — not just physically and mentally, but spiritually, too. When I committed to my fitness journey I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. In the beginning, workouts would leave me exhausted, dripping in sweat and sore for days. There was disappointment. I couldn’t do a pushup or a squat. Running was a challenge. It took me an hour to finish three miles. But, despite not seeing immediate results and then suffering the stroke, I relied on my faith to guide me toward fitness. Peace took over. My stress levels were down.

But, the day the stroke happened, I was scared out of my mind. I woke up feeling as if there were a heavy brick on my face. My left arm felt like a 20-pound weight. Within a minute, the sensation went away, but, then it came back. I called 911 and noticed my speech had begun to slur. The medics came minutes later, and, fortunately, the symptoms went away. In that moment, and in the days and months ahead of back-to-back tests, I didn’t know how my life would turn out.

How do you follow a path you can’t see?

For Izzy, at 9-years-old, he knew the moment he and his brother were kidnapped, he would see his mom again. He had faith, even though he was thousands of miles away from her. Though Izzy recounted experiencing abuse,  he found a community that encouraged him. He was surrounded by hope and faith. A family took him in after he ran away from home at the age of 16. That new family introduced Izzy to a local church. He even became a pastor.

Since finding his mother online, Izzy has kept in communication with her. He documented the emotional reunion — his first trip back to Germany since he was kidnapped nearly two decades ago. (You can watch his two videos here) Whether it’s fitness, financial goals or overcoming life challenges — he says the solution is inside you.

“It starts somewhere you have to make a choice,” El-Ubaydy said.

I met Izzy a year ago during one of my sessions with my personal trainer. For Izzy, building muscles came easy compared to rebuilding his life after being kidnapped, abused and forced to change his identity. (Photo by Jose Torres)

Jose Torres is a morning news producer with KXAN. His blog will bring stories of hope and determination from others who have fought through their own health struggles and life challenges. He looks forward to sharing those conversations in future blogs.