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Jun 23, 2014

Unbreakable Bond: Mother Finds Her Way Back to Daughter After Seven Years Apart

Helina* didn’t need a recent photo to instantly recognize her daughter, now all grown up. As Ifrah* walked through the airport gate, Helina rushed to embrace her. Mother and daughter were together at last.

This Mother’s Day, we introduced you to Helina, a courageous mother who survived human trafficking and sought safety from her traffickers in the United States. With legal protection, Helina was safe, but she couldn’t truly move on. Helina had not seen her daughter, Ifrah,* in seven years.

This is the story of their reunion.

Helina left Ethiopia in 2009 to work as a housekeeper abroad. She was desperate to find a way to support her daughter. Helina sent Ifrah to live with her grandparents, and planned to send her earnings home to support them. But Helina became a prisoner to her employers. They took her passport, locked her in the house, and denied her pay, rest, and food.

Helina’s employers tried to cut her ties to the outside world. She had to sneak away to call her daughter using borrowed calling cards from a fellow worker. 

Helina’s ability to keep in touch with Ifrah abruptly ended when Helina’s employers took her on a trip the United States. She didn’t have access to her friend’s calling cards, and her employers monitored her every move.  

With her daughter’s future in mind, Helina made a daring escape. One day, while her captors slept, she took back her passport and ran away. An Ethiopian taxi driver noticed Helina on the street and introduced her to an Ethiopian community in Houston. The community connected her to the Tahirih Justice Center. Together with her attorneys, she won legal protection from her employers. Her visa simultaneously gave Helina the chance to reunite with her daughter in the United States.   

It took Helina and Ifrah, now 14, many excruciating months to prepare Ifrah’s application to join her in the United States. During this time, Helina received work authorization and began to make a living. She made new friends and found a supportive community. As the Courageous Voice Honoree Tahirih’s Houston Gala last fall, Helina shared her determination to see her daughter again. 

This April, the day she had been waiting for arrived. Helina and her attorneys went to greet Ifrah at the airport. Mother and daughter raced toward one another, finally bringing their years of separation to an end.

This story of courage is part of our 2014 Spring Newsletter. Find the full newsletter here.

*Name has been changed to protect client privacy.

Apr 1, 2014

Lessons from Eva on VAWA's Anniversary

At Tahirih Justice Center, March is an important anniversary for reflection and recommitment. One year ago, after a long struggle by a broad-based, bipartisan coalition of leading national advocates including Tahirih, President Obama signed the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act into law. This hard-won legislation provides critical tools to combat violence against women, help survivors rebuild their lives, and hold criminals accountable.

But for women like Eva* across the U.S., the fight to end violence is not over.

Eva fled Guatemala to escape her violently abusive boyfriend. She feared she would never be safe if she stayed in her home country. She took a job as a cook at an Italian restaurant in northwest Washington, D.C. It wasn’t long before she realized she wasn’t safe at the restaurant, either.

Over a period of three months, the restaurant owner sexually harassed and assaulted Eva. His verbal abuse quickly escalated into a series of violent attacks. When Eva was alone in the kitchen, her boss crept up behind her and groped her. He attacked her in the hallway, banging her head against the wall, and sexually assaulted her in the bathroom. Eva didn’t feel safe anywhere.

Like many criminals, her boss thought he would get away this abuse because Eva was an undocumented immigrant. He threatened to have Eva deported if she went to the police, and Eva kept quiet out of fear. After a particularly violent attack, Eva risked everything and reported her boss to the police.

Because of Eva’s courage, law enforcement officials arrested her attacker.

In partnership with a pro bono attorney from Arnold & Porter LLP, Tahirih helped Eva secure a U visa because she was a victim of a serious crime who suffered substantial harm and had the courage to assist law enforcement in making our community safer.

The U visa is a protection that was carefully crafted to reduce the immigrant vulnerability to crime and serve our whole nation’s security interests. Top law enforcement officials agree. Again and again, they encounter criminals who count on the fact that immigrant victims will be too fearful of deportation to get help from police.

“The most important thing is that I can be with my kids and keep them safe, that I can live and work without fear and move on with my life,” Eva recently told her Tahirih attorney. “Now, we can send a signal to other women. If this is happening to you, speak up and say something. It’s not right. You can stand up. You can speak the truth.”

In 2013, Tahirih helped more than 200 violent-crime victims like Eva achieve safety and rebuild their lives through the U visa program.

Unfortunately, there is an arbitrary limit on how many U visas can be issued in a year. In 2013, that cap was reached within a few months, leaving victims like Eva without an opportunity to put their trauma in the past. Instead, their names were added to an ever-growing waitlist, remaining in legal limbo and unable to stabilize themselves or their families.

Arbitrary limits like the cap on the number of annually available U visas are thwarting the potency of VAWA and other tools in the fight to end violence against women. We clearly have more work to do.

Tahirih and other leading national advocates are pressing Congress to raise the U visa cap and enact other survivor-inspired immigration provisions that would better protect immigrant women and girls from violence.

On this anniversary, let’s renew our commitment to end violence against women. Let’s ensure that VAWA lives up to its full potential. If we don’t, predators like Eva’s boss will capitalize on our nation’s inaction.

This article is part of our Winter 2014 Newsletter. Read the full newsletter.

*To protect client privacy, client name has been changed.
**Client’s comments to her attorney at the case’s conclusion have been paraphrased.

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Jan 15, 2014

You Helped Me Access Justice

I just received a full scholarship to go to college. Never in my life would I have imagined writing these words except in a dream. It’s all possible because of people like you.

You see, I grew up in a very conservative community in southwest Iran. For as long as I can remember, my father treated me and my mother like servants in our own home. No matter how hard we tried to please him, he found a reason to beat us and threaten to kill us. I’ll never forget the time he hurled a butcher knife at my head when I was 10 because I didn’t say “hello” to my uncle when he entered our home. I threw my hands up to protect my face, and the knife went through my right hand, causing severe bleeding. I was not allowed to see a doctor.

My father got away with this because women were treated as property or worse in my family—my paternal relatives beheaded their wives and daughters for disobeying orders and fleeing arranged marriages.

Despite my persistence to get out of the house and go to school, my father told me I would never be a source of pride because I am a girl. He said being obedient to men was our destiny as women.

When I turned 15, my father arranged for me to marry my cousin. I dreaded a life of never-ending misery. My mother, a brave and strong-willed woman, decided it was time to save us both. In the middle of the night, with only a few clothes and a blanket, we ran away. We spent the next seven years in hiding.

During my travels abroad with relatives, I befriended an American man. I fell in love, and when he proposed, my mother and I agreed I should accept his offer. My fiancé helped me obtain a visitor’s visa and I followed him to America, but he soon revealed he was already married and left me stranded. I felt so alone, with no home, no family and no resources.

Finding Tahirih changed everything. My attorneys and social service aides helped me access the food, shelter and support services I needed to survive. Their unwavering support gave me the courage to move forward and share my story with an asylum officer. After several difficult months, I was granted asylum. I felt like I had a second chance at life.

I found work as a translator for the U.S. military and have been doing so for the past three years. Today, I am determined to earn a degree in criminal justice because I want to have a career protecting others like Tahirih protected me.

You have the power to open similar doors for an immigrant woman or girl in a desperate situation.

Please make a generous gift today and help other courageous women and girls as they fight with Tahirih to escape violence and fulfill their true destinies.

Meena*

*Name has been changed to protect client privacy. 

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Oct 31, 2013

Cultural Relativism & Violence Against Women

Layli Miller-Muro
Layli Miller-Muro

Society is in a stage of adolescence, and equality between women and men is a necessary condition for growth, Tahirih Founder and Executive Director Layli Miller-Muro told an audience Oct. 15 at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

“The equality of women and men is not a women’s issue. It is a men’s and a women’s issue, because we’re both flopping around on the ground together, and we’re both unable to fly and to soar and reach our fullest potential,” Miller-Muro said at Carnegie’s Merrill House in New York.

Equality between women and men was one of several thorny issues Miller-Muro raised during her moderated discussion, which was held in connection with the Carnegie New Leaders program. The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is a hub for discourse on war, peace and social justice, and the New Leaders program provides a forum to accomplished policy makers, social innovators, scholars and professionals.

Miller-Muro founded the Tahirih Justice Center in 1997 to serve immigrant women and girls fleeing violence. Since then, Tahirih has provided comprehensive legal and social services to more than 14,000 women and children fleeing human rights abuses such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, human trafficking and domestic violence.

“Our goal is to truly provide justice to incredibly courageous women and girls who have suffered things that make us uncomfortable,” Miller-Muro said. “They have suffered things that are hard to speak out loud. They have suffered things that you might turn away from as you read about them or click on quickly to the next story so that you don’t have to see the details and then get that knot in your stomach which happens when you’re seeing something that you know is not okay, but you’re not really sure what you can do about it.”

By the time women and girls reach out to Tahirih, they are already heroes, Miller-Muro said. They have decided for themselves to change their circumstances.

“I often think, in some ways, our job is to create the stage, to kind of form a barrier of security around the stage, to give the microphone, and then to allow our clients to say what they need to say and do what they need to do,” said Miller-Muro, as she explored issues of cultural relativism.

There is a common misconception that Tahirih and its partners only protect women and girls from issues with roots in developing countries, Miller-Muro said. The majority of Tahirih’s clients – 70 percent, according to a recent study – are fleeing abuse that happened on U.S. soil.

“Human trafficking, for example, is something happening here. The people using the brothels are American guys. The people who are hiring domestic servants who are often being abused are here, and may be Americans. The mail order bride victims that we have been helping are married to very middle-American guys who very deliberately wanted to look abroad to find women whom they viewed as traditional and subservient, who didn’t speak English and don’t know the laws. Domestic violence is something, obviously, that’s happening here,” Miller-Muro said.

Aug 13, 2013

Claudine's Story of Courage

Photo courtesy of Sergio Pessolano
Photo courtesy of Sergio Pessolano

I was raped trying to protect my sister from a man who had raped me once before. I grew up working to bring positive change for women in my country, but had to flee because of it. Yet, I never gave on my potential to make a difference.

My name is Claudine.* I am from East Africa** and this is my story.

When I was a child, my country experienced political unrest and my family and I became refugees in another country.

While abroad, a good family friend, Marc* briefly moved in with us, hoping to convince my parents to join his political movement back home. My parents refused his offer and asked him to leave.

That day I came home from school and found myself alone with Marc. Having known him as a good friend of the family and unaware that he was asked to leave, I didn’t think it unusual when he asked to hang out with me.

Marc asked me to come over to him and when I did, he grabbed me, covered my mouth with a cloth, pushed me to the floor and raped me. He then took out a knife and cut my stomach, as if to mark his territory. Being just a child, I laid on the floor in shock until my mother came home. She immediately took me to the hospital.

When I came home from the hospital, my father cried because he couldn’t protect me.

After the rape, my whole community found out what had happened and shunned me. Where I lived, not being a virgin before marriage is cause for great shame. Kids taunted me in school so much that I wanted to stop going. I didn’t have any friends. Feeling desperate, ashamed, and alone, I tried slitting my wrists after seeing an actor do it on TV but, luckily, I didn’t succeed. I convinced my parents to let me drop out of school and I spent my days at home with my siblings.

Later, when the political situation at home improved, my family moved back to our old neighborhood and I was able to return to school.

My new life did not last long because Marc moved in next door. My father saw this, but he was powerless to remove Marc because Marc had become a ranking a member of the dominant political party.

Bad things started up again when Marc and his friends began taunting me on my way to school. I always ignored them and tried walking away faster.

One day Marc called me and said if I wouldn’t come and “talk” with him, he would make sure to “talk” with my younger sister, who was only in elementary school at the time. I knew what he meant. His way of “talking” was to rape. I wanted to protect my sister and knew what I had to do. I went to his house where he brutally raped me. Again. He cut my stomach once more to mark his rape.

And, Marc got away with it. The police dismiss women’s reports of rape, so I didn’t even try. My first rape was too shameful for me and my family. I kept this rape a secret.

I later moved on and enrolled in university. I eventually got involved in a new political party that had split with the one Marc still belonged to.

I believed this party would bring peace to my country and advocate to end violence against women. I hoped that my work with members who supported women would also protect me from Marc, who had become a high-ranking member of his party.

But my father, still concerned for my safety, helped me enroll in a university in a neighboring country.

Only a few months before the new semester, Marc’s political party grew in power and started threating members of mine. Police made constant arrests and would often torture and murder anyone they took in. Marc consistently called my phone just to harass me.

One day, I attended a peaceful protest, but was beaten over the head by the police and hospitalized. I knew the police would send for me and, if they did, I would be tortured or killed, like other friends of mine had been.

Not long after at 5 AM one morning, I heard police knocking on my front door. I quickly ran out of the back door. From then on, I had nothing and relied on friends and strangers to hide me until I could figure out a plan for safety.

After a few months in hiding, a good family friend, Emile,* found me living on the streets and helped me obtain my passport from home. It was a miracle that he then helped me get a visa to transit through the United States to another country.

On the way, I had a short layover in Washington, D.C. where I stayed with friends of Emile. After hearing my story, they told me to apply for asylum in the U.S. because my identity might still be discovered if I traveled on to my final destination. I knew that going home was not an option.

I applied for asylum with the help of a pastor, but I was afraid to reveal that I had been raped. I feared that my new church community would shun me as a rape survivor. My application was referred to immigration court and so I needed an experienced attorney to help.

My answer came when I found the Tahirih Justice Center through an outreach presentation conducted by Tahirih’s African Women’s Empowerment Project.

Tahirih took on my case and set me up with a pro bono attorney from Holland & Knight. With Tahirih’s professionalism and trust, I was comfortable telling my full experience in confidence.

After months of hard work and two intensive court hearings, I was granted asylum in immigration court. I will never be able to thank my attorneys for what they did for me.

Since I was granted asylum, I started feeling a sense of peace I haven’t felt in a long time. I of course miss my family and worry about their safety but what keeps me going is my determination to make a good living to support us all.

I am now enrolling in university to finally finish my degree. I ultimately hope to make my family proud and to see them again one day soon.

*Name has been changed to protect client privacy.

** Country of origin and some of the details of this case cannot be disclosed to protect client privacy and confidentiality.

Photograph courtesy of Sergio Pessolano.

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Organization

Tahirih Justice Center

Falls Church, VA, United States
http://www.tahirih.org/

Project Leader

Marlena Hartz

Communications Manager
Falls Church, VA United States

Where is this project located?

Map of Protect 250 Immigrant Women Fleeing Violence