Protect 250 Immigrant Women Fleeing Violence

 
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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. 

Links:

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.

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.

Links:

Washington Post 4.18.13
Washington Post 4.18.13

Last month, The Washington Post featured the inspiring story of former Tahirih Justice Center client, Fouzia Durrani who courageously defied the Taliban to educate young girls in her village and refused to marry a man to whom she had been promised at age 3. (See Pam Constable, “Afghan Escapes Taliban Oppression, but She Fears for the Others Still,” Washington  Post, 4/19/2013). In the article, Ms. Durrani notes, “So many girls in Afghanistan are still caught by all those forces, with no way to escape.”

We honored Ms. Durrani with the Courageous Voice Award at our 16th Annual Gala in Washington, DC on April 25th, 2013.  

When Fighting to End Violence Against Women, Non-Partisanship is Key

by Jeanne Smoot, Tahirih Director of Public Policy

 

As a new session of Congress gears up but many of the old problems still loom large, we wanted to reflect on one of the Tahirih Justice Center’s core values – non-partisanship – and share why we have found that holding tight to that principle in the policy world is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

 

Political parties and beliefs have their place, and we respect that. But our institutional belief is that the vital human rights issues we advocate for on behalf of our clients, incredible women and girls who refuse to be victims of violence, are universal and defending them occupies a bipartisan space where both have always found a way to come together.

 

The original Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994 and Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000 had lead authors and co-sponsors from both parties. Subsequent VAWA reauthorizations passed by unanimous consent in the Senate, and by stunning margins in the House (VAWA 2005 passed the House by 415 to 4!).  And, despite the political battle that has been waged over the last year on VAWA’s reauthorization, recent signs indicate that we can reclaim that bi-partisan space again.

 

On February 12, 2013 the Senate passed a VAWA reauthorization bill (S.47) by a resounding 78-22 bi-partisan vote.  At the same time, the Senate passed an amendment to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act by a decisive 93-5 bipartisan vote.

 

The House also seems to be following in the same spirit. On February 6, 2013 the Majority and Minority Leader on the House floor declared that early reauthorization of VAWA is their shared priority, and on February 14th, the Republican and Democratic co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues issued a joint press statement calling for VAWA’s bi-partisan reauthorization.

 

So how has Tahirih been helping turn this tide in Congress? We have been at the forefront of efforts over the last year to preserve and advance protections under VAWA for immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and human trafficking. We have also been fighting to keep the VAWA discourse passionate and principled, but not political.

 

Over the last year, Tahirih repeatedly met with staff and Members from both parties and within leadership of both House and Senate, reaching out to over 30 Congressional offices. Our even-handed approach has opened doors for us and earned us willing allies. Provisions that Tahirih drafted to strengthen the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (a law enacted as part of VAWA 2005 to protect “mail-order brides” from abuse) were offered by a Republican leader on the Senate Judiciary Committee, accepted by the Democratic Chair, and then passed by a nearly unanimous vote by the full committee last February.

 

As in all our advocacy initiatives, we have worked hard to build bridges, foster communication, encourage cooperation and most of all, promote respectful relationships. We have built a strong track record of working with a broad base of allies and securing bi-partisan co-sponsorships for our efforts although this can be a constant challenge in a partisan Washington.

 

But, no matter how complicated to achieve, non-partisanship is a core value that we strive toward in countless ways, every day. Tahirih does not support any political party, or participate in campaign activity (though we respect the right of employees and Board members to take part in party politics in their personal capacity and on their own time). That means we do not allow party-bashing at staff meetings, in lunchroom conversations or in our communications.  Tahirih representatives also do not attend candidate fundraisers and are reminded to uphold our non-partisanship value at coalition meetings, at briefings and receptions, and especially in speeches and media interviews. We are always honored to be invited by a wide range of conservative and liberal groups to speak at their events, and we accept most such opportunities for public education – so long as we are not expected to be a mouthpiece for others’ platforms rather than our clients’ plights.

 

Tahirih has been fortunate to attract an incredibly diverse group of supporters to rally around our mission to protect women and girls from violence. Every year Tahirih invites all members of Congress to show their support by joining an Honorary Congressional Co-Chair Committee for our annual national fundraising gala. And, every year we are grateful that dozens of Democratic and Republican committed legislators from across the political spectrum agree to serve.

 

Tahirih’s inspiring clients deserve every last one of the allies that we can muster and marshal for their protection.  Being genuinely non-partisan helps ensure that Tahirih can weather all the storms that pass through Washington and keep us effective no matter where the balance of power shifts.

 

The moment we presume who our best friend or worst enemy is, is the moment we will fail to be the fiercest advocates we can be for the courageous women and girls we represent.

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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