Protect 250 Immigrant Women Fleeing Violence

by Tahirih Justice Center

Born into poverty in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, Maritza* grew up in a community surrounded by violence and corruption. Pervasive organized crime had a vice grip on shop owners, schools, and even the police. Hard working and smart, Maritza worked to help support her family while she attended school to fulfill her dreams of becoming a nurse.

Life wasn’t easy, but she was happy. All that changed in a matter of minutes.

Her nightmare began during lunch with a friend one afternoon. A group of dangerous men entered the diner and sat down with the two girls; worse, her friend seemed to know them. The men quickly became aggressive. Familiar with the tactics gangs use to threaten and extort, Maritza’s instincts kicked in. She quickly removed her phone’s SIM card and destroyed it, preventing the men from finding her family’s contact information.

Moments later, Maritza was forced into a car at gunpoint by their ringleader. He threatened to kill her if she wasn’t quiet. When her “friend” was suddenly released, Maritza knew she had been set up. They drove for seven hours to an isolated home where she was confined to a small room and guarded by an armed man who was told to kill her if she tried to escape.

Her kidnapper raped her every night, threatening to find and punish her family if she struggled. One day, he ordered Maritza’s guard to take her to get her birth certificate so they could arrange for her to “travel.” Her kidnappers were human traffickers. They intended to sell her.

On the way back to the city, Maritza begged the guard to let her go. In a moment of compassion, he dropped her off at a bus station with a dire warning: they’ll kill you if they find you.

Maritza immediately took a bus back to her home city, but arranged to meet her family in a safe place in case she had been followed. Unfortunately, their reunion was brief.

Her family knew that if Maritza was discovered by the traffickers, they would all be killed. She had to leave the country immediately. Still, the decision was not an easy one to make. Her family had very little money and the journey was incredibly dangerous. The idea of being separated, potentially for years, was heartbreaking.

Desperate to protect Maritza, her mother made arrangements for her only daughter to flee to the United States, where she would be cared for by her uncle.

Remarkably, Maritza survived the trip and was eventually reunited with her uncle in Houston. She found her way to Tahirih Justice Center and continued to fight for her safety. With help from Tahirih and its pro bono team, Maritza was granted legal protection in 2016.

Today, she is safe. With the support of her loving uncle and his wife, Maritza is on track to graduate from high school. She plans to fulfill her childhood dream of attending college to become a nurse, and hopes to dedicate her life to helping others.

Maritza is Tahirih Houston’s 5th Annual Gala Courageous Voice Honoree. On September 17, 2016, join us to pay tribute to the courageous women and girls who refuse to be victims of violence. Funds raised at the “A Mother’s Life, A Child’s Future” gala go directly to helping more brave women and girls like Maritza.

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Watch Adela
Watch Adela's Story

Your support is transforming lives like Adela's. She wanted to share her journey out of domestic violence into a life of freedom with supporters like you. 


I was only 8 years old when I left home. 

We grew up very poor in a rural area of Peru, and I was the youngest of nine brothers and sisters. My father lived far away, and my mother was very violent toward me. One day, she hit me very hard, and I decided to leave. My uncle helped me escape to a bigger city, where I worked as a housekeeper for the next 18 years.

The work was very hard, but I didn’t have any other choice. I did what I had to in order to survive.

During this time, I had a beautiful baby boy. I loved him more than anything in the world. He lived with his father’s family — they were well-off and I wasn’t, but I visited him every chance I had. I got a job as a furniture salesperson to make a better life for me and my son, but I never felt like I earned money to give him the life he deserved. It made me sad, but I didn’t give up hope.

Not long after I started working at the furniture store, I met Luis. He was a local businessman, and he was so charming, friendly, and affectionate. He even promised me he’d help me with my son. We fell in love. Six months later, we moved in together. I finally felt as though things were turning around.

That feeling didn’t last.

Luis became very aggressive and violent. He didn’t want me to visit my son, so I started seeing my son less and less, so as not to anger Luis. Even then, he still found reasons to hit me. It broke my heart.

A few years into our relationship, I became pregnant with Luis’ child. One day, Luis didn’t come home so I went looking for him, and caught him with another woman.

Later that night, he found me crying and beat me so violently in the stomach and head that I lost the baby. He told me that he was in charge, and that I shouldn’t have left the house. I spent several days in the hospital.

Afterward, Luis apologized. He paid my hospital bills, begged me to forgive him, and promised me that things would change. I wanted with all my heart to believe him, so I took him back. When things didn’t get any better, our families got involved. They said we needed to get married. I felt like I had no choice.

After we were married, he began to hit me hard on my head instead of my face, so the bruises wouldn’t show. I couldn’t take it any longer. I escaped to the city where my son was living and found a job so I could be near him. Three months later, Luis tracked me down, grabbed me by the throat in the street, and forced me into a taxi with him.

I threatened to call the cops. He told me he’d kill me and no one would ever know. I was terrified. He forced me to let him move into my apartment.

I’d never been more afraid in my life.

I tried to disappear, but Luis found me. He was furious. He took me to a bridge and threatened to throw me off if I ever tried to escape again. I couldn’t get away from him. I didn’t want to die, and I felt like there was no one in the world who would help me.

There is no justice for women, I thought.

I felt dead. I couldn’t eat. I could hardly sleep. One day he came home drunk and hit my head against the concrete wall so hard that I passed out. I still have trouble hearing out of my right ear. A cousin of mine moved in and tried to protect me, but Luis continued to threaten to kill me.

One day, I went to visit a woman who had known me since childhood. She could tell something was wrong. I broke down and told her everything. She helped me with a plan to escape.

I knew if I wanted to live, I had to leave right away. Leaving my son behind was devastating, but I didn’t have a choice.

After a long and dangerous journey, I finally arrived in the United States, where I turned myself in to immigration to plead my case.

At first it was frightening — I had no family, no friends, and I felt all alone in a strange country. But with the help of Tahirih Justice Center, I applied for asylum. It was a difficult process, but Tahirih was there for me every step of the way. The day we received the decision from the court, I was so nervous. I didn’t know what I would do if my application was rejected.

Then the decision came in — asylum granted! I was so happy. Tahirih had become family to me.

Even though it was an incredible moment, I still missed my son terribly. When I fled my home country, he thought I had abandoned him. Thankfully, we were able to talk online, and I told him how much I loved him and why I had to leave. Over time, we rebuilt our relationship. Eventually I worked up the courage to ask him to join me here in the United States. He said yes, and Tahirih helped me figure out how to bring my son to this country.

When we were reunited at the airport, I was so happy I cried.

Today, things are going better than I could ever have imagined. I have a great job at a salon, and I recently got my construction license to build decks in the summer. My son, who shares my love of learning, wants to earn his degree in engineering.

Most importantly, we are together, and we are safe.

I can’t forget what happened to me. It’s part of my life. But I found the courage to save myself, and I want other women who might be in that position to know that there is always reason to hope.

Once, I was like the walking dead. Now, I live a full life, free of violence. I’m so happy to be alive.


Thank you for helping courageous women like Adela rebuild their lives in safety and with dignity! You can find more success stories on our website.

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Thank you for your incredible support of Tahirih Justice Center’s groundbreaking Forced Marriage Initiative.

Our research on child and forced marriage in the United States is featured in a January Houston Chronicle column about one writer’s personal experience with the human rights violation:

"In the photos, you can see traces of the beauty my mother eventually grew into. The high cheekbones and dark blonde hair are there, but she’s sickly pale. The blue eyes lack the piercing force of personality she’d later develop … She was 14 and awkward. She was being forced to marry a man she had just met.

When we think of child brides, we think of long ago and far away. My mother’s arranged marriage happened in 1970 in Orange, Texas. Not that far away. Not that long ago. While far from commonplace, underage and forced marriage in the United States still occurs."

The Chronicle’s Francisca Ortega discussed the upsurge in the number of women seeking help to escape forced marriage in the United States with our Forced Marriage Initiative Project Manager, Casey Swegman. The Forced Marriage Initiative expects more individuals to come forward as the problem gains recognition as a human rights abuse that violates the right to choose whether, when, and whom to marry, Swegman said.

Read the full article here.

We will keep you updated as this pressing issue develops. Thank you for your continued support of courageous women and girls!

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Marie
Marie

Marie* was nervous. So was her mother. It had been months since they had turned in her application for asylum. They should have heard something by now. She waited in the Houston immigration courtroom for word on whether she could stay in the U.S. with her mother.

If her application was rejected, she would be forced to relive her heartbreaking story again, this time in front of an immigration judge, and she would likely be forced to go back to San Salvador. Back to the beatings. Back to him.

Marie was born in El Salvador and from the very beginning, there was violence in her house. She grew up fearing her father, who regularly beat and verbally abused her mother.

When Marie was just 5-years-old, her father held a machete to her mother’s throat and threatened to kill her.

And Marie’s mother had every reason to believe he would. El Salvador has the highest rate of gender-motivated killing in the world. Not only are these murders widespread, but they are carried out with unimaginable brutality. Despite concerted efforts by activists within the country to change this, the perpetrators of these horrific acts are rarely brought to justice.

Fearing for her life, Marie’s mother fled to the U.S. After she left, Marie’s father terrorized her and her siblings. He hit her with sticks and electrical cords, often leaving her bruised and bleeding.

Marie’s father took every opportunity to put her down. He said she couldn’t be his child because she was overweight and didn’t look anything like him. He told her that he wanted her aborted and wished she was never born.

Then, when Marie was just 14-years-old, her father raped her. He threatened to kill the people she loved if she told anyone. So Marie stayed quiet.

Desperate to escape her situation, she quit school and left home to work as a maid in the hopes of building a safe life. She spent a hard year in that work, doing 15 hour days. She was depressed and reclusive, and then got sick — with appendicitis — and was forced to move in with her grandmother… and her father.

Less than a month later, Marie couldn’t take it anymore. She broke down and told her mother everything.

When her mother learned what her daughter had been through, she knew she had to do something. She appealed to Marie’s sister who, empowered by her sister’s brave confession, revealed to her mother that she, too, had been raped by their father.

Determined to help, her sister sold her used car to help get enough money together to bring Marie to the U.S.

After a perilous trip north, Marie was detained by immigration officials upon arrival and sent to an ORR shelter, then released to her mother. Determined to protect her daughter from future abuse, Marie’s mother called Tahirih’s Houston office and, with free assistance from Tahirih attorneys, Marie was able to apply for asylum.

But now she faced the real possibility that, after everything she’d survived, she might be thrown back into her hellish ordeal. Then, the word came from the trial attorney:

“Asylum granted.”

The entire courtroom broke into applause and the tears began to flow. Marie was finally safe.

Today, Marie is back in school and receives therapy from a counselor to cope with her ordeal. She is in the process of rebuilding her life, and has made new friends along the way. For the first time in a long time, she feels like she can trust people again. For the first time ever, the future looks bright.

Thank you for making it possible for courageous women and girls like Marie to rebuild their lives in the wake of trauma. Your support changes lives!

*Name has been changed and photo does not depict client to protect her safety and privacy.

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Camille
Camille

Her body is a map that reveals a lifetime of torture.

Scars from multiple beatings are etched into her back, her legs, and her arms - from her hands to her forearms to her elbows.

From the moment of her birth, Camille’s* religion set her apart from others in her tribe in Burkina Faso. Her parents were Catholic. They raised Camille to share their religion, but they did not protect her from life-threatening customs that prevailed in her community.

At age 7, Camille was sent to a hut in the woods. Inside, a villager cut her genitals with a rudimentary blade. She walked back to her village with blood streaming down her legs. At 19, she was forced into marriage and had to leave behind her family and friends to live in her husband’s village.

Upon her arrival, her sister-in-law examined her genitals and declared that she must undergo another cutting. A few days later, a group of women attacked Camille, sitting on her stomach and pinning down her arms and legs as a second FGM was performed. A month later, Camille and her husband moved into the city.

Once the new couple was away from home, their relationship took a surprising turn; it flourished. Her husband broke away from the traditions of the men of his community. He refused to take a second wife, and he eventually converted to Catholicism for Camille. The birth of their first child - a girl - was difficult, likely as a result of complications from FGM, and Camille was in labor for three days. With an intimate understanding of the dangers of FGM and the support of her husband, Camille became a traveling nurse, educating people in rural villages about the life-threatening effects of FGM.

Camille’s career as a nurse, however, did little to prepare her for the sudden death of her husband. Doctors told her he died of a heart attack or stroke.

"My world died with him that day,” Camille recalls.

When Camille returned to her husband’s village for his funeral, his family forced her to undergo a humiliating ritual. They shaved her head and paraded her naked around the village while people beat her with sticks to exorcise the demons that they believed had killed her husband.

According to the tribe’s tradition, Camille now belong to the family, like a piece of property passed from one person to next. The family demanded that Camille marry her late husband’s younger brother, in part so that he would inherit her husband’s money. Camille refused.

Her defiance enraged the brother and marked the beginning of a violent 12-year campaign against Camille and her children. The family sold her home in the city without her knowledge. Camille was forced to move. She sought help from her family and several governmental agencies, including the police, but no one was able to protect her.

The abuse, led by her husband’s brother, escalated. He stalked her at home and at work. On one occasion, he came into her house, grabbed her by the neck, and took out a knife. Camille’s youngest son tried to save her and was stabbed. Less than a year later, her tormenter attacked her with a stick outside the hospital where she worked, threatening to kill her with his bare hands.

Camille had two choices: escape or die.

"There was nowhere safe in my country for me,” she says. “I fought for 12 years, and I cannot fight any longer."

Determined to create a new life for herself and children, Camille sought asylum in the United States.

Because of your support, she had somewhere to turn to for help for the first time in her life.

Our office in Houston provided Camille with free legal and social services. Staff connected Camille with a pro bono attorney. Then, the team tracked down Camille’s medical records, which documented her brutal abuse. They connected Camille with vital medical care, including medicine and eyeglasses that Camille had long needed.

After waiting 13 months for an interview with an asylum officer, Camille was finally granted asylum in early 2015.

Today, she looks forward to learning English and is excited to help her children, who are now adults, obtain safety and dignity in the United States.

“There are some cases that are difficult to close because we inevitably miss working with the client. Camille’s case is such a case. It is bittersweet,” reflected her Tahirih attorney.

Thank you for making Camille's victory possible!

 

*Name has been changed and photo does not depict client to protect her safety and privacy.

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Organization Information

Tahirih Justice Center

Location: Falls Church, VA - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.tahirih.org/​
Tahirih Justice Center
Project Leader:
Carey Eisenberg
Communications Manager
Falls Church, VA United States

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