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.