Written By Emily Melluso Graduate Assistant for the Office of the Vice-President for Student Affairs
Content Warning: Includes cases of graphic sexual assault. Unless otherwise noted, all definitions and statistics referenced in this article are sourced from the Tahirih Justice Center website.
As we move through the final stretch of this year’s Critical Social Justice week, we have explored several barriers that immigrants experience in the United States. We have learned about the ignition of courage within individuals, how this light connects them together, and can bring them into spaces of safety, community, and recovery. Since October is domestic violence awareness month (read more here) and during CSJ there are events centered on the experiences of undocumented immigrants, I think it is important to see how these two topics interact . First, what is domestic violence?“Domestic violenceis a pattern of abusive behavior in a relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control. Domestic violence may include physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse, and economic deprivation” (Tahirih Justice Center, 2018). As part of our learning journey with critical social justice is the discovery that there are always dark lived events and experiences but it is important to note that justice, safety and recovery are not equally accessible to everyone individually.
For some, they must travel a very and strenuous trek to find a safe place for both them and their loved ones. Some must go through injury, harm, and danger before they can access healing. I would like to share just a single narrative of those dark places in our global society.I would like to once again warn you of the graphic sexual content of this post.
The following is a true story of a woman who experienced intimate partner violence. Norma’s story is an excerpt from Tahirih Justice Center, a non-profit that supports immigrants fleeing violence from their countries of origin.
Norma was only 15 years old when she was abducted, raped, and forced into marriage by a violent older man who threatened to kill her family if she refused. At 20 years old, while pregnant with their child, Norma was hospitalized after a particularly brutal beating; the baby barely survived. Norma’s father convinced her to go into hiding and hired a private attorney to file for divorce, in secret, on her behalf. They knew it was only a matter of time before her ex-husband found out. Fearing for her life, Norma fled to California.
Now free from her ex-husband, Norma began a life in the United States, as an undocumented immigrant. Years later, she fell in love with John*, a U.S. citizen who was initially was smart, fun-loving, and handsome. After living together as a family for three happy years, John began drinking heavily and staying out all night. Norma was stunned and heartbroken when he admitted to cheating on her. John begged for Norma’s forgiveness and swore he would change.
With promises of a business they could own together, a bigger house, better schools for the children, and a renewed sense of commitment, John convinced Norma to move to Houston. They bought a house with their shared savings, and John finally proposed marriage. It didn’t take long after getting married for John to start drinking again. This time, it worsened. John started beating and raping Norma. As a method of control and humiliation, he would lock Norma outside or force her to sleep on the floor of the home they owned together. He became increasingly emotionally abusive, blaming Norma’s performance as a wife and a mother for the physical and emotional pain he inflicted.
When she finally built up the courage to leave, John used Norma and her children’s undocumented status to exploit, intimidate, and threaten her. He promised to have them deported if they called the police, and he destroyed Norma’s personal documents to prevent her from filing for immigration relief on her own. He removed her name from their shared bank accounts, canceled her credit card, and eventually forged her signature on a document transferring full ownership of their house to his name. John showed Norma that he could take everything from her, and made her fear reaching out for help as much as she feared him. Norma’s voice got smaller and smaller.
Just when Norma started to give up, a member of her congregation noticed that she needed help, and offered her a place to stay for nothing in return. She connected Norma to a domestic violence support group at the Houston Area Women’s Center, where she was referred to Tahirih. Norma’s neighbor lifted her up, community resources connected her to a path forward, and Tahirih helped her access protection under U.S. law.
Her own perseverance and the support of her community helped Norma find her voice again, stronger than ever. Now, Norma gives back to her community by joining the fight to end violence against women. She tells her story to domestic violence survivors, church groups, radio shows, and in women’s prisons as evidence that fear can be overcome, survivors are never alone, and there is always a path forward.
While domestic violence is a national epidemic in the United States, immigrant women and girls are disproportionately impacted. There are many factors which make this population especially vulnerable, including reliance on abusers for legal immigration status or limited knowledge of the English language. Immigrant women and girls in the United States are almost twice as likely to experience domestic violence than the general population. For undocumented women and children in the United States, their histories with domestic violence are often two-fold. Many come to the United States seeking refuge, asylum or protection from relationship or gender-based violence at home including forced marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting, honor crimes, human trafficking, rape, torture, and domestic violence. For immigrant women and girls, their struggle for humane treatment may not end with arriving in the United States. One in three women around the world will be raped, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime (Tahirih Justice Center, 2018). These same women and girls are also less likely to leave their abusers due to fear of immigration consequences, such as being deported and separated from their children or families.
WHAT IS TAHIRIH?
The Tahirih Justice Center is the only multi-city, national organization that provides direct service and policy advocacy for women and girls seeking support, visas, asylum and other forms of protection from gender-based violence. Tahirih has five locations in the U.S. including the Baltimore location which opened in 2010. Tahirih’s numbers in 2017 include 502 Baltimore clients and their family members protected through free legal services; 171 Baltimore clients and their family members connected to vital social services; and 1,764 community members and frontline professionals trained. For more information about the types of legal protections available, visit https://www.tahirih.org/what-we-do/direct-services/legal-services/. For more information about the reaction of Tahirih to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ revoking of asylum protection for victims of gender-based violence, visit https://www.tahirih.org/news/breaking-news-asylum-protections-revoked/.
HOW TO GIVE HELP
Please consider donating to the UMBC fundraising page to reach our goal of $1,000 to support the efforts of our local Tahirih Justice Center as they fight for the protection of women and girls under the law.
HOW TO GET HELP
If you are an immigrant woman or girl who needs help, or know someone who needs help, please visit https://www.tahirih.org/locations/baltimore/baltimore-programs/.
Programs and services offered in Baltimore include free legal services and social services, training and education, trafficking prevention, and poverty alleviation and family stabilization programming, including life skills workshops and a medical debt forgiveness project.