Monday, October 22, 2012

Breaking a Long-Held Silence

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Our ILS team is sensitive to the many issues
facing immigrants and refugees
 Morowa (client’s name changed to protect privacy) grew up in Ghana – one of very few African countries with a law against domestic violence, but one of many where spousal abuse is culturally accepted.

“Everyone knows it is happening,” Morowa said. “Women – our mothers and sisters and friends – have black eyes and bruises, but they keep silent. They think they are protecting their family that way. It’s what my own mother did, and I did the same.”

Heidi Boas has seen the dangers of domestic abuse up close. As a senior attorney with Charities’ Immigration Legal Services, Heidi specializes in cases like Morowa’s and even worked for a time in Ghana. She knew the problem of domestic violence was deeply-rooted, and that it didn’t go away for women who immigrated to the United States.

So five years ago, Heidi teamed up with the Montgomery County Abused Persons Program (MCAPP) to hold the first African Women’s Empowerment Workshop, a daylong event to help survivors of domestic violence find their footing in the United States.

Heidi Boas has been coordinating the
African Women's Empowerment
Workshop for the past five years.
“Heidi and the Empowerment Workshop turned my life around,” Morowa said. She had fled to the United States after divorcing her abusive husband in Ghana. Here in the States, she remarried and, sadly, faced even more abuse. “I was not legal in the United States, and he was,” she said. “I thought if I said something, I’d get deported and lose my three daughters. I was struck dumb with the fear of that.”

But one day the abuse was too much to bear. Terrified, Morowa called the police and was referred to the MCAPP, where she learned about the Empowerment Workshop. “I was skeptical of going. I believed I should be ashamed of what happened and keep it private. But at the Workshop I learned this was not the case, and that I can live a normal life.”

An important part of the workshop is educating survivors about immigration and family law, as many victims hold expired visas and worry they will get deported if they call the police. “We started inviting a police officer to speak at the event, to help take the stigma of fear away,” Heidi said.

Thanks to input from the participants, the workshop has grown to address other critical needs of this vulnerable community. Survivors learn about housing programs, as many women who leave an abusive spouse are left homeless. The workshop also features a session on education and employment, to help survivors find a road to financial independence.

“The workshop was my first step in becoming a legal citizen,” Morowa said. “Last year in July I got my green card, and I never even dreamed this could happen. Now I have earned my GED, and I’m going to college. And my daughters – the biggest change is in them. I thought I was protecting them by staying silent. But we like being a very loud family,” she said, laughing.

“I teach them all, even the youngest, who is only eight years old – that no one has any right to intimidate them or stop them from being themselves.”

Now, rather than staying silent, Morowa is speaking out. She will be one of the survivors speaking at the Empowerment Workshop this year, and is planning a trip back home to Ghana to help educate women in her community. “Someone needs to speak up. I’m going to be a voice for the women and children.”

More Catholic Charities!
The 5th Annual Women’s Empowerment Workshop will be held on Saturday, October 27. View the flyer here.

If this cause is important to you, please consider a donation. Your financial support will help cover the cost of outreach, materials, refreshments, speakers, and child care, and will help ensure that this workshop will continue to thrive in years to come. To make a donation to support the African Women’s Empowerment Workshop, please make your check payable to Catholic Charities and write in the memo line “African Women’s Empowerment Workshop.”  Checks should be mailed to the attention of: Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services / 924 G St. NW / Washington, D.C. 20001.

If you need information about an immigration legal matter, please visit Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services website.

Read Becky’s story – she’s another survivor of domestic violence who found her strength with help from Catholic Charities.