Before joining the team at Safe Harbor, I worked in refugee resettlement and had the opportunity to meet a courageous, talented young woman who would forever change the way I approached things both personally and professionally related to violence in the world and our communities today.
Beatrice and her family were originally from a smaller, but by no means less culturally -rich, extraordinary country in East Africa that carries with it a long history of political turmoil. While her husband was fighting in the army, a pregnant Beatrice made the journey to neighboring Ethiopia on foot, applied to be a refugee and waited years in one of Africa’s largest refugee camps; which in turn brought she, her husband and their little girl to the United States.
I facilitated the family’s Cultural Orientation class – a session of educational classes that all newly arrived refugees are required to receive upon arrival to the U.S. Beatrice and her husband appeared to be what others might view as the ‘picture perfect’ couple. Her husband was well-liked, friendly, engaged and came across as a ‘super dad’. I later watched with a nagging feeling in my gut that told me something was wrong, as Beatrice’s husband didn’t allow her to work, and Beatrice continued to express a strong desire to get out of the house, put her talent and skills to good use and earn an income.
In addition to being in Beatrice’s life as an educator, I also happened to be someone who Beatrice felt comfortable turning to when domestic violence presented itself in the United States, after she told me (and later a domestic violence advocate), that it had been a constant presence in her life, in various forms, for the over 7 years she lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
When Beatrice initially told me about the abuse she endured, it was after local police responded to a 911 call and escorted she and her daughter to a local emergency shelter where they stayed for a few weeks. Relatively new to the United States and focusing on a new job where she worked the night shift, the shelter was a somewhat uncomfortable environment to return to. Furthermore, Beatrice felt uneasy leaving her daughter in the care of another person at the shelter whom she didn’t know well and didn’t speak the same language. Seeking an order of protection appeared complicated, especially without access to an interpreter, and on top of everything else, Beatrice was receiving enormous pressure from friends in the U.S. and family overseas, all urging her to return to her husband because ‘it was better for a child to live with both parents’. A certain stigma was also attached to women who lived alone with children, and divorce (or even separation) were not widely accepted in her culture. I vividly recall the day before Beatrice left the shelter and the way she looked at me, both exhausted and disappointed in her lack of options, as she said, “What can I do, Margaret? Living with him is my fate.”
Holding the knowledge that domestic violence is most certainly a complex pattern of abusive behaviors, I kept in touch with Beatrice. Several months after leaving the shelter, Beatrice’s abuser lost his job, began drinking, and the abuse continued. It was only when I received a call from a local Head Start organization, informing me that Beatrice had gotten into an accident trying desperately to get her daughter to a place of safety and stability – daycare – that I sensed something might be wrong. When her husband was out of the house, Beatrice asked to meet with me. Without turning to the emergency shelter this time, she decided to seek an order of protection from her husband with the help of an advocate at a local domestic violence service organization; meanwhile drawing on resources within her own community (mainly friends who were from her home country and spoke her language) to help keep she and her daughter safe.
The hash tag #NeverthelessShePersisted has recently been trending on social media. When I see this, I can’t help but think of the extraordinary individuals that Safe Harbor works with and alongside – in middle and high schools, abusive relationships (who might not even identify as a victim), self-identifying victims and survivors, parents, single mothers, advocates, professionals, the list is far and wide – those who persist every single waking day, in the midst of a world and systems that say they should do otherwise.
Beatrice persisted as she gained an order of protection, her driver’s license and she persisted as she bought a plane ticket and secured space in a domestic violence shelter thousands of miles away, in an entirely new city and state where she knew no one, was still learning the English language and would later transfer her order of protection. I accompanied Beatrice to the airport and remember watching she and her daughter as they walked in what appeared to be slow motion down the terminal to board their flight to start a new life. I was (and still remain) in awe of the courage my former client and friend had within her – and yet, I remind myself that it’s very possible that we all possess this kind of knowledge and strength in different ways and at different times and in various circumstances.
Both personally and professionally, I had a desire to want to protect Beatrice as she walked towards the unknown – a feeling that is seemingly common– we want to be the savior in times of uncertainly and for people who need our help, when in actuality it’s a victim or survivor that is the expert in his/her/their own life. A wise professor once told me, “We don’t empower others, we give people the tools to empower themselves…”
So, I mustered up the ability to trust that whatever lay in store for Beatrice and her daughter on the other side would be welcoming and kind and safe. And in this case, it was. My former client, friend, and sister now works as a childcare provider, has her own house and secured sole custody of her daughter. Her English is also improving by the day and she will soon become a U.S. citizen. She persisted and continues to persist.
In close, I acknowledge with an open heart and mind that the persistence that my friend exhibited and found within herself – isn’t something that comes easily or without cost. The voices of many have been silenced and left out, and these stories of resilience are important now more than ever; in moving closer to a culture where everyone feels safe and valued, and to helping others recognize that they are not alone.