‘I am only just starting to heal’: A South Asian domestic violence survivor shares her story

May 11, 2022 Perspective

Last fall, India Currents, the USC Center for Health Journalism, DesiCollective, and Narika organized a community survey and reporting project that investigated the impact of domestic abuse and transnational abandonment in the South Asian community.

Narika, a domestic violence response organization in Fremont, California, has reported a “staggering 86% increase in domestic violence clients served pre-pandemic. Nearly 2000 calls were made to their crisis helpline between January and June 2021.”

At the Asian Law Caucus, our teams have been representing and supporting low-income immigrant community members, who are mostly women, in emotionally and physically abusive environments at home and at work. As newcomers to the U.S., they are often socially isolated and unable to work due to their immigration status, and have limited or no access to money, their passport, or community help. Recently, we spoke with one community member who was able to escape domestic violence and find some community support. Using the initial Z., she decided to share her story to help others.

Why are you sharing your story?

I am a survivor of a severe form of domestic violence and trafficking. For years, I endured horrific abuse and was denied my fundamental rights as a human being. In the time since I was able to escape and find help, I’ve learned that I’m not alone in this situation. I want other people to know that they can find help too and that they don’t deserve to be treated this way. Today, I’m building a support network and I have friends who are helping me recover from the psychological damage done to me.

I want to help other people, especially women immigrating from Pakistan and other South Asian countries, to know that they are not alone and that there are places they can go to get help. I also want to share my story to make it clear to policymakers and nonprofits how they can best help people like me. From my experiences, I’ve seen firsthand how our current systems need to do a better job of centering survivors’ needs and creating the space and supportive environments where we can heal.

Can you tell us about what you were expecting before you married and moved to the U.S.?

I grew up in Pakistan, and I had a happy childhood living in my home country. I have good memories of doing well in school and working hard to fulfill my dreams of becoming a nurse. In 2015, a Pakistani woman who lived in the U.S. met me and my family while she was visiting Pakistan. Soon, her son and I were engaged to be married. At the time, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world.

I spoke on the phone with my fiancé every day. He seemed like a good person, asking me about my goals, my dreams, and sounding interested in who I was as a person. His mother told me all about what a great life I would have in America. She spoke as if we were already family, talking about how we would make a lot of money together, enjoy life, and go see the world together. She made me believe that I would have a happy married life, a loving family, opportunities to study, and a good job.

What happened when you arrived in the U.S.?

After our wedding, my husband went back to the U.S., and I stayed in Pakistan. During the two years I waited for my green card, we continued our long distance relationship, but I could tell that he was not as interested in keeping in touch as he had been before. But, I pushed my worries away, thinking that this change was caused by the long distance, and everything would be fine when I joined him in the U.S.

Eventually, my green card was issued. My mother-in-law came back to Pakistan to travel with me to America. At the airport, she immediately changed. She yelled at me, telling me not to embarrass her. I was shocked and scared, and I began being afraid of my mother-in-law and her temper. While traveling, I gave her all of my documents, including my passport.

When I arrived in California, my husband wasn’t there. When I asked where he was, I was told that he was living with his girlfriend. I was shocked and heartbroken to hear this, but I loved him and I hoped he would come back to me.

What were the living conditions like with your in-laws?

Instead of the happy life of a newlywed that I was promised, I immediately was forced to work in my mother-in-law’s business from 9am to 6pm Monday through Saturday. While working, I was not allowed to take any breaks. One one occasion, my mother-in-law pulled my hair very hard when I tried to rest, telling me to wake up and stop being lazy. After that, I was too afraid to ask for any breaks. I was not provided any lunch, and I was rarely able to eat during the day.

After leaving the business each day, I was forced to do household chores, including cleaning the entire house, washing the dishes every day, and tidying up and doing laundry for all six people in the house. Three months after coming to the U.S., my sister-in-law gave birth to a daughter, and I was forced to take care of the young baby. The next year, I found out that my husband’s girlfriend was pregnant with his child. Up until this moment, I had hoped he would come back, but he told me that his mother had prepared my green card to bring me to the U.S. to work for her, and that she could do whatever she wanted.

From then on, I worked at the family’s business, took care of house chores, and looked after my husband’s baby and my sister-in-law’s baby. If I said I was tired, my mother-in-law threatened me by saying that if anything happened to the baby, it would be my fault and I would pay for it. Once, she forced me to watch the baby for five days, saying that if the baby cried, she would report me to immigration.

Were you able to share with anyone what was happening to you?

Any time that I was not working or when my mother-in-law was out, I was not allowed to leave the house, see anyone else, or meet people. I was not allowed to make any friends or even speak at length with any customers or other workers at the business.

Once, there was another older woman working at the business. She told me she knew about my story and urged me to think about myself, asking me why I was accepting such bad treatment. Our conversation was cut short because my mother-in-law was listening at the door. She dragged me to the car and drove to the beach. She said she could hire people anytime who would cut me, kill me, and throw me in the water. For months after this, I never dared to talk to anyone about my situation, ask for help, or even make friends.

How were you able to escape?

Several things happened that finally made me decide to escape, including an escalation in physical and verbal abuse from my mother-in-law. I changed my phone number, and then I contacted a friend who had observed what was happening. I stayed at that friend’s home until I was connected to a shelter for survivors of domestic violence.

What help were you able to get from community members and local organizations?

I came to the U.S. without any money, and my mother-in-law (now, my former mother-in-law) ensured that I had no access to money for the two years I lived there. I do not have any resources or assets under my name, and so I’m lived in a shelter that helps women who experience domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking until I was able to save money to rent an apartment. I received help from a therapist, and I’ve also been able to connect with Narika and Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, where I’m getting support for my immigration matters and divorce proceedings. Organizations like the Asian Law Caucus have helped me understand my rights when it comes to recovering the wages I was never paid and holding my abusers accountable, especially given how they exploited immigration systems to bring me here.

I’m in the process of filing for a T visa, which would help me stay in the U.S., keep healing and recovering, and work so that I can save money and go to nursing school. I’m only just starting to heal, thanks in many ways to the women I became friends with at the shelter who can relate to what I have gone through. I’m also receiving support from people in the Pakistani community who are helping me with financial, legal, and other types of assistance. I’ll lose all this support and stability if I have to go back to Pakistan, where I’m also fearful of what will happen to me and my family as a result of retaliation in response to my decision to get a divorce and leave my abusers.

For many survivors, shelters recreate cycles of trauma. What do more people need to be aware of when it comes to the real help people need to heal and find safety?

Yes, that definitely happens. All shelter staff should get the training to support survivors’ healing emotionally, physically, and mentally. Shelters also need resources that ensure that survivors aren’t forced to leave prematurely. In my case, because I wasn’t paid for years, I need time to save money before I have enough to afford any rent. I’m not a native English speaker and need help to fill out rental applications.

Shelter staff also need training and resources in cultural competency to support survivors like me of South Asian and Muslim backgrounds. Without that competency, shelters are likely to retraumatize people and recreate the cycles of violence and harm we experienced from our abusers.

Shelters aren’t fulfilling their promise of security and stability if they have to kick us out and don’t have the training to support people who aren’t fluent English speakers and have ethnic and religious backgrounds like me. We need support that helps us move forward in a way that helps us keep going and stay safe.

What should public agencies, nonprofits, and elected officials learn from what you’re enduring? What needs to change?

Well-meaning community members, counties funding shelters, and elected officials need to follow up and make sure that the funding and resources is truly reaching survivors. In many counties throughout California, there is funding allocated to help survivors of domestic violence find housing, education, jobs, and medical support, but from my experience and the experiences of friends I have made, those resources aren’t always reaching us. There needs to be accountability throughout the system.

If you or someone you know has experienced or is experiencing domestic violence, please reach out to these organizations who focus on culturally competent response services:

1-800-215-7308 or 1-510-444-6048; narika.org

North American Islamic Shelter for the Abused (NISA):
1-888-ASK-NISA (275-6572); asknisa.org

1-888-8MAITRI (862-4874) or 1-408-436-8398; maitri@maitri.org