A bridge to safety in a land of new beginnings

Hadiya Abdelrahman works with resettled Syrian clients in her office in New York. Meredith Goncalves/IRC

For the refugees I meet, their arrival in Dallas, TX is a relief from the devastating situations they experienced in their homelands. America is their new home, a place of safety, where their rights are enshrined. But for many women refugees, some of the hardship they endured follows them into their new lives.

Refugee and immigrant women face a high risk of gender-based violence, including domestic violence and sexual assault. Sometimes, it’s a husband or acquaintance, or other family members. Women who endure violence and abuse often accept it as “normal” or feel unable to do anything about it, or even think it’s their own fault. Most times, there’s a power imbalance, making it difficult for an abused woman, who might be dependent on a husband who is the wage earner and English-speaker, to ask for help or leave. But sometimes, a few simple questions, asked in a safe environment and in way that a woman had never thought about before can unearth a complex situation and be the catalyst needed to seek help.

Does someone in your family try to control where you go, or what you do or say, in a way that makes you feel afraid or helpless?

IRC’s Bridge to Safety program, funded in part by Johnson & Johnson, includes a screening designed to help trained caseworkers address issues of violence in immigrant and refugee family situations. This is the first question we ask women who come into our center in Dallas. One particular day, a woman from Burma, Kay*, came in. She’d been living in the United States for a few months, but spoke no English. From the moment I asked the first question through an interpreter, it was clear she was being abused. As we asked more questions, we unearthed a deeper story. In addition to her husband’s physical and emotional abuse, her in-laws were also emotionally abusing her and forcing her to work and cook.

Kay placed a great deal of trust in us by telling us about her experiences and reaching out for help. After explaining to Kay what options and legal protections are available to her here in the United States, Kay requested more information about her legal rights. The IRC referred her to legal services in Texas, who helped her file for divorce and gain custody of her children. Throughout this process, safety planning for Kay was critical — she spoke no English, and needed guidance on how to manage if she by chance ran into her husband or family members. We helped her recite her address and other critical information in English, just in case she needed to call emergency services.

Kay’s story is just one of many that show how hard the road to independence can be. Abuse is unacceptable, and refugee women need a knowledgeable and dedicated advocate to connect them to services and provide support. Bridge to Safety has provided me with the tools and training needed to confidently guide women from abuse and isolation to safety and independence. I am passionate about this work because I was raised by a single mother who was very honest with me about our family’s history with domestic violence. Knowing that any woman can find themselves in an abusive relationship, even women as powerful and intelligent as the women who raised me, helps me to empathize with every survivor.

Since 2014, more than 127 women from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bhutan, Burma and Iraq have disclosed past and present experiences of domestic violence or sexual assault. We know more are out there — and want to ensure that every woman, no matter what her situation, can get help and live a safer, healthier life in their new homeland.

Learn more about the IRC’s safety work.

  • Name changed for privacy.

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.

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