Survivor Stories / Historias de sobrevivientes

There was nowhere she could hide.

Xiomara* grew up in a small rural village in Honduras near the Salvadoran border. As a child, Xiomara dreamed of becoming a teacher, but her parents couldn’t afford for her or her siblings to continue school past sixth grade. Xiomara persevered. She began working for one of her former teachers and eventually, she was able to return to school. Xiomara attended school through eighth grade, which was further than anyone in her family had gotten. Then she met the man who would become the father of her children and was forced to drop out.

When Xiomara was pregnant with her second child, her partner left to work in the city of San Pedro Sula. For a few months, he sent his earnings back home to Xiomara and their children. Then she stopped hearing from him. It was like he had disappeared. Without her partner’s income, Xiomara had to find a job outside of the home. This was not common for women in her community, but she was determined to provide for her children.

Xiomara found work washing clothes in the closest large town, which was an hour away by foot. The route was treacherous – narrow, mountainous, and almost never traveled by women alone. But Xiomara made this journey nearly every day of the week. Usually, she didn’t see a single other person.  

But one morning, Xiomara was stopped during her trip by two men. Although their faces were covered, Xiomara could tell from their tattoos that they were part of a dangerous gang. She tried to run, but the men caught her and raped her.

After this brutal assault, they warned her, “Don’t tell your brother that this happened.” Xiomara knew that they were referring to her brother Wilmer*, who worked for the Honduran government helping the ruling party provide humanitarian aid in rural areas.

The gang members also ordered Xiomara not to report the attack to the police. “Don’t even think about it,” they said. “We know you have two children.”

Xiomara made it home, traumatized but alive. But within days, she began receiving written threats from the gang, reminding her not to go to the police and making threats against her, her children, and her parents. They knew details about her family. Sometimes she would see the gang patrolling her neighborhood.

Xiomara was terrified. The gang was powerful and had networks operating throughout the entire country. Even if she left her family and her hometown, she knew they’d be able to track her down. There was nowhere she could hide.

The gang terrorized Xiomara’s family for months. Eventually, she realized that Honduras would never be a safe place for her, and that she had to leave. Xiomara took her children and fled north. They arrived in the United States in 2016. The gang continued to threaten Xiomara’s family even after she had left. Fearing for their safety, and inspired by Xiomara’s courage, some of her siblings decided to make the arduous journey north as well.

Xiomara recently won asylum for herself and her children, who are now eight and 10 years old. They are living in the Bay Area, where Xiomara has a good job in a restaurant. Her siblings have found safety here, too. Since being granted asylum, Xiomara’s priority is her family. She wants to ensure that her children thrive in school and have access to a future that is free from fear and violence.

*Name changed to protect anonymity. This story is not matched with Xiomara’s portrait.

Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

We must fight for all women who yearn to be free.

By Fauziya Kassindja

I was the youngest daughter in my family. Growing up in Togo, West Africa, our parents always encouraged my sisters and me to make our own decisions. We all attended school to learn English and help with my father’s business, which was not common in our area.

When I was 16, everything changed. My father died and my aunt moved into our house, sending my mother away. My aunt forced me to stop attending school. Soon, a man started visiting our home. My aunt told me that he was 45 years old and that he wanted to marry me. When I protested, she told me not to worry, that my love for him would grow after I underwent kakiya, genital cutting.

I was horrified.

I had already lost my parents and my education. Now, I might completely lose my freedom. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew that I could not marry this man and undergo kakiya. When I was eventually forced to go through the marriage ceremony, I refused to sign the marriage certificate. I was only a teenager, but I knew what this would mean for my life.

My older sister was determined to help. She comforted me, telling me not to cry and that she would ensure that I would not experience kakiya. With the help of my mother and sister, I escaped to Ghana in the middle of the night. After a long journey, I eventually ended up at Newark Airport in December 1994. I was 17, and alone. As soon as I got off the plane I told officials that I was seeking asylum. They immediately put me in prison. I couldn’t understand why. I hadn’t done anything wrong.

As soon as I got off the plane I told officials that I was seeking asylum. They immediately put me in prison. I couldn’t understand why. I hadn’t done anything wrong.

I spent the next year and a half in immigration detention. It was terrifying. I was sexually harassed, strip-searched in front of male guards, and left untreated for a serious medical condition that I developed as a result of the unsafe conditions I was being held in. I almost gave up and returned home. However, one of the women I met in jail, Cecelia, convinced me to stay. Cecelia had experienced genital cutting herself and she wanted to protect me from the same fate. She became like a mother to me.

Eventually, I met a team of lawyers led by Karen Musalo, who is now the director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. Karen was determined to free me from detention. She decided that media attention would be essential to pressuring the Clinton Administration to release me.

At first, I was hesitant. I had already given many interviews and I was still locked up. Even a petition signed by 25 members of Congress hadn’t been able to free me. But I decided to speak to a reporter for The New York Times.

To my surprise, my interview ended up on the front page, and within just two weeks, I was free. When I left the detention center I was greeted by hordes of reporters eager to know more about me and my story.

Less than two months later, the Board of Immigration Appeals granted me asylum. It was the very first precedent decision establishing that women fleeing gender-based violence – like kakiya – could be eligible for refugee protection in the United States. It was really groundbreaking. I understand that the decision in my case opened the door to many other women and girls like me.

Now, 23 years later, I share my story so that others will not have to experience the fear and isolation that I did. My experience shows how cruel the detention of asylum seekers, is and how important it is for us to have good legal representation. It also shows how much of a difference it makes when the media and the public pay attention to how we’re being treated.

For those of us who have no choice but to flee our home countries, asylum can mean the difference between life and death.

After I won my case I was able to complete high school, graduate college, and become a U.S. citizen. I now split my time between New York and Ghana, where I run a thriving beverage distribution business. I’m also the proud mother of triplet sons, who are newly minted college freshmen. All of this was made possible because I was granted asylum and given the opportunity to start a new life, free from violence.

But now, over two decades later, protections for women and girls fleeing gender-based persecution, especially domestic violence, are under attack. I often wonder what would have happened to my case had I arrived here 20 years later. Today, would I have been allowed to live in safety, or would I have been sent back?

It is so important that the pathway to protection that my case established remains open to women and girls arriving in the United States, hoping to escape gender-based violence. For those of us who have no choice but to flee our home countries, asylum can mean the difference between life and death. For all of us who are lucky enough to live in safety, we must continue to fight for all women who still yearn to be free.

Photo credit: Jim Block 

Now that I am here, I finally feel safe.

I had my daughter when I was 18 years old, and my son when I was 20.

The father of my children isolated me from society. He would not let me have friends, and he would not let me call my family. He said that people would put ideas in my head, and they would make me think in a different way from the correct way I was supposed to think. His way of thinking.

As the years passed, it became worse. He became more jealous, and he became more controlling.

Despite his treatment of me, I always felt that desire to work, and to continue to learn. I enrolled at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. But my partner always tried to keep me from studying. He said it wasn’t good for me — that education was worthless. He hid my books, and he took away my money to keep me from traveling to the university.

On one occasion, he became very jealous. He had heard a rumor that I had a relationship with someone he worked with. He pointed his gun at my head – he was always armed – and he told me that I was a prostitute, that this was going to be the last moment of my life. That moment was horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible for me.

This was not just one incident. This was how life was with him.

He told me, “If you call the police, you know that I will not be locked up.” He laughed at me.

My partner had a lot of influence in Honduras because he comes from a family that is involved with the police and the military. One time he got so jealous that he beat my face, leaving my eye purple and my nose bloody. And he told me, “If you call the police, you know that I will not be locked up. You know I will get out. But if you do that you will not survive.” He laughed at me. I felt frightened that I could not call the police. I told myself, I cannot continue in this situation. 

I told my mom that I had to do something. I needed to leave. In that moment, I realized that I had to come to the U.S. So, I told him, “I am going to the United States, I am going to apply for asylum and then I can help you so that you come with me.” But that was not my plan. I only said that so he would not stop me from leaving, and so that I could bring the children.

When I arrived at the border, I arrived at Hidalgo. I told the truth. I said that I wanted protection because I was suffering from domestic violence in Honduras and that I could not be there anymore. I said that I did not feel safe and that I knew I would feel safe in the U.S. And now that I am here, I finally feel safe.

Now that I have been granted asylum, I feel like a door has opened for me. I have many plans. I have a future, and I have so many goals. My children are super happy in school. They are teenagers. My daughter is 16, and my son is 13, and they are so happy to be here. And I am too. I have work. I want to continue improving my English and continue my studies. I think it is never too late to study and learn.

Free from fear and violence.

Elbia* arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2015 when she was only 23 years old. She came to the United States seeking refuge after enduring years of brutal abuse at the hands of her husband in Guatemala. Elbia had been beaten so badly by him that she had developed chronic numbness on one side of her body. Her hometown had no law enforcement to help her and there was no place in Guatemala she could find safety. So Elbia escaped, forced to leave her son behind, and made the difficult journey through the Mexican desert to the U.S. border.

When Elbia was interviewed by border patrol, she didn’t disclose the full scope of the abuse she had suffered in Guatemala. She was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and did not feel safe sharing her story with the border agent. Though Elbia had never committed a crime of any sort, the U.S. government inexplicably deemed her a flight risk. She was sent to a detention center in Eloy, Arizona and saddled with an exorbitant bond of $20,000.

Conditions in the Eloy detention center are notoriously poor, and the court there is particularly hostile to asylum seekers. Over 94 percent of asylum claims that come before the Eloy immigration court are denied. Elbia spent over a year locked up at Eloy, unable to leave and separated from her young son.

Elbia had one advantage, though: a legal team fighting for her. Asylum seekers with attorneys are five times more likely to win their cases than those without them. But people in deportation proceedings are not guaranteed the right to a lawyer, and it is exceptionally difficult to find legal representation from behind bars. As a result, 86 percent of thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers imprisoned in detention centers are forced to navigate complex legal proceedings alone.

Elbia spent countless hours working with her legal team to prepare her case. Her lawyers also managed to secure extensive testimony from expert witnesses who were able to attest to the prevalence of domestic violence in Guatemala and the dearth of resources available to indigenous women like Elbia. After months of preparation and agonizing uncertainty, Elbia was finally granted asylum on the basis of domestic violence in the spring of 2017.

As an asylee, Elbia was able to petition for her son to join her in the United States. They have been reunited and are now living in safety with Elbia’s brother in Virginia. She and her son are finally building their new life together, free from fear and violence. Elbia has begun attending culinary school and aspires to be a chef someday.

*Name changed to protect anonymity.

If I stayed in El Salvador, I would be dead.

For years, Lupita endured brutal physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband in El Salvador. Lupita’s husband treated her like she was his property and was incredibly controlling. On multiple occasions, she tried to leave him. But every time, her husband would relentlessly stalk and harass her, forcing her to return to him. In El Salvador, domestic violence is largely perpetrated with impunity, and resources for women like Lupita are scant.

While her husband always expected Lupita to be faithful to him, he openly cheated on her. As a result of his infidelity, he was infected with HIV, which he then transmitted to Lupita. Medical treatment for HIV positive people in El Salvador is substandard at best, and Lupita’s HIV progressed to become full-blown AIDS. At times she was seriously ill.

Lupita applied for asylum in hopes that she could begin her life anew in the United States, free from her husband’s abuse. She made the incredibly difficult decision to leave her daughters, granddaughters, and job behind, knowing that if she remained in El Salvador her life would be in danger. Fortunately, Lupita’s asylum application was granted, and she now lives in safety in San Francisco. Since being granted asylum, Lupita has been able to access good medical care and now lives a full life. An activist at heart, Lupita has immersed herself in several community groups dedicated to advancing the rights of trans women and people living with HIV.

Photo credit: Brooke Anderson Photography

She survived extreme abuse. Jeff Sessions personally intervened to send her back.

Ms. A.B. was born in El Salvador in the 1970s. She lost her parents at a young age and was subsequently separated from her siblings and placed in the care of a family friend who physically and verbally abused her. When she was in her early 20s, Ms. A.B. met the man who would become her husband. After they married, his abuse began.

Over the 15 years that followed, Ms. A.B.’s husband subjected her to horrific physical, sexual, and emotional violence. He beat and raped Ms. A.B. so many times that she lost count. He also frequently threatened to kill her, often brandishing a loaded gun or a knife. Ms. A.B.’s husband was violent even during her pregnancies, on one occasion threatening to hang her with a rope from the roof of their house.

When they first met, Ms. A.B. was pursuing her education, but her husband forced her to cut her studies short. He constantly belittled and demeaned her verbally. Ms. A.B.’s husband also often falsely accused her of infidelity, going so far as ordering her to undress and show him her genitals so he could see if she had been with another man.

Ms. A.B.’s relationship with her husband was characterized by constant brutality and she often feared for her life. She repeatedly sought protection from the Salvadoran authorities, to no avail. While she was able to obtain two restraining orders against her husband, they went completely unenforced, and he continued to abuse and threaten her. After one particularly terrifying incident in which her husband attacked her with a large knife, Ms. A.B. went to the police and they refused to help, saying instead “if you have any dignity, you will get out of here.”

Ms. A.B. went to the police and they refused to help, saying instead “if you have any dignity, you will get out of here.”

Heeding their advice, she left her husband, moving to a town that was two hours away from where they lived together. But he managed to find her there and the abuse continued. Ms. A.B. then sought a divorce, which resulted in escalating threats on her life. A month after the divorce was finalized, her ex-husband, accompanied by his police officer brother, accosted her and told her that the divorce meant nothing and that her life was in danger. Following this incident, Ms. A.B.’s ex-husband and men with whom he associated continued to threaten her, describing in graphic detail how they intended to kill her.

One week before she left the country, her ex-husband tracked her down again and physically assaulted her. With nowhere to turn, Ms. A.B. fled El Salvador to seek protection in the United States.

Upon her arrival in the United States, Ms. A.B. was screened in and permitted to apply for asylum after an Asylum Officer found that she had a credible fear of persecution in El Salvador based on the violence she had suffered at the hands of her ex-husband. Ms. A.B.’s case was sent to the Charlotte Immigration Court, one of the courts most notoriously hostile to asylum seekers, to be heard by V. Stuart Couch, an immigration judge with a long history of denying asylum to domestic violence survivors – and having his decisions overturned on appeal. Unsurprisingly, Judge Couch denied Ms. A.B.’s asylum application.

Ms. A.B. appealed Judge Couch’s decision, and her case was then heard by the Board of Immigration Appeals, the appellate court with nationwide jurisdiction over immigration cases. The Board reversed Judge Couch’s denial, finding Ms. A.B. eligible for protection based on her experiences of domestic violence and sending her case back to the court in Charlotte for Ms. A.B. to be granted asylum.

In a departure from usual practice, Judge Couch refused to issue a new decision in the case. He instead attempted to send the case back to Board. Seven months later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions took advantage of a rarely used power to refer the case to himself for a decision.

On June 11, 2018, Sessions issued a deeply disappointing decision in Ms. A.B.’s case, reversing the Board’s decision. In ruling against Ms. A.B., Sessions overturned an important precedent decision known as Matter of A-R-C-G-, which in 2014 affirmed the right of domestic violence survivors to seek asylum protection. In his decision Sessions made the troubling statement that asylum claims “pertaining to domestic violence” should “generally” no longer be approved.

“They don’t understand that we are fleeing for our lives.”

The Attorney General’s decision completely disregarded the extensive evidence – over 700 pages’ worth – that Ms. A.B. submitted to corroborate her asylum claim. Instead, Sessions insisted on calling into question Ms. A.B.’s honesty. Consistent with his previous attacks on asylum seekers, Sessions mischaracterized her as an economic migrant gaming the asylum system. His treatment of A.B. suggests that he never had any intention to consider her application for asylum fairly.

Sessions’ decision is not the last word in Ms. A.B.’s case. Her legal team is continuing to fight for her and is determined to win her the protection she deserves. But Ms. A.B. thought her odyssey for protection had ended when the Board ruled in her favor. Instead, the legal battle continues and she remains in limbo, uncertain what her future holds. Ms. A.B. also remains separated from her three children in El Salvador, because while her case is pending she cannot petition for them to join her in the United States.

Ms. A.B. is hurt and confused by the Attorney General’s ruling in her case and by his refusal to believe her story. After learning about his decision she said, “I think immigration judges have something against immigrants. They generalize about immigrants and think that they are coming to work. They don’t understand that we are fleeing for our lives.”

Photo credit: Kevin D. Liles for NPR