On May 17, 2019, more than 400 guests gathered in Pentagon City, VA, ready to celebrate survivors, reflect on their own journeys, and stand with the Tahirih Justice Center in the ongoing fight for justice. Tahirih CEO and Founder, Layli Miller-Muro, welcomed guests and invited them to consider the part they play in Tahirih’s great resilience, innovation, and success over the past two decades.
“Because of you, we maintain a national network of more than 2,500 pro bono attorneys from over 400 leading law firms and fortune 500 companies, whose donation of time and resources triples every dollar you donate into greater impact. Last year alone, we were able to provide legal defense and advice to almost 2,000 women and girls courageously standing up against violence. You are the army of light that surrounds and infuses the efforts of Tahirih and you have made it possible for us to do our work.”
In solidarity with the professionals on the frontlines of this important work fighting for justice and equality, Layli recognized the fractured, demanding, and tiring times our society is living through right now. Times that require a great deal of patience, a positive outlook in the face of depressing conditions, hope when it seems naïve to maintain it, and innovation when a case seems lost and the very legal/moral basis for the argument has just been eviscerated by policies in Washington.
But, she acknowledged, in these uncertain times, we have the opportunity to tear down old ways, practices, and thoughts, to rebuild in the wake of injustice around the world. To create anew and uphold the rights of women, children, and survivors.
“Fundamental flaws in the design of our system of legal representation, policies, and legal structures are now clearer than they ever have been. As a society, we are on an accelerated journey towards tearing down old systems and building up new ones in order to reach justice. The women and girls we serve are on their journeys towards justice, and so is our justice system. It is a journey we must complete – not only for the sake of the protection of individual souls – people whose families and communities are threatened by violence – but also for the sake of our society. We will remain disunified and dysfunctional if we don’t.”
Layli then asked guests to join her on a journey, through the lens of one of Tahirih’s clients, Vilma.
At the end of 2018, Vilma Carillo, was apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border after traveling from Guatemala to seek asylum on the grounds of severe domestic violence at the hands of her daughter’s father. Upon arrival, Vilma was immediately separated from her then 11-year-old daughter, Yeisvi, and taken thousands of miles away, unsure when, or if, she would see Yeisvi again.
“Imagine your name is Vilma. You are an indigenous Mayan woman from Guatemala. You don’t speak Spanish, but a native dialect called Mam. You have never gone to school and cannot read or write. Your husband started to abuse you soon after your daughter was born. You have been punched so many times in the face that you have lost your 4 front teeth. He is also violent towards your daughter. You know you have to leave. Eleven years ago, you worked in the fields of Vidalia, Georgia picking onions. Your daughter was born there. You still have family there. You believe that you can find safety there.”
Layli shared that on average, it takes a domestic violence survivor seven attempts to leave before she finally does. Those days of considering options are the most dangerous and she is at the highest risk of being killed by her abuser. At this time, Layli asked all guests to stand. She then requested that half of the room sit.
According to statistics, more than half of women and girls who make the treacherous journey north to seek asylum are raped or sexually assaulted on the way. More than half.
“You arrive at the border. You are relieved to have made it. You trust that the United States is a place where you can find safety. Instead, you are sent to a detention facility in southern Georgia and your daughter – the daughter you fled your country to protect – is sent to live in foster care in Arizona. Soon after, you learn that, because you are incarcerated, the state of Arizona has begun the removal of parental rights proceedings against you. You may lose your daughter forever. You know you have to get out of detention to protect your rights as a mother and secure your freedom from violence. You don’t have an attorney and must represent yourself in court.”
Statistically, if you have to face court without a lawyer, you have only a 16% chance of winning; with any lawyer helping you, that chance of winning jumps to around 50%, with the Tahirih Justice Center’s legal representation, your chances are 99%.
“You are in court and very nervous. Your safety and the well-being of your daughter depend on these court proceedings. You begin to realize that the interpreter they have provided for you doesn’t speak your language. She is speaking Spanish and you can’t understand her. You also realize that your evidence documents are in a backpack with law enforcement. Through your broken Spanish, you try your best to explain this. The judge ignores you. Without being able to tell your story in your language and without being able to provide evidence you brought from your country, your case is denied. You seek pro bono legal representation on appeal.”
Layli, once again, asked all guests to stand. She then requested that two people (at each table of 10) sit down.
“Those of you standing statistically represent the eight out of 10 women and girls who contact us for help who we do NOT have the capacity to assist. We are overwhelmed with requests for assistance and simply cannot help all who come to us at the current level of need.”
Sharing the final details of Vilma’s journey, Layli led guests through Vilma’s release and reunification with her daughter, Yeisvi, after eight months of separation and what will be a lifetime of healing.
“Vilma is still on her journey to achieving justice. And those of us in this room are not only bearing witness to her journey, but actively engaging in our own. There is strength in numbers, and when journeying together, collectively, we can achieve the justice that Vilma – and our country – needs in order to heal.”