Hero. Pillar of strength. Incarnation of the word perseverance. These are but a few ways to describe this year’s Greater DC Courageous Voice Honoree, Aicha Abdoulaye Mahamane.
On the evening of May 11, following a glowing introduction by Tahirih Greater DC Senior Attorney, Amy Cheung, the audience of Tahirih’s 21st Annual Gala listened to Aicha’s story in rapt silence.
“From a very young age, I witnessed and experienced violence. My father beat my mother, sometimes so badly that she could not speak or eat for weeks. She would leave the home, but always came back. Growing up, I thought marriage was forever, regardless of happiness or safety.
At age 15, my family began pressuring me to undergo female genital mutilation. I saw what my sister had gone through – the razor, the blood, the pain – I didn’t want it. Because of my refusal, my family took away meals as punishment. I looked to my mother for help, but she said she was only a woman and had no say.”
This was but the beginning of a journey so wrought with exploitation, violence and abuse, that Aicha’s ability to not only survive, but ultimately thrive is a testament to the power of the human spirit.
At the age of 17, despite her protest, Aicha was married off to a man more than three times her age. He raped and beat her repeatedly. Despite attempts to seek help from the local authorities, she was turned away because her husband had paid them off to ignore her pleas for refuge and safe haven.
With the help of family, Aicha secured passage to the United States, and felt a moment’s peace at the thought of the freedom awaiting her. Much to her horror, Aicha found herself isolated in New York City, knowing no one, unable to speak the language, a victim of human trafficking. The only thing that gave her hope during this time was watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show on TV every day. Seeing how happy everyone was gave her hope that one day, she would be happy, too.
Following the sudden death of her sister, she was permitted to return home for the burial, but when her husband found out she was back in Niger, she was forced to leave yet again, this time for Maryland.
Preyed upon in her vulnerable state, Aicha again fell victim to human trafficking and spent the next three years isolated in a home where she was forced to cook and clean without pay.
Aicha continued with her story, saying “The next few years were a blur. I kept having panic attacks and went to the hospital many times. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone, not even members of my church. I realized that without legal status, I would never have control of my life and would always be under the threat of deportation.
I knew I had to seek real help. That is when I found Tahirih.
In December of 2012, 8 years after I first arrived in the United States, my Tahirih attorney, Lindsay, helped me file my asylum application.
My Tahirih attorneys kept pushing, and finally, with the help of Senator Cardin’s office, my Green Card was approved in December 2017.”
Upon hearing Aicha say these words, the relief in the audience was palpable. Despite a tumultuous path of further tests and incomparable challenges, Aicha stood before the attendees of Tahirih’s 21st Annual Gala full of pride, determined to create a better life for herself and family.
Her parting words were full of hope, a hope that continues to burn deep within her, despite the many tragedies she endured.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted what my mother never had: the opportunity to be myself, to express my own opinions, to have a choice.
Thanks to Tahirih, I am free. Thank you.”