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Too poor and too young to raise a child, Mercy Cooper’s mother left her in the care of her grandfather. He, too, was ill-equipped for the job of raising a child, and he delivered Mercy to missionaries who raised her in West Africa. Faith became Mercy’s bedrock, and she thrived as the owner of a women’s clothing boutique until civil war ripped through her country in 1990.

Mercy had to abandon her business and flee to a neighboring country. Peace was short-lived. In 2002, a violent military coup upended Mercy’s life once again.

Using her faith as a compass, she traveled to the United States to find temporary refuge with Christian friends in Maryland. She began attending a church, and rejoiced in meeting people that seemed to share her faith, including a friendly man who insisted she would one day be his wife.

Mercy returned to Africa nonetheless, but she kept in touch with the man from church. Gradually, he wooed her with sweet emails and phone calls. In 2004, he proposed to her and sent her a ticket to join him in the United States. He met her at the airport with a minister who married them right there, and sponsored her application for residency in the United States.

A dangerous union

Just one week into their marriage, things took a violent turn. Mercy discovered that her new husband had a mistress. He refused to end the relationship, and began to emotionally and physically abuse Mercy into submission. To discourage Mercy from calling the police, he threatened to deport her to West Africa, or kick her out and leave her homeless. He only wore his wedding band on Sundays at church, and left his wife for long periods with no explanation. He routinely beat and raped her. One night, he followed through on his cruel threat, and abandoned Mercy on the side of a road in Maryland.

Mercy lived as a virtual prisoner inside her home, unaware of her rights and resources.

Desperate to end her husband’s abuse, Mercy confided in her fellow church members, who urged her to try to make her marriage work. She tried for two years until her husband, enraged because Mercy had tried to defend herself, beat her outside their apartment. Her neighbors witnessed the abuse and called the police.

A survivor and a resource

In concert with Tahirih, Mercy obtained independence from her abuser, securing a U visa, a temporary legal status for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity. Congress created the special legal status as part of the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. In 2013 alone, Tahirih helped more than 200 violent-crime victims achieve safety and rebuild their lives through the U visa program.

Mercy now volunteers with a Virginia police academy to train officers to recognize and respond to domestic violence. She knows her story, though difficult to tell, has the potential to empower others survivors, and that’s why she shares it.

Tahirih will celebrate Mercy as the 2014 Courageous Voice Honoree at the 17th Annual Greater DC Gala, “Saving Lives, Celebrating Courage,” on Wednesday, April 9 the Washington Hilton, 1919 Connecticut Ave. NW., Washington, D.C.

The gala pays tribute to the incredible courage of Tahirih clients, and renews the commitment to end the epidemic of violence against women and girls, in which no community is immune. Each year, a Courageous Voice Honoree is named to represent the heroic women and girls Tahirih serves.

Pro bono attorneys, corporate partners, and congressional leaders who contribute year-round to Tahirih’s mission to protect immigrant women and girls from violence will also be honored at the gala in April.

The 2014 gala is made possible through the generous support of leading sponsor PepsiCo. For a full list of Gala honorees and sponsors, please visit our Gala Web page.

Please share Mercy’s incredible story of survival on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #voiceofcourage.