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Some 400 guests attended inspirational 18th Annual Gala at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium

WASHINGTON, DC—A powerful message emerged at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Tuesday night. A world where all women and girls enjoy equality and live in dignity is possible, spokespeople, honorees, and special guests told some 400 attendants of the Tahirih Justice Center 18th Annual Gala, “Saving Lives, Celebrating Courage.”

But that world will not come to fruition without an army of determined individuals, they said.

It was determination that saved Tahirih’s Courageous Voice Honoree and her family from bloodthirsty members of the Taliban. Nazira Karimi, a celebrated Afghan journalist, turned to Tahirih Justice Center for protection as the Taliban rose to power in the late 1990s. The Taliban issued a death sentence against her in response to her intrepid reporting of their brutality against women, and she was forced to flee to the United States.

“I had no choice. I left Afghanistan. I left my lovely country,” Karimi told guests at the gala on April 14 in Washington, DC.

Unfortunately, even after her painful decision to leave her home, Nazira’s extended family remained under threat. With Tahirih’s advocacy, Karimi eventually won their protection as refugees in the United States, changing asylum policy in the region for good.

Tahirih Founder and Executive Director Layli Miller-Muro said Karimi reflects the strength of all Tahirih clients—heroic immigrant women and girls who are fleeing extreme forms of gender-based violence including rape, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, human trafficking, honor crimes, and forced marriage.

“Nazira was an effective advocate, and she saved herself,” Miller-Muro said Tuesday.

“Our clients are incredibly courageous,” she said. “They are women who know what they want. They are women who are demanding justice, who are demanding freedom from violence and demanding a transformation of their own lives, of the lives in their communities, their families, and their entire societies.”

Layli Miller-Muro thanked the army of supporters who fuel the work of Tahirih.

Layli Miller-Muro thanked the army of supporters who fuel the work of Tahirih.

In 2014 alone, Tahirih Justice Center responded to more than 17,000 pleas for help from individuals fleeing violence in their homes and communities. With the help of more than 1,800 pro bono attorneys and other professional volunteers, Tahirih was able to provide free legal representation and advice to 909 immigrant women and girls. Tragically, due to high demand and limited resources, the nonprofit still must turn away 1 in 4 women and girls who seek its help in escaping life-threatening situations.

The annual gala raises crucial funds so that women and girls in the Baltimore and Greater DC region can find safety and rebuild their lives after trauma with free legal, social, and medical services.

“Some of what our clients endure is hard to imagine. But please try,” Miller-Muro said, as she asked the audience to imagine how uncomfortable it feels like to be a Tahirih client.

“Imagine that you have said ‘no.’ You’ve decided to stand up and walk out. You have held the hand of your child and tried to explain why you are leaving. Imagine you do not know the language. Imagine you do not know the culture. You do not know our laws. You walk into the doors of the Tahirih Justice Center and now imagine that you are told that because of court delays, it will take between four and five years for your asylum hearing to be heard,” she said.

Miller-Muro reminded gala guests that many Tahirih clients arrive in the United States against their will as victims of trafficking or other forms of coercion or duress. Compounding already crushing circumstances, these women and girls are not eligible to stay in homeless shelters, receive food from pantries, or access free or reduced medical care because they lack legal status in the United States.

“Imagine that you are told you are only one of the many women who called us, and we have a long, long waiting list because we don’t have the capacity to take every case that comes to us. This is not fantasy. This is not fairy tale. This is reality. This is the world Tahirih Justice Center staff live in. This is the world our clients live in. This is the world that you live in. But you have an opportunity to change that reality,” Miller-Muro said.

A donation to Tahirih of $5,000 saves the life of a woman or girl, by providing free legal, social, and medical services for one year. A special guest and speaker at the 18th Annual Gala, Justin Baldoni, said a donation is one way to make a difference in the lives of women and girls who are too often seen as statistics. Baldoni is an actor, director, and social entrepreneur who currently stars as “Rafael” on the Golden Globe-winning TV show, “Jane the Virgin.”

He asked gala guests to close their eyes and pretend that the room at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium was filled with underage girls fleeing forced marriages, rapes, and other crimes.

“Now, open your eyes,” the actor said. “What do you do?”

Baldoni asked the audience to think about what they could do to help women and girls facing violence.

Baldoni asked the audience to think about what they could do to help women and girls facing violence.

Baldoni and other gala speakers praised the army of Tahirih staff, pro bono attorneys, volunteers, and donors who make Tahirih’s lifesaving work possible every day. Tahirih’s newest directors, Heather L. Taylor, who leads Tahirih Greater DC, and Morgan Weibel, who leads Tahirih Baltimore, shared the noteworthy accomplishments of Tahirih’s local offices, including service to hundreds of women and girls and outreach and training delivered to thousands of frontline professionals in 2014.

“This world is redeemable. We can change things. We can create a better world where every child born has a better opportunity to realize their potential, and every woman has the force of law behind her and is able to take her place alongside every man in every country wherever they are born throughout this planet. This is a great organization. Your cause is what mankind needs to be about,” said retired Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA, 1991-2015) as he accepted Tahirih’s Leadership and Service Award.

Congressman Moran hugs Gala MC Scott Thuman after receiving his leadership award.

Congressman Moran hugs Gala MC Scott Thuman after receiving his leadership award.

Karimi says her life stands as a testament to Tahirih’s impact. The broadcast journalist and her immediate and extended family are now happily settled in the United States, where Karimi continues to work as a celebrated journalist for Ariana Television Network. But she has an unfulfilled wish.

“Women still suffer. They’re still suffering not only in Afghanistan—around the world. That’s very sad. My wish as a woman who suffered in Afghanistan, my hope, is that one day women will be equal,” the Courageous Voice Honoree said. “One day women will be free.”

Find our full gala photo album online.