At Tahirih’s 2nd Annual Orange County Gala, Tahirih CEO and Founder, Layli Miller-Muro, celebrated the incredible supporters in the room that evening – the army of light that surrounds and infuses the efforts of Tahirih, making it possible for us to do the work that we do.
“This work is hard and the times we are living in are fracturing, but there is an opportunity in the tragedy. Injustices that have long existed are now being clearly shown.”
Layli went on to address the fundamental flaws in the design of the United States’ system of legal representation, policies, and legal structures, which are now clearer than they ever have been. How, 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, and so are we as a collective. It is a steep journey we must continue to travel no matter the obstacles – not only for the sake of the protection of individual souls – people whose families and communities are threatened by violence and persecution – but also for the sake of our society. We will remain dis-unified and dysfunctional if we don’t.”
Bahá’í writings teach us that the purpose of justice is the appearance of unity, the creation of unity. Unity requires justice to heal our divisions, and every process of justice involves, first, the courage to tell your truth, then the investigation of that truth, decision, consequence. Only then is reconciliation and unity possible.
At this time, Layli asked the crowd to put themselves in the shoes of a real Tahirih client, traveling through the treacherous process of seeking safety.
She described the journey of an indigenous Mayan woman from Guatemala who doesn’t speak Spanish, but a native dialect called Mam and has never attended school and cannot read or write. A woman whose husband started to become abusive after her daughter was born, getting worse as the years went on and eventually leading to violence against the daughter herself. At this point, the woman knew that she had to leave.
“On average, it takes a domestic violence survivor seven attempts to leave before she finally does. During those days, it is most dangerous and she is at the highest risk of being killed by her abuser. “
Shortly after the woman left her abuser, he came to her parents’ home looking for her with a gun and fired shots into the home. Her parents decide they could no longer live there because of his threats. She thought of escaping to Georgia, in the U.S., for safety where, eleven years ago, she worked in the fields picking onions and where she still had family.
“Now, at this time, I’d like to ask everyone to stand up. You are this woman. You have said no more to violence. You are determined to save the life of your daughter and yourself. You begin the journey north. Now, half of you at each table take a seat. Those who are still standing – you are the percentage of women (52%) who will be raped or assaulted during your journey to the U.S. Everyone please sit.”
The woman arrived at the border with relief. She trusted that the U.S. was a place where it is possible to find safety. Under U.S. law, there is a right to seek asylum if you have suffered gender-based violence.
“Instead, you are placed in a detention facility and guards come to take your daughter – the daughter you fled your country to protect. When they try to take her away from you, she holds on tightly to your waist, crying and screaming as the authorities try to pull her away. You tell her not to worry, but she is crying and crying. They take her from you by force. You are so upset that you faint. When you wake up, your daughter is gone.”
The woman was transferred from Texas to a detention facility in Georgia and her daughter was sent thousands of miles away to Arizona to live with a foster family. The state of Arizona began removal of parental rights proceedings against the woman because she was incarcerated. She feared losing her daughter forever. She knew that she had to get out of detention to protect her rights as a mother and secure their freedom from violence. But she didn’t have an attorney and needed to represent herself in court.
“At this point I’d like to share the sad truth that for asylum seekers everywhere, if you have to face court without a lawyer, you have only a 16% chance of winning your case; with any lawyer helping you that chance of winning jumps to around 50%, with the Tahirih Justice Center’s legal representation, your chances soar to 99%.”
The woman realized that the interpreter provided for her didn’t speak her language. She tried to explain through her broken Spanish, but the judge ignored her. She realized that the documents to help her case were in her backpack, which she was forced by officials to leave in her room. Without being able to tell her story in her language and without being able to provide evidence she brought from her country, the case was denied.
She sought pro bono legal representation on appeal and met the Tahirih Justice Center.
“Everyone please stand up again. Now, two people from each table sit down. Those of you standing, statistically represent the eight out of 10 women who contact us for help who we do not have the capacity to assist because we are overwhelmed each day with requests. Those of you sitting down – you are the lucky ones whose cases we are able to take on.”
As the woman waited in detention she learned that the court denied her attorney’s legal action to get her released from detention to protect her parental rights and pursue her asylum case. She learned that her attorney’s efforts to go to the press when the legal system didn’t work, and The New York Times article that was prominently placed which detailed her story, did not result in any movement. Her attorneys tell her that they want to try something else. An actor who is involved with Tahirih wanted to meet her and use his influence and networks to try to build outrage in order to add pressure to the government to get her released.
A week later, he visited her in the detention center. She told him about her daughter and her desire to create a better life for both of them. When he left, he went directly to the press to tell them her story and rallied his Instagram and Twitter followers, while Tahirih continued to pursue further legal action in federal court.
Finally, in January, she was released.
She received less than 24 hours’ notice that she would be let go and placed on an airplane to Phoenix, Arizona where child protective services would drop her daughter off at the airport.
Tahirih quickly mobilized and with less than a day’s notice, they found someone to pick her up from the airport and serve as a host family for her and her daughter.
She was eager to get her daughter enrolled in school and reunited with her family living in South Georgia. After a week of recovery in Arizona, she returned to Georgia even though there is a 98% chance of losing an asylum case based on domestic violence in Georgia courts.
“Today, our client, the woman whose journey you followed – she is worn down, but strong on her feet. She knows she is not alone on her journey to find justice. It took so many people. Our client. Her Tahirih attorney. Tahirih social services staff. An actor. Supporters in Arizona. Without this army, she would not be with her daughter today.”
Layli concluded her remarks encouraging supporters to continue on their journey, acknowledging that there is so much more to do together and our champions, advocates, pro bono partners, volunteers, and friends – Tahirih’s army of light – is how we will realize true justice and peace.