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On Friday, May 17, 2019, Tahirih held its 22nd Annual Gala, welcoming more than 400 donors, volunteers, pro bono professionals, clients, and supporters for an evening of celebration, reflection, and action. Actor and musician, Penn Badgley, served as the evening’s Master of Ceremonies.

“Tonight, we are going on a journey. A journey to bear witness to the violence that millions of women and girls around the world endure strictly because of their gender. A journey to break down a system of injustice that survivors must navigate after courageously standing up and saying no more to this violence. And a journey to understand how the Tahirih Justice Center works to walk with these heroes seeking safety and freedom, with the ultimate goal of equality for all.”

He then invited guests to consider their own journey. Were they there because they or someone they knew had experienced injustice? Were they there because they were already a partner of Tahirih or wished to be? Whatever the reason, all were on this journey to justice together.

“In my current role, I play an obsessive-compulsive stalker who believes he’s a feminist and true gentleman. Following the logic of romantic tropes like “the-man-who-won’t-give-up-to-win-her-heart”, he stalks and murders people in order to solidify his relationship. The conclusions he reaches are certainly extreme, but his reasoning is based on an all-too-common, centuries-old script passed down through generations of men. That script is very real. Love equals protection, which involves possession, and control. Like so many in this room, I’m eager to re-write that script. I want to do my part – however small – to transform society. To foster the empowerment of women. To shift cultural norms and re-imagine our human journey.”

Penn addressed the audience with profound commitment, humble devotion, and eager readiness to make change. Change for women, who have faced unimaginable violence at the hands of a loved one. Change for children, separated from the parents who sacrificed all that they knew to bring them to safety. Change for Vilma, a detained Tahirih client whose daughter was forcefully taken thousands of miles away for 8 months.

“So, why was Vilma incarcerated? What was her ‘crime?’ She fled Guatemala after enduring years of horrendous violence by her daughter’s father, even losing four front teeth after being repeatedly punched in the face. But here’s the thing: seeking protection from persecution is not a crime.”

And it isn’t. Seeking asylum is not only enshrined in our national laws, but international treaties as well.

Penn met Vilma for the first time in December of last year, visiting her in a south Georgia detention center with Tahirih Atlanta’s Executive Director, Shana Tabak. He was overwhelmed not only with his aching desire to help get her released, but also by her incredible inner strength and beauty.

“I was disarmed by how often she was able to smile inside the detention center. She is profound in her faith; she prayed to God and trusted that her prayers were being heard. She saw her pro bono attorneys as answers to those prayers.”

So, Penn did the only thing he knew he could – picked up his phone and got on social media.

“I did my best to help amplify Vilma’s story. Thousands signed a petition, her Tahirih attorneys continued to litigate, and the public called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release her.”

And, it worked.

On January 11, eight months after being detained and separated from her daughter, Vilma was released. Penn went on to share that when he heard the news, his heart first burst with happiness for Vilma and her daughter Yeisvi, and then quickly sunk with the remembrance of the thousands of others still incarcerated and still separated from their children.

“I am deeply honored to act as your Master of Ceremonies this evening. And I take that moniker seriously. While I may not be a master, this could be seen as a ceremony of sorts. It’s an opportunity we could call sacred, or meaningful, where we are gathered together, in a group, our thoughts all converging on the same issue. We will learn, we will reflect, we will ponder, and when we are moved, we will act. We will arise. We will contribute to the collective goal. And we’ll witness others doing the same.”