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Legal Network Finds More Immigrant Victims Of Sexual Assault Than Expected

License to Freedom founder Dilkhwz Ahmed translates from Arabic to English a ...

Photo by Tarryn Mento

Above: License to Freedom founder Dilkhwz Ahmed translates from Arabic to English a note of encouragement an immigrant woman wrote to an unknown sexual assault survivor, Oct. 8, 2018.

Legal Network Finds More Immigrant Victims Of Sexual Assault Than Expected


Tarryn Mento, City Heights reporter, KPBS News


Shaimaa Solaka knows women in San Diego’s Middle Eastern community who are abused by their husbands but won’t leave them. The hairstylist sees bruises on the hands and faces of some of her female clients. She urges them to go, but their culture encourages them to stay.

"Our families did not support us, part of the culture. They will tell us, ‘You need to stay with him, go back to him,'" she said in Arabic through a translator. "We need to support and we need to empower ourselves."

These are the cultural barriers preventing immigrant and refugee victims of violence from speaking out and seeking help. A network of advocates in San Diego is working to break them down and has made strides with domestic violence victims, but it's toughest to overcome in situations of sexual assault, which new data indicates is pervasive in the immigrant community.

Solaka and other Middle Eastern women new to the county discussed the challenges of a culture that blames the abused and protects the abuser at the nonprofit License to Freedom. The East County organization has focused for years on addressing domestic violence and now supports about 1,000 women, children and men a year through various programs.

But founder and Iraqi immigrant Dilkhwaz Ahmed said she suspected many of the victims she saw also experienced sexual assault.

"Sometimes they say no, but I can read it in their heart and in their facial expression," Ahmed said.

She’s now part of a collaborative focused on specifically reaching immigrant victims of sexual violence and it recently reported unexpected results. The Sexual Assault Victim Empowerment or SAVE Legal Network aimed to provide legal and support services to 40 victims who were assaulted by a non-intimate partner, such as a relative, employer or stranger, but within the first eight months they heard from than twice that.

Photo caption:

Photo by Tarryn Mento

Women from the Middle Eastern community in San Diego sit in the background of jars holding letters of encouragement for victims of violence who may access services at the nonprofit License to Freedom, Oct. 8, 2018.

Anne Bautista, immigration clinic director at Access Inc., which leads SAVE, said she was surprised by a large number of victims coming forward.

"What that says is the problem has not been addressed," Bautista said.

She said it points to a gap in resources for the highly vulnerable immigrant population, especially those who are undocumented.

"It just goes to show that the less support you have, the less I guess knowledge you have about what protections are available to you," she said.

The federal grant-funded SAVE Legal Network, which can help with visas or restraining orders, takes a culturally sensitive approach. That includes working with victim advocates from the immigrant populations they are trying to reach, including the African, Filipino and Vietnamese communities.

Legal and victim advocate Yolanda Torres Villa represent the Latina and Mixtec communities, which includes a marginalized indigenous group in Mexico. She said each immigrant community representative holds regular workshops on various topics to create a comfortable atmosphere that has led some in her group to open up.

"One of them just say that she loved coming to the group because she felt safe and she felt empowered and she started sharing her experience that she didn’t trust men, any men in her life because she was abused by her uncles," said Torres Villa.

The advocates each also serve at the network’s walk-in legal clinics so when a victim comes for help, someone is there who knows their language and how to ask about such a taboo topic.

Torres Villa said she is often to the first person many victims tell about their assaults. And the stories stick with her. She remembered one woman who said she was raped repeatedly by her father.

"I was 9 years old, he would threaten me that he was going to kill my mom and my brothers if I didn’t go out with him to the storage shed," she said the woman told her.

Torres Villa has a similar storage room at her home and for a while couldn't bring herself to go in there.

"Because I was scared that I would find her there," Torres Villa said. "But it was just like images coming to my head, like when they were telling me all this stuff, I would go home, I would drive home and cry in my car."

She said it took a long time to accept she couldn’t prevent what had happened to them in the past, but that she can help them now.


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