Many women coming to Houston to seek refuge

December 16, 2010 8:20:31 PM PST
The choice to fall in love and marry whomever you want is common here in America. But in some countries, marriage rituals include polygamy and violence.

For these reasons, many women are fleeing their home countries and are seeking refuge here in Houston. We have the story of one woman who is fighting to stay here, and we should warn you, the content of this story is graphic and meant only for adults.

The young woman says she needs protection from her own family.

"They want me to do something that I don't want," she said.

She is 24 years old. We can't use her real name, so we'll call her Rachel. She is from Mali, a country in West Africa. Rachel came to Houston two and a half years ago to study at a local university.

Now, her family is calling for her to return because they found her a husband. Rachel received word in a letter of warning from her sister.

"He is over 50 years old and he has already has two wives and a lot of children," the letter read. "Some are older than you, but he is very rich."

Rachel is in Houston on a student visa. When that runs out, she has to return home, where she'll be married. But her forced marriage isn't the only reason she doesn't want to go back.

Rachel, like the majority of women in Mali, must face circumcision before marriage. Her sister's words warn of the horror.

"Our aunt kept the blade used for your cousin during their circumcisions. It is supposed to bring you the same blessings they had," Rachel read from the letter.

"There are laws in the United States that recognize that we as a society do not tolerate this type of violence," said Anne Chandler, director of the Tahirih Justice Center, a group that protects women and girls from human rights abuses.

"What we're talking about here is very severe forms of violence that are perpetrated against women and girls," Chandler said.

Not everyone who applies is awarded asylum. Lawyers have to prove the applicant's home country or government is unwilling or unable to protect them from harm.

Tahirih only has two offices in the U.S. Houston has one of them. It opened in September 2009.

Volunteer attorneys have helped 125 women and girls locally. Right now, they have 33 active cases, including Rachel's.

"This is a unique model where you find volunteers who are not necessarily asylum or immigration attorneys," said Michelle Gibbons, an attorney with Mayer Brown.

"I honestly even didn't know honestly where Mali was when I started this," Mayer Brown attorney Anne Kersch said.

Kersch, a banking and finance attorney, took on an asylum case from Mali -- and won.

"She was forced at the age of three to have her clitoris removed and she did not want that to happen to her daughter," Kersch said. "So she managed to get her and her daughter out of Mali here to Houston, where she had relatives, and at that point applied for asylum on the basis of the future torture of her daughter."

Forty-five days after Rachel files her application, she will have a hearing in Houston at a U.S. immigration court, where a judge will decide if she can stay here in America or be forced to return home.

Rachel is hoping to secure scholarships to stay in school. She knows by speaking out, staying in America and not marrying the man chosen for her, her family back home faces serious repercussions. And while her hands may quiver, her voice is strong. She knows what she has to do. Her sister's letters sealed it.

"Don't come back. Save your life," the letter read.

Immigration cases in Houston have doubled in the past year. For help or to volunteer, you can go to www.tahirih.org.


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