The New York Times
By Adriana Carranca
April 12, 2019
Carrie Ellman-Larsen, who teaches theater in public schools, isn’t usually out late, but on a mild night last August, she decided to go for a walk in her neighborhood, south of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Within minutes, she came upon a fight. A man was blocking the path of a young woman — “holding her tight,” she recalled — while the woman struggled against him. Though Ms. Ellman-Larsen couldn’t understand the language, she was alarmed. “Something,” she said, “was very wrong.”
“Is everything O.K.?” she asked. The man responded, implying that the woman — his wife — was mentally ill. But Ms. Ellman-Larsen was not convinced. Men surrounded the couple. “Let her come with us,” they told Ms. Ellman-Larsen. “This is a Bengali thing. We will help her.”
But Ms. Ellman-Larsen was dubious. She wanted the woman in the center of the dispute to speak for herself. Finally, the woman uttered, “Forced marriage” in English. “I am not safe. Please, help me.”
Another neighbor called 911. When police officers arrived, they told the woman, who was reluctant to engage with them and declined to press any charges, to go home, according to Ms. Ellman-Larsen.
“I have a feeling something else is happening,” Ms. Ellman-Larsen told the officers. “I don’t know exactly what it is, but I don’t think it is just what she is saying.”
A forced marriage unravels
It wasn’t until later that night that the woman in the middle of the dispute, a 20-year-old immigrant who asked to go by Zahan, her maiden name, for safety reasons, felt comfortable enough to share her story.
With anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise over the last few years, Ms. Zahan had become part of an almost invisible population of immigrant women who feel like they have no recourse in leaving abusive relationships. Between fears of deportation and endangering their families, many choose to stay hidden, living with the risks.
Ms. Zahan was one of the lucky ones.
She had been in New York for just three months before the incident in Brooklyn. Ms. Zahan had moved to the city from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where she had lived with her family and studied computer engineering.
One afternoon in 2017, Ms. Zahan’s parents informed her that guests were coming, and asked her to dress formally. An older couple soon arrived with their son, a 30-year-old American citizen of Bangladeshi origin. Ms. Zahan and the stranger were to be married.
“I was so surprised, like, what?” she said. “I started crying.”
Forced marriage is widespread in Bangladesh, where according to Unicef, 59 percent of girls are married by the age of 18. But unlike her mother, who married when she was 16, Ms. Zahan dreamed of graduating from college and becoming independent. She had received proposals before, and turned them all down.
Ms. Zahan tried to escape and even went on a hunger strike against the marriage. “I told them: Please don’t do that. Give me some time,” she said. “After two or three years, I will get married. But, please, don’t. Not now.”
But now it was time, her parents told her. (Photos of the religious wedding ceremony, held nine days after the couple’s first meeting and shared by Ms. Zahan, show a grim-faced bride.)
The couple went on a two-day honeymoon, accompanied by her new husband’s family members. Her older brother also came along, out of concern for his sister.
At about 4 a.m. Ms. Zahan knocked on her brother’s hotel room door. “She hugged me, and she was crying continuously,” Ms. Zahan’s brother recalled in a phone interview from Bangladesh. “She told me: Brother, save me.”
Ms. Zahan’s new husband returned to the United States to apply for a spouse visa. In Bangladesh, Ms. Zahan continued trying to convince her family to let her give up the marriage. When her parents discovered that she had consulted with a divorce lawyer, they called her a prostitute, withdrew her from school, locked her in the house, and turned “violent,” she said. (In separate phone calls to Bangladesh, Ms. Zahan’s mother and older brother confirmed these events.)
“She was so depressed,” said the brother, who took her side against the family. “There was nothing she could do.”
Ms. Zahan became resigned to her fate. After about a year, her husband returned to Bangladesh to fetch her. A party was held in their honor and this time she smiled for the camera. They left together for the United States.
‘He became so dominating’
The couple landed at Kennedy International Airport in May 2018.
On their first night together in New York, Ms. Zahan expressed to her husband that they should “get to know each other,” she recalled. If he took her to watch Bollywood movies, or if they walked holding hands around the city, maybe she’d be able “to feel it,” she told him. But he disagreed.
Her Bangladeshi husband could have seen it as his conjugal right. But for Ms. Zahan, it was something else altogether.
“I was crying, but he didn’t care,” she said. She showed the self-harm marks still visible on her wrists from earlier that summer.
Ms. Zahan had been told that she would be deported if she tried to leave her husband, she said, adding that her passport had been taken from her upon arrival in New York. Promises to enroll her in school or let her work were not kept. “I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have the keys to the house,” she continued. “He became so dominating.”
In a recent phone call to Ms. Zahan’s husband, he denied any act of violence or abuse, and challenged that the marriage was forced. Asked about how he met his wife, he said it was through family, but did not respond to the question about the circumstances of the marriage.
On that fateful Sunday night in Brooklyn last summer, Ms. Zahan’s husband had taken her to an annual Bangladeshi fair. As in past public appearances that summer, he told her to smile and pretend to be in love. She did. But as they walked home that night, Ms. Zahan decided she couldn’t take it anymore. So she started to run — to where, she had no idea, but her husband soon caught up to her.
This was the scene discovered by Ms. Ellman-Larsen, who stayed behind to help Ms. Zahan collect herself after the neighbors had dispersed (her husband, too, had disappeared at some point during the chaos). “She didn’t have any support, she didn’t know anybody. We were trying to find a friend, but she knew no one; she had nothing,” Ms. Ellman-Larsen said. “The police called Bangladesh, but all her father said was that she should go home with her husband, because it was her job to stay with him.”
Ms. Ellman-Larsen then used her phone to post a message on Facebook: “I need a female Bengali advocate now.”
The message reached Shahana Hanif, a Bangladeshi-American Muslim feminist and the director of organizing for the Democratic councilman Brad Lander. Ms. Hanif, who contacted the women immediately, struggled for hours to find Ms. Zahan a place to stay before remembering a local mosque that had just opened a safe house for Muslim immigrant women. They checked Ms. Zahan in at about 2 a.m. Three days later, she filed a police report.
‘This is really an epidemic’
The location for the Asiyah Women’s Shelter is kept secret, for safety reasons. At the entrance, a sign in English reads, “Don’t forget your roots.” Inside, news is usually broadcast in Arabic, and sometimes a Bengali musical will play on a 40-inch screen. Scents of Middle Eastern food and South Asian curries waft through the open kitchen and living room.
In an era of travel bans, anti-immigration sentiment and terrorist attacks on mosques, anxieties among many Muslims are high. If they happen to be Muslim survivors of abuse, the fear can be paralyzing. A refuge in the city that welcomes them with open arms can provide hope and a sense of safety. Asiyah opened the day before Ms. Zahan left her husband.
One of the women in charge of the kitchen is Fadia Darwish, a 52-year-old immigrant from Syria and the aunt of Dania Darwish, Asiyah’s director. She had been visiting her daughter in the United States when the war broke out in her home country, preventing her return. She volunteers on night shifts, while she waits to be reunited with the rest of her family in Germany.
The shelter is under the umbrella of Muslims Giving Back, a charity in Sunset Park based out of the Muslim Community Center mosque — the same mosque Ms. Hanif had contacted in the middle of the night when Ms. Zahan had made her move.
Mohamed Bahi, an American-Algerian who founded the nonprofit and directs the mosque, said the idea for the shelter came after domestic-violence survivors started approaching him for help in increasing numbers.
“In the past two years, immigrant women started coming more and more, because they are afraid of using public services,” he said. “They fear that Trump’s administration is creating a system where the shelters and law enforcement are connecting. It came to a point when we had families living in our mosque sometimes for weeks. I was like: Wow. This is really an epidemic.”
New York City mandates that shelter be provided for all homeless people, said Nora Moran, policy director of Safe Horizon, a shelter provider that also operates the city’s domestic violence hotline. “This doesn’t exist for domestic violence,” she said. Depending on the day and who is calling (priority is given to those in imminent danger), there is a waiting list, Ms. Moran said. “There are just not enough shelters for single adults.” Often, a homeless shelter is the only option for abuse survivors.
For immigrants, this can be particularly challenging. Ms. Zahan barely knew where she was. She wasn’t fluent in English, she wasn’t familiar with American culture, and she didn’t know basics like how to navigate subways or buses. She had no family or friends here, no place to go, no money, no bank account, no credit card, and her immigration status was dependent on her husband.
Homeless shelters are not ideal for immigrant women. “The current environment for Muslim and immigrant women is very hostile,” Mr. Bahi said, recalling his involvement in referring a Yemeni woman to a homeless shelter in Harlem last year. “The moment she stepped in, she heard things like, ‘Take off that stupid scarf.’ She was crying and scared. So she went back to her husband,” he said.
There is also fear among immigrants — either undocumented or, like Ms. Zahan, those afraid of losing their immigration status — of appearing in court. “Survivors are less likely to report crimes and go to the courts because they are afraid they may run into ICE,” said Evangeline M. Chan, director of the Immigration Law Project at Safe Horizon and a member of a coalition that has been trying to keep Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) out of the courthouses. “It is frustrating and heartbreaking.”
This is not an irrational fear. Between 2016 and 2018, ICE operations in and around New York State courthouses increased by 1,700 percent, according to a survey by the Immigrant Defense Project. Most arrests took place in New York City, with Queens and Brooklyn reporting the largest numbers.
‘The fear is real’
At Asiyah, Dania Darwish, its director, held up her phone. There were incoming calls at 2, 3 and 5:30 in the morning, all immigrant women in danger looking for a safe place to sleep. Ms. Darwish said that she was unable to take them all.
Though New York City has a population of nearly 800,000 Muslims, Asiyah is the only safe house dedicated to Muslim women fleeing domestic violence. The City’s Domestic Violence shelter system is overseen by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, and cannot discriminate based on religion, according to Grace Bonilla, from the Human Resources Administration. With its religious affiliation, Asiyah is not eligible for public money and has struggled to operate solely on donations.
Ms. Darwish runs the shelter alone with the help of a few volunteers, doing things like grocery shopping, obtaining protective orders and coordinating emergency health care. But the main goal is to provide an environment that is culturally familiar to survivors — one that can provide comfort and trust they need to come out of the shadows.
The maximum stay at Asyiah is seven days, during which Ms. Darwish connects survivors to well-established organizations that provide longer-term support such as housing, job opportunities, and legal assistance.
As of mid-March, 73 women had stayed at Asiyah — all immigrants from Bangladesh, Egypt, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, or Yemen, from all five boroughs of New York City. There have been several mothers, including a Pakistani who had just given birth prematurely, she said, after her husband tried to poison her, as well as a Bangladeshi with three children in tow. She had visible black and blue marks, and was still bleeding from a miscarriage.
Ms. Darwish said that all of the women at Asiyah are afraid of being deported if they turn in their spouses. “Many women who come to us are sponsored by their husbands, and they are scared to report,” she said. “Abusers threaten them that if they call the cops they’ll be taken to jail.”
Kavita Mehra, executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women, a New York organization committed to ending gender-based violence, said she saw a drop in the number of women contacting her nonprofit from 400 in 2017 to 350 in 2018. “Even in the most progressive city in the country,” Ms. Mehra said, “the fear is real.”
Ms. Zahan was among the 350 women referred to Sakhi in 2018 and has, so far, managed to take successful steps in starting a new life for herself in New York. She was connected with a pro bono immigration lawyer, and in late September, Sakhi helped her move into a shelter run by the nonprofit Womankind.
The maximum stay in a shelter is 180 days, or six months. So, last week, Ms. Zahan moved to a new apartment. She was also able to find a job as a cashier at a fast-food chain, and is “no longer scared of using public transportation,” she said, with a rare laugh. Recently, she was accepted into a nursing program at a community college — but for now she is focused on making enough money to pay the rent.
“Six months sounds like a lot of time, but when someone is healing from trauma, that process can look very different,” said Ms. Mehra, who is about to start a new transitional housing program for survivors. “We live in the most expensive housing market in our country,” she said. “And for survivors, stability is essential.”
Earlier this year, during her stay at Womankind, Ms. Zahan slipped into a depression again. “Life is very difficult, and it is more difficult for me, because here I’m totally alone,” she said, revealing fresh cuts on one wrist. She had tried to make friends with Bengali colleagues from work, but as soon as she mentioned that she had come here with her husband, “and something bad happened, they become judgmental, they think I am not good,” she continued. “I don’t want to die. I want to show everyone that I’m capable, and that I can start a new life.” (After the cutting incident, Womankind referred her to a therapist.)
Ms. Zahan’s mother seems to be coming to terms with what happened. In a recent phone call from Bangladesh, she said that she felt guilty about ruining her daughter’s future; that her one condition in forcing her daughter to marry was that she would continue her education in the United States.
Although Ms. Zahan has recently decided to file for divorce, she still fears that the process will affect her immigration status. But one thing is clear for her, it seems. “I know my rights now,” she said. “No one can convince me to go back to him.”