– Nazima Ali –
Foreword by Susan Celia Greenfield
In the spring of 2011, the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing sponsored “Living Well,” its first Life Skills Program to assist women who had become homeless as a result of domestic abuse. As with all of the Assembly’s Life Skills Programs, participants were expected to write a version of their life stories to share with their peers, mentors, and members of the Assembly. To assist them in this goal, I ran a series of story-telling workshops. It was initially overwhelming. On my first day, for instance, I asked the participants to write about a happy childhood memory. Most of the women said they had none, and one started to shake and cry uncontrollably. One of the facilitators—herself a domestic violence survivor—later explained that my question had “re-traumatized” her. Nevertheless, by the end of the program, all of the women were not only able write about their childhood, but also about some of the most painful experiences of domestic violence. We talked about the role of “authority” in “authorship”—about how writing about their past selves could help them change positions, to detach from the victimized character who is acted upon and become a narrator controlling the action. We talked about the power of “owning” your story.
Nazima Ali, the only woman who remembered having a happy childhood, was also one of the first to finish her story. Her candid and courageous work inspired all of us. After graduating from the Living Well Program, Nazima joined the Assembly’s Speakers Bureau and has since gone on to share her story with a variety of audiences,including a packed house at Symphony Space’s 17th Annual Comfort Ye Opera Benefit for the Assembly, New York Cares, and West-Side Campaign Against Hunger. With the hope of educating the public and reaching out to other victims of domestic violence, Nazima shares her story with CURA.
~ Susan C. Greenfield
My name is Nazima Ali and I am now 39 years old. I was born and raised in the beautiful tropical island of Trinadad and Tobago, an island known for the sound of steel pan music, beautiful beaches and tasty foods.
I am the last of nine kids, six brothers and two other sisters. My family is a strong-bonded and loving group of people with a solid background of close family unity. We are very caring and passionate for each other and all that are close or in contact with us. We look out for the best interest of each other. We are also dedicated in our spiritual background, which is of Muslim faith. My family is very successful in education, wealth, and all accomplishments that we set out to achieve. We have grown up to take care of each other. My family has become extremely large with grandkids, in-laws and great grandchildren. I personally have three kids with two boys and one girl. My boys are sixteen and ten and my daughter is two; she suffers from sickle cell anemia. My kids are intelligent, responsible, independent, and well-mannered.
Growing up were the happiest days of my life. I had everything. My brothers and sisters took so much care of me and I was given everything that a growing child could need or want. My brothers would take me to see cricket, soccer, the zoo, beaches, and we would climb the mountains; they had me having so much fun. It has been ten years now I haven't seen my mother, some of my brothers and my two sisters. I miss them so much.
During the year of 1991, I was going back to school, doing a computer course. This is where I met my abuser. He was such a talker--such a young and good-looking guy. He was so well dressed. He was doing a welding class at the time. He came up to me and started talking and introducing himself. I talked back to him and we exchanged phone numbers. We started communicating regularly, and when my parents found out they became very upset with me because I was only nineteen at the time and he was seventeen. I was forced to stop the class and was not allowed to communicate with him anymore. I would hide and call him.
As time went on we wanted to meet up with each other but my family would not allow it. I decided I wanted to get married then; my parents thought I was losing it, they thought I was pregnant as well. After continuous forcing and crying and pleading, they decided to meet with his parents and maybe try arranging for him to marry me.
Well, we did get married. I moved into his parents’ home and started a new life which I regret. I went from “Heaven to Hell.” His parents were not whom we saw as a couple, and Wow, did C---- (my abuser) turn out to be the opposite. He got into arguments with his parents and I couldn't tell him to stop. He would hang out late and drink and smoke with his friends on the block. He became very controlling immediately. One night he had some friends over and he had me like a waitress, back and forth doing things to make them comfortable. I got tired and told him, “NO,” and he slapped me in the face. I knew then I should have listened to my parents but it was too late. The abuse started and I couldn't say anything.
This continued for years. We had our first son in the year 1995, and one night he told me I had to leave, and he put me out with my baby wrapped in a blanket. The neighbor called my brothers and one of them came and picked me up. After a few days, C---- came by my parents’ house with his mother and apologised and said he would not hurt me again. I went back to his home but it continued for years. I didn't say anything to my family because I was afraid of C---- and ashamed to tell them what was happening after they had warned me not to get married.
As years went by he decided to move to the U.S. I thought it would make a difference for better, but instead it became worse. My two boys were five and one at the time. The very night I came to America he argued with me and threw my clothes over the fence in a parking lot. Now I really had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. All of my family was in Trinidad and is still there to this day.
He started seeing other women, drinking heavily and hanging out and at times coming in just before sunrise the next day. I was unable to talk or say anything to him. He would monitor my phone calls, stopping me from calling my family.
Jumping further into the years, the abuse continued while the boys were becoming more aware of seeing me crying and looking depressed and sometimes bruised. I had nowhere to go and no help. I was called the worst of things anyone can say to a person. He would send me out with the kids and invite his women into the house.
He met a woman twice his age and decided he wanted a divorce with me so as to get his status in the U.S. I was happy as well as scared at the same time--scared to be on my own with the two boys without being able to meet the financial needs. For about six months he left me, but then he returned saying his marriage was not going well. I was struggling making ends meet financially. I was also missing him, so I took him back with open arms.
But again, it was the worst thing I had done for myself. I became his boxing bag; he took out his frustration and anger on me. I was punched, kicked, spit on, my hair pulled, and my face and body badly banged up so many times that I couldn't feel the pain anymore. I would be left with bruises throughout my body, leaving me swollen and blue black for days. I then in turn would have to lie in bed and have sex with him as though we were the best loving couple. I wanted him to leave but he wouldn’t because he and his wife didn't make up, although he was back and forth.
He threatened he would call immigration for me if I did anything to jeopardize his life. The abuse continued at times, worse than other times.
In 2008 I became pregnant with my daughter. He wanted me to abort the baby but I didn't, so he decided not to be involved in the pregnancy. My nine months were so horrible, depressing and tiring. He would come in drunk almost every day and argue for no reasons. The boys became very scared of him. He would yell and embarrass my eldest son and myself in public.
When the baby was born in March of 2009, I decided I had to leave. I didn't know where to go or get help, but I just wanted out. I started secretly seeking help from Sanctuary for Families. During this time I also met someone whom I eventually told my situation to. He offered to help but I was afraid at the same time. I eventually contacted him and also started getting help from him. He empowered me to be strong and change what was happening in my life. I received so much love and support from him that it was unbelievable. I thank him wholeheartedly for being there for me, and he still continues being supportive of me.
C---- noticed I was being different and threatened to call ACS--Administration for Children’s Services. An ACS worker came to the house. I was so shocked and confused. She said someone reported that I was neglecting and abusing my kids. We spoke and she told me she would keep in touch. I didn't tell her anything about being abused because C---- was standing right there. I called a friend informing her of what had just happened. She in turn told me to call the ACS worker and tell her what was really going on in the home. I did call the ACS worker and she said she knew, she saw right through me. For the next few weeks I would talk to her very often, meeting with her secretly, telling her that I did want to leave but had nowhere to go.
After she made her investigations, she called me on September 10, 2009 and told me that being that “Mr. H---- does not want to leave,” I had to leave or she would have no choice but to take the kids away. She gave me the weekend to think about it. That weekend was the most difficult, heart-breaking time for me. School was about to re-open on the Monday for my kids, with Eric starting junior high school for the first time and Dillan going into a new grade.
Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. I got a call from the ACS worker. I told her I would leave, but I didn't know how to. She gave me a hotline number for the shelter. I made that call and everything was on a countdown. The representative from the shelter coached me about getting out of the house. I followed the instructions and was on my way to becoming homeless. After fifteen years of abuse that left me physically, emotionally, and mentally disturbed I had no self-esteem. My hope every day was, “it will get better.” I didn't know where I was taking my kids but I was on my way with $40 in my pocket. The cab driver charged me $25 to get to the address that I gave him; I was left with $15 to make ends meet for my kids and myself.
After getting out of the cab, I called the shelter again. Three people approached me in a few minutes. They carried me to the most beautiful well-kept building. It was called Freedom House. Two of the people were custodians and the other lady was the woman that called me so many times. She said I was such a courageous, obedient, strong-spoken young lady that she had to come immediately to see how I looked. In the next few days I was introduced to the staff that held different positions. My social worker, whom I will never forget, started helping and giving me as many resources as I needed to seek help and a better life for the kids and myself.
I spent four months at Freedom House and was then placed at a different shelter where I spent nine months until I received a New York City Housing Authority apartment in October 2010.
During my stay at both shelters, I took advantage of all the help that I could get. I started individual counselling, and I also had family counselling with myself and the kids. I was so determined to make life become better for myself and the kids. My motivation and strong initiative all came from the inspiration of my daughter as well as my strong-minded boys.
I have become such a strong, determined, will-powered individual that no one and nothing can bring me back to my past. The healing takes time but I am so much happier and at peace now. I have succeeded a lot within the past two years with the support system from the shelters and all of my family in Trinidad.
We can walk in to our HOME anytime knowing that there's no one to abuse us verbally, physically, or mentally. I carry my Order of Protection where ever I go. I am very proud and blessed with all I have accomplished so far and will continue reaching for the stars.
I am also in the process of getting the U-Visa which I can't wait for because I want to go back to school to become a certified nurse assistant. I already have the GED. I received a $5,000.00 scholarship while I was at the second shelter for writing an essay on surviving domestic violence. I was also awarded the “The Human Spirit Award” at the Riant Theatre in Chelsea Manhattan. I have gotten full custody of the kids.
I have also learned to take time out for me. One of my biggest goals is to study sociology because I believe I have the ability to help others and make a difference in people's lives. I want to give back what was once given to me. I also want to be able to send my kids off to college, especially the eldest who just has two more years in high school. I know my determination and strength will allow me to succeed because I am a go-getter.
In my closing, I would like to encourage anyone out there: if you believe that you are in an abusive relationship or you know someone in an abusive relationship please get help, especially if there are kids involved. They are the ones who hurt the most. “We are all of us stars, and we deserve to twinkle.”