Kobi Chng Koh Yee: 2022 Pillars of Change Honoree

Acknowledging his phenomenal work providing financial resources, culturally sensitive interpretation, and case management to survivors of gender violence at Sanctuary.

In the summer of 2021, Kobi eagerly volunteered with Sanctuary for Families’ Anti Trafficking Initiative (ATI) team. His passion for helping gender violence survivors drove his dedication and commitment to work alongside the ATI staff over the last year. Not only does Kobi work to find grants for clients to obtain financial assistance, but he also assists attorneys with legal filings by providing culturally sensitive interpretations. In addition, he’s often seen accompanying clients to Sanctuary’s food pantry, and to The Butterfly Boutique to choose clothing and other items for themselves and their children.

Kobi believes his work is making a change in small and big ways. Kobi stated, “I can be a source of emotional support and validation for survivors, especially for Mandarin-speaking clients”. Kobi has been described as an instrumental part of the work of Sanctuary’s Anti Trafficking Initiative, and he does all of this amazing volunteer work while in school getting a Master’s degree in Forensic Mental Health Counseling from John Jay College. We thank and honor Kobi for his dedication.

To learn more about Kobi Chng Koh Yee and his work, please join us on April 27th from 12:30 – 1 PM at our virtual Pillars of Change.

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Ashley Gail Harris: 2022 Pillars of Change Honoree

For going above and beyond to provide Sanctuary with curated children’s libraries and weekly, healthy snacks — extending far beyond her arts education-based organization, Wide Rainbow.

Ashley Gail Harris (Ash) is the Founder and Executive Director of Wide Rainbow, a contemporary art after-school program. Wide Rainbow is a pillar for young children as a non-profit connecting artists of all disciplines, from all over the world, with low-income neighborhoods with limited or no access to the arts or arts education.

For almost a decade Ash and her amazing team have successfully created meaningful after-school programing within schools, community centers, and non-profits throughout the boroughs of NYC as well as serving communities in Long Island, Los Angeles, and Detroit. When COVID-19 forced the shutdown of all of the schools and additional sites where Wide Rainbow was providing programming, Ash knew she needed to continue to provide in some way for those in the communities whose lives she had meaningfully touched. Like so many, she creatively innovated new ways to support children and families that went far outside Wide Rainbow’s mission focused on arts education.

“Since the onset of the pandemic we have been focused on essential donations including meal distribution, art supplies, books, libraries, mask-making art projects, etc. Developing sustained programs for meal distribution & nutrition that could feed hearts, souls, and imaginations during these uncertain times.” ~Ashley Gail Harris

Ash reached out to Sanctuary for Families in the spring of 2020 and has been a steadfast supporter ever since. Over the past two years, she has donated countless hours and items. All of Sanctuary’s five shelters receive a weekly delivery of snack packs which include yogurt, a piece of fresh fruit, and a homemade granola bar. This is all made possible through Wide Rainbow’s partnership with Green Top Farms founded by a fifth-generation farmer turned NYC school teacher looking to connect local farms with urban communities. Under Ash’s leadership and with the support of an incredible group of artists, Wide Rainbow has also found a way to share dynamic art lessons remotely with all of her community partners, including Sanctuary.

Sanctuary’s Director of Corporate and Volunteer Relations, Emily Lo Bue, shared, “With all of the challenges that the pandemic brought to small non-profits, it would have been incredible if Ash was only able to find a way to get Wide Rainbow’s arts education lessons online – an amazing feat on its own. Instead, she did this and so much more. It has been awe-inspiring and filled all of us at Sanctuary with so much hope, to get to know Ash and see everything that she’s been able to achieve and donate to so many communities. Wide Rainbow has been a bright light during some of the darkest times for survivors of gender violence. We are beyond grateful for all that she has given Sanctuary.”

Another example of Ash’s ingenuity was her partnership with architects Melissa and Amanda Shin. This collaborative team designed, built, and donated multiple moveable libraries filled with books curated by librarian and arts educator, Asmaa Walton, of the Black Art Library.

Sanctuary was lucky to receive two of these libraries – one for our Children’s Program at our Manhattan office and another for our large transitional shelter, Sarah Burke House. Delivering the mobile library to Sarah Burke House, was a memorable highlight for Wide Rainbow. Ash shared, “Because of this group effort, we were able to safely share a memorable afternoon of reading with the families uptown”.

Thank you to Ashley and everyone at Wide Rainbow. Due to your commitment to nourishing hearts, souls, and imaginations, those at Sanctuary have been abundantly impacted by your donations and generosity over the last two years.

To learn more about Ashley Gail Harris and her work, please join us on April 27th from 12:30 – 1 PM at our virtual Pillars of Change.

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Sanctuary Spotlight: George Lazarus

A pediatrician by profession, George was a member of Sanctuary’s Board of Directors for 10 years and now is a member of its President’s Council.

We had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Dr. George Lazarus, who along with his wife Shelly, recently made an extremely generous six-figure gift to Sanctuary’s emergency food program. A pediatrician by profession, George was a member of Sanctuary’s Board of Directors for 10 years and now is a member of its President’s Council.

How and when did you first learn about Sanctuary?

I first learned about Sanctuary through Alice Peterson, who is a college friend of my son, and also a member of Sanctuary’s Board. Alice invited me and Shelly to attend Sanctuary’s Zero Tolerance Benefit which got us hooked! We have hosted a table at the event every year since 2011.

What initially attracted you to our mission?

What got us excited about Sanctuary’s mission is the fact Sanctuary helps people who are not supported by existing systems as well as they should be. This has not been done because of bad intentions, but historically victims of domestic violence (and sex trafficking, which we have taken on more recently) have not been defended or supported in the way they needed to be in order to prevent violence. And we thought, here is an organization that was paying attention to a huge problem that is not allocated enough resources.

Did your profession as a pediatrician influence your interest in Sanctuary’s work? 

When you look at domestic violence, you see that it is a family problem. It’s not just the parents involved, but innocent children, who suffer tremendously. This impacts their entire lives. They grow up in a chaotic home without the guarantee of a safe place to live, to sleep, to eat, to feel supported. Immediately, they experience loss of the resources they need to navigate childhood successfully. Long term, you see post-traumatic stress disorder in children who witness domestic violence. The emotional toll stays with them and will often repeat itself in their relationships. Children are particularly vulnerable and unable to help themselves. This is why the work our social workers do is so important.

“So many of the ills affecting society are caused by domestic violence. The scope of the problem is underestimated and underappreciated.” – George

In your experience as a pediatrician, have you seen first-hand how domestic violence impacts children?

Even though I saw families who were often very well-off, I nevertheless saw families suffering from domestic violence and its impact. I remember one family in particular, which I referred to Sanctuary. It was a quite wealthy family and I was worried about the father using his money to kidnap the children and take them out of the country on a private jet. I had a few other cases of elementary-age children who were victims of domestic violence. It didn’t matter that the family had money. The core issues are exactly the same across the board – it’s about power and control.

You and your wife just made a six-figure gift to fund our emergency food program which is so amazing! Why this program and why now?

Shelly and I wanted to do something that would help in a direct and immediate way. So many problems our clients face are complex and can’t be fixed easily, but food insecurity in a family is something that can be fixed quickly. You can literally solve that family’s problem by directing money to it. From a child’s point of view, if you are hungry, you can’t focus on anything you should be focusing on as a child, including going to school. There are few other things that can cause such immediate and persistent distress throughout life as the effects of malnutrition, which are very damaging to the brain. And for parents to watch their children go hungry is incredibly demoralizing.

What do you wish people knew about gender-based violence and Sanctuary’s mission?

I have two messages. First, I don’t think most people realize how ubiquitous and common domestic violence is. So many of the ills affecting society are caused by domestic violence. The scope of the problem is underestimated and underappreciated. Second, I would say that if you have any extra money, there is nothing you can do that will give you more satisfaction than giving it away. Adding another “this or that” or getting something that is bigger or better doesn’t really give you long-term satisfaction. Helping someone else – that’s what makes people happier. And you don’t have to be a billionaire. Just give something away. That is what’s important.

Join George and Shelly in standing with our clients. Your gift supports Sanctuary’s life-saving work with survivors of gender violence.

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Women & Girls in the U.S. Are At Risk of Female Genital Mutilation

FGM is happening in our own backyard, threatening the health and lives of more than half a million Americans.

Every year, on February 6, Sanctuary joins thousands of advocates across the world to observe the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)—A form of gender-based violence endured by more than 200 million women and girls worldwide that involves the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

What is FGM?

Female genital mutilation is internationally recognized as a violation of human rights. It is a universal practice, not prescribed by any religious teachings, typically performed on girls from infancy through puberty. Victims of FGM often suffer from severe, long-lasting physical and psychological harm, and many have lost their lives to this form of violence.

Immediate complications and health risks associated with this practice can include severe pain, excessive bleeding, swelling of genital tissue, fever, infection, urinary problems, injury to surrounding genital tissue, shock, and death. Long-term consequences can include urinary, vaginal, and menstrual issues, painful genital scarring and keloids, decreased sexual pleasure, reduced sexual functioning, and increased risk of complications during childbirth, as well as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), among other psychological problems.

Prevalence of FGM in the United States

Due to the secretive nature of FGM and the lack of resources allocated to the research of this practice, it is impossible to say for sure how many girls in the U.S. are at risk of female genital mutilation. Nonetheless, we know from experience that FGM is taking place in our own backyard, at alarming rates.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), more than 513,000 women and girls in the U.S. have experienced or are currently at risk of undergoing this practice. This is more than three times higher than an earlier estimate based on 1990 data. Based on survivors’ testimony and research conducted by Sanctuary and other anti-FGM advocates, we believe that the incidence of FGM for women and girls in the United States may be even higher. Our data shows that FGM is being practiced in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Colorado, Washington, California, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Kentucky, Kansas, and Washington, D.C. It also suggests an even greater number of girls from the U.S. are taken abroad to be subjected to this violence, a practice known as “vacation cutting.” Today, however, there is no federal prohibition on this rampant violation of women’s rights in the United States.

FGM Legislation in the United States

The U.S. stands with Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and thirteen other countries in Western Europe in banning female genital mutilation. The practice was first banned by Congress in 1996 with the adoption of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act (18 U.S.C. § 116). Because this federal ban fell short in addressing the issue of vacation cutting, Sanctuary and fellow advocates fought to protect American girls abroad and succeeded. In 2013, the act was amended to outlaw the transport of women and girls out of the U.S. for the purpose of FGM.

The first blow to the federal FGM prohibition came in 2018, when the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan returned a decision in the matter United States v. Nagarwala. In November of that year, Judge Friedman dropped most of the charges against the defendants, two doctors and four parents accused of mutilating the genitals of nine young girls. Five of the nine girls had been transported across state lines from Minnesota and Illinois (where state FGM prohibitions existed) to Michigan (where no state-level prohibition existed at the time). Prosecutors also estimated that Dr. Nagarwala and her accomplices may have cut as many as 100 girls.  Judge Friedman, however, declared in his ruling that the 1996 federal ban was unconstitutional:

“FGM is a ‘local criminal activity’ which, in keeping with longstanding tradition and our federal system of government, is for the states to regulate, not Congress.” – Judge Bernard Friedman

The District Court’s decision was driven in part by the misguided belief that FGM cannot be a commercial activity and that the “market” for FGM was limited to the parents of the nine girls in this case. Fortunately, the STOP FGM Act of 2020, introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and signed by President Trump in January 2021, closed this loophole by amending the FGM statute to clarify the commercial nature of the practice. The new law also increased criminal penalties for performing FGM and expanded the scope of punishable offenses.


Like other forms of gender-based violence, female genital mutilation is pervasive and cannot be eradicated based solely on state criminal laws. In addition to enacting new laws to deter U.S. families from practicing female genital mutilation, both at home and abroad, we must fight the misconceptions fueled by the profound lack of public awareness and research on the topic of FGM. Survivors from varying backgrounds—Christian, Muslim, American, West African, Indian, Pakistani, Egyptian—have courageously come forward to share their stories and advocate against the practice.  It is time we listen to them.

Special thanks to our partners at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP for supporting our research and anti-FGM advocacy efforts. 

Donate today and declare zero tolerance for FGM so that girls in 2022 and beyond can live free from violence.