Survivor Leadership Institute Graduation: Celebrating leadership and each other

Sanctuary Client Renata writes about her experience as a member of the Survivor Leadership Institute’s Graduating Class of 2019.

Renata is a Survivor Leadership Institute graduate from the Class of 2019.  Our Survivor Leaders are former clients of Sanctuary, who go through a 12-week training and certification course to prepare them to make system-wide change through advocacy, training, program development, and working directly with other survivors.  Our graduates have completed this 12-week Survivor Leadership Institute, which consists of training in public speaking, vicarious trauma, self-care, media re-exploitation, advocacy, boundary setting, and many other skills.  

The Survivor Leadership Institute has a rigorous application and interview process, as the content of the training program is very challenging and can be triggering.  Each of the graduates has participated in counseling in the past, and to graduate this intensive program, they have leaned on their skills, their strength, their robust support systems and one another in our Survivor Leadership community. They have done the work to make it this far, and we are honored to have them become Sanctuary Survivor Leaders.

We often think of graduation as a milestone marking an entrance to a higher standing and the receipt of a diploma. To graduate also means to move from one stage of experience and prestige to a higher one, such as leadership. On May 13, 2019, the new cohort of survivor leaders at Sanctuary for Families did just that. I’m proud to say I am a part of this tribe, a part of the new cohort and a part of the story that extends before my time and to individuals who remain hidden and still in trouble.

As each of us stood at the podium to speak our truth, we celebrated life. Life after pain. Life after heartbreak. Life after trauma. We joined a brave tribe of survivor leaders fighting for justice, lifting shame, eradicating stigma, and promoting healing—all of whom are doing so with courage and strength that this work requires. Most of us didn’t choose our experiences. We didn’t choose our hurt. We didn’t choose disappointment and struggle. Now we certainly don’t choose what happened in our lives to define us. We choose to stand up, speak up, break the cycle, fight the system, educate the world, and be there for each other along the way. Today we choose to do something. Standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, today we are ready to support others on our shoulders. Our past drives us. Our future excites us. Our present allows us to show up—for ourselves, each other, and hopefully, many others.

For me, and I suppose for many others, healing is a process with ups and downs. It involves empathy and forgiveness—especially for myself. Healing also involves love for myself and others. My fellow survivor leaders and I are here today because the deeply broken people who tried to break us didn’t succeed. Unfortunately for many others, this is not the case. I hope that one day we will focus on the troubled situations that give rise to people who think it’s their right to take the lives of others, in one way or another, but we still have a long way to go. It’s an honor and privilege to stand among individuals paving the way for the justice that many of us never received and as a reminder that this can happen to anyone, and if it’s happening to you, you are not alone. We need to close the chapter on the narrative of broken, fragile, and gullible victims. No one standing at the podium at the Survivor Leadership Institute Graduation embodies any of these qualities. Instead, it was a night celebrating courage, determination, strength, vulnerability, resilience, and hope, along with intelligence, beauty, inspiration, and humor.

I recognize that I get to tell my story because I am lucky, and I survived. But becoming a leader isn’t luck—for me, it’s about being grateful for my life with all its twists and turns, the support of my fellow leaders, and Sanctuary for Families. This leadership opportunity is so much bigger than my story. The truth is that to get where I am today, I had to experience my yesterday. I stand with my humanity intact, and I no longer bear the weight of the lack of it in others.

Graduation night was a testament to the fact that our tribe is getting bigger. Our collective voice is getting louder. As Oprah says, our voices are our power. By breaking our silence and sharing our stories, we are taking our power back. Power we didn’t give away. Power that was taken from us by people we loved and trusted. This is an important distinction I hope others come to accept and recognize as we move away from painting inaccurate caricatures of victims and begin to focus on the individuals, ideologies and systems perpetuating gender-based (and related forms of) violence.

Voices from The Border

Sanctuary attorney Natali Soto writes about our legal team’s experience assisting asylum-seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, as the U.S. implemented new deterrence protocols.

Natali Soto is an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow and an attorney in Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project

In light of the current humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, my fellow Sanctuary immigration attorneys and I spent the first week of February working with asylum-seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. That same week, the U.S. rolled out its “Migrant Protection Protocol,” a policy which requires most asylum seekers who have passed their credible fear interviews to remain in Mexico, instead of the U.S., while they wait for a U.S. Immigration Judge to hear their asylum case.

Throughout our time in Tijuana, we met beautiful souls from all over the world – including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti, Ghana, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Tajikistan, Chechnya, and Russia – who had fled gender violence and other forms of persecution and violence in their home countries. These migrants had traveled thousands of miles by plane, bus, boat, and by foot, driven by hopes of finding asylum in the U.S.  They endured unimaginable hardships throughout their dangerous journeys only to find out, upon their arrival at the U.S.- Mexico border, that they must “wait in line” for weeks, even months, before being allowed to present their asylum claim to a U.S. Immigration Officer.

Listen to our attorneys describe the circumstances that have forced survivors to flee their home countries and seek refuge in the U.S.

The Current State of the Asylum-Seeking Process

This line-keeping system is a direct outcome of the Trump Administration’s “metering” policy, implemented in November 2018, which limits the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the US each day. The system, however, is anything but official. Rather than being run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or any other U.S. or Mexican government agency, the line is managed by migrants who have assumed a leadership role among their peers. Newly-arrived asylum seekers must provide their names and nationalities to these migrant leaders in order to be assigned a number that corresponds to their place in line, supposedly based on the order in which they arrive.

Every day, CBP settles on a seemingly-indiscriminate number of people to allow into the U.S. and notifies Mexican officials who, in turn, pass this information to migrant leaders. The leaders then call out certain migrants’ numbers to indicate that those individuals are now allowed to cross into the U.S. to kickstart the asylum-claim process. Because the U.S. is inconsistent in the number of asylum seekers they’ll accept on any given day, these migrants must show up every morning, with their children and all of their belongings. If they are not present when their number is called, they will have to either plead to keep their spot in line or sign-up for a new number and wait several more weeks.

Migrants whose numbers have been called are lined up, put into vans, driven across the border, and kept in detention centers until their credible fear interviews, where a CBP officer will assess their fear of return to their home country. Unfortunately, even passage of these credible fear interviews does not guarantee temporary safety in the U.S. – under the Migrant Protection Protocol, asylum seekers must meet an even higher “reasonable” fear standard by demonstrating they fear persecution both in their home countries and in Mexico. Unfortunately, many vulnerable individuals who “have not had time to gather evidence that would show their credibility,” or whose claims include trauma-related inconsistencies or omissions, will fail to meet this higher standard and be sent back Mexico to await the adjudication of their asylum case.

Watch Lori Adams, Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project, describe the situation at the U.S.-Mexico on the third day of implementation of the “Migrant Protection Protocol.” 

Our Work at the Border

Part of our duties as volunteer attorneys in Tijuana included delivering “Know Your Rights” presentations and meeting with migrants individually to provide them with legal counsel on their respective asylum cases. We also held last-minute credible fear interview prep sessions for migrants whose numbers had been called that morning. Although some migrants had anticipated the strenuous conditions they were about to face upon entering the U.S., others had reasonably assumed the worst of the asylum process was over. Had we not told them, the latter group would not have known that upon entering the U.S., they would be stripped of their extra layers of clothing and forced to await their credible fear interview in freezing holding cells for days at a time.

Listen to Sanctuary attorneys describe how they assisted migrants as they prepared to cross the border to deliver their credible-fear interviews — the first step for claiming asylum in the United States.

While conducting these last-minute interview prep sessions with migrants about to cross the border, my colleagues and I acted as “human shields” to provide privacy for those who needed to change into their warmest base layer. We also provided migrants with Sharpie markers so that they could write their loved ones’ phone numbers on their forearms, in the likely case that ICE would take away their possessions. We also encouraged parents to write their own names and dates of birth on the backs of their children’s shoulders in preparation for the tragic yet foreseeable case of ICE separating families upon crossing. Two young kids with whom I worked thought of these as “cool new tattoos” and showed them off to fellow migrants while their mother held back her tears fearing that these marks would not be enough to keep her children by her side.

Having to explain to families that they would most likely be separated at some point during the asylum claim process and that they would most likely be returned to Mexico while they await adjudication, was soul-crushing. When migrants learned about the new policies central to the current U.S. Immigration System, their hopefulness and excitement would immediately turn into anguish and disappointment, yet for many of them turning back was not an option. When you are fleeing for your life, not even a cruel system that is purposefully set in place to deter you from seeking asylum will dissuade you from pleading for safety.

Listen to our attorneys describe the anguish experienced by migrant families facing separation at the border.

My colleagues and I stayed in San Diego and crossed the border by foot twice a day since the people we were working with were in Tijuana. Throughout the week, I could not avoid thinking of the irony and privilege that underlined our back-and-forth crossings, during which we did as little as wave our U.S. passports to border officials. We were able to easily cross this arbitrary line only because we were born on the “right” side of it, while those who were born elsewhere and are fleeing for their lives were kept waiting for weeks for an opportunity to plead asylum in our country.

We hope that our experiences at the border can further shed light on what has become an undeniable reality – that our current immigration protocols are inhumane and deprive thousands of migrants of their basic human rights. These asylum seekers are fleeing domestic violence, gang violence, and government torture, among other types of unbearable persecution.  Sending them back to Mexico, even after they have passed their credible fear interviews, is a violation of due process. It also puts them at greater risk of harm, for many of them are still being followed by their persecutors and perpetrators.

As a nation founded under the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must embrace those who are most vulnerable, not turn our backs on them.

Please consider donating to Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project to support our work with immigrant survivors of gender violence.

Pa’ lante, mi gente.

Orthodox Jewish women find success in Sanctuary’s Economic Empowerment Program

Naomi R. was one of four elected speakers at the January 2018 EEP graduation and one of the first Jewish Orthodox women to graduate from the program. Read her graduation speech.

This past January, Sanctuary for Families’ Economic Empower Program (EEP) held its semi-annual graduation ceremony to celebrate the achievements of fifty-one strong and inspiring women, all survivors of domestic violence. With friends, family and Sanctuary staff in attendance, the women accepted their diplomas thereby marking the start of a new stage in both their personal and professional lives. To honor the occasion the class elected fellow graduates to speak on their behalf. Naomi R. was one of the four women who spoke that evening. She was both one of the youngest women and one of the first at-risk Orthodox teens to graduate from EEP.

Read her graduation speech and learn more about Sanctuary’s work with Orthodox Jewish women below.

My name is Naomi and I am proud to have the opportunity to speak to you this evening.

To my dear teachers, classmates, directors and family that came today and to all involved in caring for us and making sure we are all okay on a day-to-day-basis-I would like to start off by saying thank you. Thank you, for investing your time and effort into every single one of us that will all be okay, cheering us on by laughing, and crying and for validating us when times were tough.

To my fellow classmates who have encouraged me whether it was a hug a nice word or gesture, you are all responsible for helping to restore my faith in myself. To Rocky, you have been a big part of my support throughout this program.  When I felt discouraged you were there to pick me up. Let us not forget about our wonderful volunteers who have practiced interviewing with us, tutored us- and to all the firms who have given us the opportunity to set foot inside the corporate world of business, you too have helped me gain the confidence to stand up here and tell you my story and my journey of growth and my belief in myself as a person.

From the very first day, I was honestly skeptical about the whole program and how it worked. As I looked around and saw the many different faces I began to realize how, no matter the background, color, or race- that I was not alone in this struggle. Looking back now, I recall Sarah saying to us at orientation, that some of you will graduate and the person sitting next to you-may not. This made me feel uneasy, yet a part of me began to feel comfortable with the fact that I and no one else would be responsible for getting through this program.

I also realized that some of my fellow participants were mothers – and that I was one of the younger participants in the program. As the program went on I found myself stepping out of my comfort zone and came to discover how strong, capable, and motivated I really am. This led me to write a letter to myself which included ways to cope under stress, bad days, and negative feedback. I made sure to include a reminder to myself that a bad day-doesn’t mean a bad life. Alas, day in and day out of interactions with my teachers who really loved and believed in every single one of us no matter where we came from-all that love would change the world I see and experience.

Not only was it the Economic Empowerment Program staff, it was also my fellow classmates. If they believed in me, then I must believe in myself and walk away from my anxiety because I am not my anxiety! Before I knew it, I was being gentle with myself and soon enough I began to accept myself. After a while I was actually having fun laughing with my teachers and I even learned some Spanish!

Some of the things I got from this program are that, although I graduated from high school, my knowledge of computers was limited, so Microsoft Word and Power Point meant a lot to me. I learned how easy it is to dress and act professionally and I got a taste of what it’s like to be in the corporate world thanks to Goldman Sachs and Linklaters.

Now I am able to think on my feet, type at a speed of 50 words per minute, and voice my opinions without being judged for it. I have learned to be patient with myself. Another lesson I’ve learned is that there are kind hearted people. I think that a specific example was, my intake interview with EEP, where I met this selfless man named Angelo (who was so enthusiastic about the use of coffee in America). He restored my faith by telling me that just because I’ve quit a number of jobs or switched schools, it doesn’t mean I’m a quitter like I always thought I was.

To conclude – in all that I have gained and learned, what I will take with me is not to take things too seriously, to enjoy every opportunity that comes my way in terms of education and self-growth, and that saying “I got this” really helps (thank you Miss Lee, the computer teacher). So I’m going to end by saying that I’m so grateful for this incredible opportunity and the friends I have made and the personal growth I’ve achieved.

The Orthodox Jewish Domestic Violence Initiative

Sanctuary launched The Orthodox Jewish Domestic Violence Initiative in 2015 in response to an increasing number of calls for help we had been receiving from Orthodox Jewish women. Desperately seeking help with civil and religious divorces from abusive spouses, these women had virtually nowhere to turn for free, high-quality legal services. As New York City’s largest non-profit agency dedicated to providing services and outreach to abuse victims and their children, Sanctuary recognized the need in these often insular communities, and hired a family law attorney and a case manager, both from the Orthodox community themselves, to lead our work.

Since 2015, The Orthodox Jewish Domestic Violence Initiative has served over 100 women and teenage girls. Services include legal representation in complex divorce, child custody, child and spousal support, and safe visitation cases, as well as representation in the Beit Din religious courts. In addition to legal representation, staff assist with several of the urgent non-legal needs seen among these women—many of them in dire situations with multiple dependent children and tenuous housing situations, serious food security concerns, and extensive abuse-related trauma.

Over the last year and a half, Sanctuary has also begun to serve at-risk teenage girls who have grown up in ultra-Orthodox homes but who have strayed from the traditional paths dictated by their families. Shunned by their families and communities, they are at grave risk of drug and alcohol abuse, and deeply vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Thanks to Sanctuary’s holistic service model and network of partners in New York City, staff have been able to provide critical support to these young women as they begin to rebuild their lives. Naomi R. was one of these young women. She and seven others were part of the January 2018 Economic Empowerment Program graduating class. Today, Naomi and her fellow graduates are on their way to achieving both personal and professional success. As we continue to test and expand our services to the Jewish Orthodox community, we look forward to seeing what she and others achieve with the skills they’ve developed while at Sanctuary.




Sanctuary launches new podcast series with BRIC

Pieter Keushkerian is a communications intern at Sanctuary and a student at NYU’s Gallatin School

Pieter Keushkerian is a communications intern at Sanctuary and a student at NYU’s Gallatin School for Individualized Study, where he is majoring in Social and Political Theory relating to Human Rights.

Partnership with BRIC

In August 2016, Sanctuary partnered with BRIC, a community media arts organization based in Brooklyn, to develop a public service announcement. Working with Sanctuary staff members, Andrea Yeriazarian, Program Director of Children and Family Services at the Manhattan Family Justice Center (FJC) and Deborah Lee, Senior Staff Attorney with Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project at the Brooklyn (FJC), members of Sanctuary’s teen girls group shared how domestic violence had impacted their lives and how Sanctuary’s services enabled them to heal and thrive. By sharing their stories, they hoped to raise awareness and encourage other teens to reach out for help.

Thrilled by the success of the first PSA, Sanctuary teamed up with BRIC again this past summer to utilize the organization’s Media Share Grant, an in-kind grant aimed at helping Brooklyn-based and Brooklyn-affiliated nonprofits tell their unique story. Deborah and Andrea received free training and became certified in podcast production with the help of their BRIC mentor, Keisha. Both Andrea and Deborah learned numerous techniques and helpful tricks of the trade from the recording to the editing stages. All of their work culminated in Conversations, Sanctuary’s new client driven podcast.

The first of episode can be heard here.

Introducing Conversations

The first episode of Conversations focuses on the extent to which cultural norms impact individual behavior in abusive relationships. It begins with the story of Keziah, a seventeen-year-old survivor of domestic violence and one of the teenagers featured in the PSA. Keziah and her family are long-standing clients of Sanctuary and have received immigration assistance, counseling services, and economic empowerment support over the years. Keziah approached both Andrea and Deborah with the desire to interview other clients and survivors in order to get a better understanding of the origins and consequences of domestic violence.

“Keziah directed us in terms of structuring the podcast, and we were so happy to have been able to help her have this podcast conversation.”

For Sanctuary’s inaugural episode, Keziah chose to host a panel of survivors which included Maria, John and Shantae, all of whom had been affected by domestic violence and gender abuse in one way or another and were eager to share their personal narratives. Their shared perspectives and openness create a warm space in which healing and understanding are encouraged.

Future Goals

The ultimate goal of our new podcast series is to give survivors, who often avoid sharing their stories for fear of revealing their identity, a way to speak out. In Keziah’s words:

“Doing this podcast helped me to stop hiding behind my story. It helped me to realize that I was using my story to define me, and that I really don’t know who I am. It forced me to realize that I need to find myself and use my story to help others instead of hiding.”

Both Andrea and Deborah hope that this new series inspires others who have been impacted by domestic violence to share their stories on this new and exciting platform.