My Voice Is Powerful and So Is Yours

Survivor Leader Alida Tchicamboud discusses her advocacy work and the importance of shelter and affordable housing for survivors of domestic violence.

Alida is a domestic violence advocate, Survivor Leader at Sanctuary for Families, and founder of Healing Hands International, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting victims of Domestic Violence.

Last week, I testified to the New York City Council about my experience in a domestic violence shelter and the challenges other survivors face in the shelter system when looking for affordable housing.

I am so excited to have been quoted in this article about a city council hearing I testified at alongside Helen Rosenthal, a Council Member and chair of the Committee on Women and Gender Equity:

“Some of the issues raised by the Council members were echoed by survivors who testified as well. Alida Tchicamboud, a survivor leader at Sanctuary for Families, a domestic violence survivor service provider, emphasized how the city’s shelter system saved her life. But there were hurdles along the way, she explained. ‘It seems like the system works against survivors, especially for single women with dependent minor children, by forcing them to go back into the cycle of lifetime public assistance,’ she said.”

I am also appreciative of Council member Brad Lander who tweeted my intervention and qualified it as “Smart & courageous”

By sharing my experience, thoughts and opinions, I encouraged HRA to take action where needed. I believe that my suggestions carry a lot of weight and I hope that it will influence policy decisions, because it is without a doubt that survivors of domestic violence need:

  1. At least one year stay in transitional shelters to build themselves first
  2. Imperatively an increase of the City vouchers every year to match the rent stabilization guidelines
  3. Building more affordable permanent housing units with survivors of domestic violence as the top priorities to occur those facilities
  4. Trauma-focus approaches while exiting shelters…

There are many ways to get involved in the effort to support survivors of domestic violence.

IN THE WORKPLACE

Domestic violence is not a “personal” issue, because it has no boundaries, it does not stay home. Approximately 60% of adults in the U.S. work, so chances are that in a given workplace, many employees are victims, perpetrators, or have a friend or family member who is a victim. Employers have to prepared to deal with domestic violence. Below are some ideas that can be explored in the workplace:

  • Educate yourself on the subject
  • Review the Employee and Family Assistance Plan (EFAP) services if you have them, to ensure that they identify services related to exposure to trauma and offer options and resources available to victims
  • Train managers and supervisors on how to recognize and respond to signs of domestic violence / how to address related issues such as privacy and confidentiality
  • Leaders should help and not judge and show concern for employees well-being
  • Build awareness because domestic violence is not always “visible”
  • Managers, don’t discriminate allow victims to take the time off to appear in court, apply for a protection order or seek medical attention…

I advocate to help survivors get the help they need to build a new future. Do you advocate?

To Young Survivors of Domestic Violence, Summer Camp Brings Hope

This summer, Sanctuary will be leading the second Camp HOPE America: New York. Learn how this trauma-informed camp is helping young victims of domestic violence heal and find hope again.

Annika is a Development Intern at Sanctuary and a high school rising senior at Friends Seminary in New York City. She is passionate about politics and criminal justice and hopes to study government in college.

Summer camp is a place where children can disconnect from technology, be active, grow independent, develop their social skills, connect with nature, and make life long memories and friends. It offers young people an escape from their routines at home, and an outlet to have fun and express themselves freely. For some children, summer camp is the only place where they can truly be kids.

Children who are impacted by domestic violence often have no choice but to grow up quickly, missing essential childhood milestones that inform their development and personal growth. Domestic violence affects roughly 1 in 4 women in the United States; as a result, approximately 15.5 million children in the United States live in families where domestic violence has been perpetrated. Some children and adolescents have no choice but to take on parental roles in the household, act as guardians to younger siblings and take care of their abused parent. Others may turn to risky behavior, including drug use and gang affiliation, to cope with their stressful home environments. Either way, domestic violence robs kids and teens of their childhoods, leading to lifelong trauma and behavioral problems that often promote the continuation of the cycle of violence. Sleepaway camps offer young survivors of domestic violence the chance to be kids, removed from the potential stresses and dangers of their families’ living circumstances.

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In 2018, Sanctuary partnered with Camp HOPE America to run the first session of Camp HOPE New York, a one week sleep away camp that affords children affected by domestic violence the opportunity to access crucial childhood experiences that they may have missed out on as a result of abuse. With its specialized trauma-informed approach and dedicated staff, Camp HOPE is designed to specifically meet the needs of each child who attends. At Camp HOPE, campers enjoy classic outdoor activities that help to build trust and confidence in themselves and their peers. Each session of Sanctuary’s Camp HOPE has approximately 36 campers and 14 counselors, yielding an impressive >3 to 1 camper to counselor ratio which ensures that every camper gets the personalized attention they may need. Camp HOPE America’s website states, “Hope reflects an individual’s capacity to develop pathways and dedicate agency toward desirable goals.” Using the ‘Children’s HOPE Scale’, Camp HOPE America has seen increased growth in its campers’ capacities for hope over the course of several summers.

Andrea Yeriazarian, Sanctuary’s Program Director for Children and Family Services, works closely with the staff at Camp HOPE to ensure that it is a positive experience for campers and counselors alike. When I spoke to Andrea about her experience at Camp HOPE New York last year, she described some of the activities that help campers get the most out of their time there: “Each day, our campers read a story about someone who went through a difficult childhood — which could have included violence, or war, or any number of things — and who were able to find support outside of their family and become a very successful adult. We would then gather around a campfire to discuss these stories and talk about how, despite what happened in the past or what we’re going through now, there is always be hope for a better future. The definition of HOPE that we use is ‘believing in yourself, believing in your dreams, and believing in others’, so those stories are meant to teach the campers that if you believe in yourself and reach out for support from others, that you can achieve your dreams”.

When I asked Andrea how counselors support campers who struggle with taking risks, she described a Camp HOPE motto, ‘challenge by choice’. She explained, “…for some kids who are afraid of water, their challenge by choice might just be putting on a bathing suit and standing on the shore.” Kids are not pressured into doing anything that makes them uncomfortable; rather, they are encouraged to set goals, to challenge themselves, and to overcome their fears.

As we were wrapping up our conversation, Andrea shared a success story from Sanctuary’s first session of Camp HOPE New York:

“A camper told us that trying out new things at Camp– things she had been worried about but that she did really well at – gave her the courage to try out for a school sports team for the first time. She now felt confident and ready to take on new challenges, because she knew she could do it.”

Childhood is a precious time that should be full of fun and excitement, not violence and trauma. All campers who attended Sanctuary’s Camp HOPE last summer had overwhelmingly positive experiences and those who are eligible look forward to returning this summer.  

If you would like to support Sanctuary for Families’ second Camp HOPE and our youngest clients, please click here.

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. The training course includes public speaking, vicarious trauma, self-care, media re-exploitation, advocacy, and boundary setting.  

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 during the program they rely 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.