About a year ago, she decided to leave her abusive husband. With her barely 1-month-old daughter by her side, the woman, who is in her early 30s, began taking the steps to start a new life.
After she moved out of her home, she began learning English, and got a job as a restaurant cook. She couldn’t have made the strides that she has after leaving home without Sahara of South Florida, a nonprofit that guides women, particularly South Asian women, in navigating life beyond domestic violence.
“Without them, maybe I would be on the road with my daughter,” said the woman, who didn’t want to be named due to safety concerns. “They helped me a lot.”
Sahara is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a gala Saturday night. Over the past decade, the organization has aided about 700 women and children with its services, which include advocacy and support, financial assistance and referrals to transitional housing.
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“[Sahara] empowers them to fight for their rights and to get back on their feet,” said Mohammad S. Shakir, one of the founders of Sahara and current board member. “We help them get into the workforce and get an education. It basically empowers them to live on their own.”
Shakir and the other founding members first learned of the issue when, as leaders in Miami’s South Asian community, they began fielding phone calls from women in abusive relationships.
“There was a need for this there in the community,” said Shashi Jagadish, one of the founding members who sits on the board today. “People would bring affected women and children to our homes.”
Today Sahara aids women through a partnership with the NUR Center, a transitional home for women and children.
Sahara refers women to attorneys, who can help them with filing for divorce and trying to resolve any immigration issues. Some of the organization’s volunteers are attorneys and try to provide pro bono legal aid. However, when the volunteers cannot provide the help the women need, they will look for low-cost or pro bono legal services to aid the women.
“Immigration is a big factor, and they sometimes depend on their spouse for their citizenship,” said Jagadish.
She said abusers will often threaten their victims with deportation or hide legal documents from them. “There are a lot of mind games in abusive relationships,” she said.
Jagadish said they recommend that the women make copies of all documents and keep them in a safe place.
To break down the language barriers, Sahara has volunteers who speak several languages, including Arabic; Urdu, the official language of Pakistan; and Hindi, spoken primarily in India. The volunteers also help women gain access to clothing and food that fit their religious and cultural needs.
Sahara also works with the women in breaking down taboos against divorce, which often is not an accepted practice in the South Asian community.
“There is a taboo against divorce,” said Jagadish. “We wanted to send a message that there is no reason to suffer.”
Shakir points out that Sahara has assisted women in need from around the world.
“If they are in need, we take them in,” he said.
Sahara leaders hope to use Saturday’s event, which serves as the organization’s annual fundraiser, to continue to grow their services.
“I believe that as human beings we need to make a difference for the better,” said Manju Kalidindi, president of Sahara. “Everyone who is involved with Sahara — this is their passion.”
Those who wish to donate to the nonprofit Sahara can send a check payable to Sahara of South Florida, 10290 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores, FL 33138. Tickets for Saturday’s gala are no longer available.