Immigrant women find help against abusers


“Nagma” was 18 years old when she was swept off her feet by a man while attending college in her native Zambia.

She graduated two years later with a degree in journalism and a baby daughter. Nagma moved in with the baby’s father soon after the birth. It seemed like happily-ever-after to her.

Editor’s note: Out of concerns for their safety, the subjects of this article requested we not use their real names.

But it turned out not to be the fairy tale ending she hoped for. Twenty years later, Nagma, 38, is a resident at Home Free, a shelter for abused women and children located in Plymouth.

Love and happiness turned into the nightmare of domestic abuse. It began in Zambia. It followed her when she relocated to the United States.

Reporter’s Commentary

As a young women, I have seen the power and control abusers can have over immigrant women, frequently confiscating passports or other critical ID documents to keep them from leaving or seeking help.

My mom’s friend is one example. The woman who held her papers would make her work all the time. She came to my mom and asked if she would help. She stayed with us for two weeks. One day, my mom went with the woman to the lady’s apartment and got her papers. The woman went to live with her father in Atlanta, Georgia.

Nagma still doesn’t know what she going to do. Let’s hope that when people read this story they gain strength to stand up for themselves. I know Nagma wants some good to come from me telling her story.

Nagma is one of 30 women and children at Home Free. The 28-year old shelter program includes a 24-hour crisis line, as well as community advocacy on the issue of domestic violence. The shelter also offers short-term emergency housing with the average stay around two weeks to 17 days. Some women stay up to 6 weeks. There are, according to Home Free officials, 11 such shelters in the Twin Cities metro area.

Kari Hitchcock, a volunteer coordinator at Home Free, believes there aren’t enough shelters to address the needs and issues for immigrant women like Nagma.

Many of these women, Hitchcock notes, feel that it is okay to be abused by the men in their lives because it is acceptable in their home country.

Nagma is an intelligent woman who speaks English, Nyanja, Bema and Tonga. She has ready-made answers to the questions most people have about abusive relationships: Why did you put up with it? Why didn’t you leave?

“How on earth did she end up in an abusive relationship?” Nagma herself asks aloud during the recent interview. “I will tell you how. It all started emotionally.”

Nagma, like many battered spouses, began to believe it was her fault.

“I feel I deserve [to be abused],’‘ she explained. “I was caught in a cycle. He used to kick me in both my legs and arms. He would also punch me in my eyes.”

Nagma recalled one of the worst beatings, one that her oldest child, “Towela,” now 20, did not know about.

At the time, Nagma was pregnant with her third child. “He was trying to kill my little boy,” she said.

A mother of three, Nagma said the man punched and kicked her so severely that she suffered two miscarriages. Nagma iced the bruises with frozen vegetables and put on dark, heavy make-up to hide them. Sensing a beating coming, she would ask her daughter to leave the room.

“I don’t say a word from 1993 to 2005,’‘ Nagma said, who feared she would lose her children. “I thought I lost my mind.”

Towela, like most children caught in the middle of domestic violence, suffered in silence while bottling up rage as well as conflicted affection for her father.

“I remember one day my father picked me up for school. I was worried that something was wrong,’‘ Towela said. “He kept saying ‘I’m not a bad person.’ I told him, `Dad, you aren’t a bad person.’

“When he drank,” Towela added, “He would beat Nagma.”

Nagma finally summoned the courage to leave her abuser. She moved in with a sister while the couple was living in Zambia. She traveled to the United States three years ago. Facing mounting bills, she relented and asked her children’s father to join her.

She hoped a change of scenery would help him. But Nagma said he went back to his old ways. She left him, but he refused to allow her to take the children. So she slept outside in her car in front of the family home in Minneapolis.

Nagma called a homeless shelter, Inner Faith Outreach. Staffers there referred her to Home Free. Although she reached out for help, she was still in denial.

“The woman I spoke to told me I was abused,’’ Nagma said. “I said I was not abused, but she said I was.”

In her native Zambia, Nagma was reluctant to even press charges against her common-law husband because she says the man has powerful friends. Although she understands she could do so here, Nagma believes the man still wields too much power over her. So she remains at the shelter, along with her two youngest children while she seeks more permanent housing.