Gender-Based Violence Survivor Finds Voice as an Advocate

Daily Point of Light # 7777 Mar 27, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Aicha Abdoulaye. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Content Warning: Points of Light is proud to share the following uplifting and inspiring story. However, we acknowledge that a small portion mentions gender-based violence and may be difficult for some readers. We encourage you to please care for your own wellbeing above all.

Aicha Abdoulaye had just started high school when she was pulled out of her education and forced into marrying an older man who already had three other wives. In her home country of Niger, a French-speaking country in West Africa, this type of tradition prevailed. At 16, she fled to the United States.

Aicha speaks nine languages including some dialects, but none were English. Unbeknownst to Aicha’s aunt in Togo, the woman who sold everything to give her niece a chance at a better life, the person who offered to help set Aicha up in her adopted country, was involved in trafficking and other illegal businesses. Once again, Aicha found herself trapped in a forced marriage, this time in Texas. All she wanted to do was return to school and lead the life she’d imagined.

“I was fleeing forced marriage already. I was so disgusted and really suffered there for six months,” she recollects.

She was trapped until the passing of her sister offered a reason to return to Africa. This time, she went to her aunt’s home in Togo. When her then-husband found and attempted to reclaim her by citing that he had paid her bride price, Aicha once again fled to America with hopes of getting back to school.

“I didn’t know that you couldn’t just come to United States and go to school, because you’re an alien. You don’t have social security card,” she acknowledges.

Even after escaping the hands of her abusers and those who mistreated her, Aicha ran into roadblocks due to her immigration status and limited English skills. She eventually made her way to Maryland where she got by staying on couches and, at one point, in shelters. Despite everything, she was determined to follow through with her educational goals.

“I was able to find colleges that gave English classes in the evening. So, I would go to that evening class and learn,” she explains. “Or there would be a group of people in social services giving training for English. I would go to that place.”

Then, after many challenging years in the U.S., Aicha was put in contact with the Tahirih Justice Center. The Tahirih Justice center is a national nonprofit based in five cities across the country that provides free interdisciplinary legal and social services—housing assistance, physical and mental health services, access to food, and more to immigrant survivors of gender-based violence, enabling them to live safely and with dignity.

“Our goal is to assist them on their path, whatever that might look like, in order to get to the life that they envision for themselves,” says Archi Pyati, CEO and longtime immigration attorney and international human rights advocate. “Most public benefits and other kinds of safety nets that are available to survivors in the United States are not available to immigrant survivors, especially not undocumented immigrant survivors. What we do is assist those individuals in navigating the system to understand what they actually have a right to under the law and helping them to apply for those things.”

In 2023, they directly served about 3,000 individuals and their families, but their nation-wide training, technical assistance and outreach efforts touch tens of thousands each year. And their pro bono network of attorneys and medical professionals reach thousands more.

When Aicha walked through their doors for the first time, she was working 16-hour days as a nanny and took three trains and busses to get there on her only day off. After being the one serving others for so long, she was immediately impressed by their kindness when a woman offered her tea and cake.

“When I looked around the office, it was only women working. It was seven years after I had left Niger, where I was supposed to be married and have kids and serve a man. I wasn’t supposed to sit in an office and be a boss lady or work for myself. So, when I saw that, I felt like I belonged there,” she says of her moment of inspiration.

Staff members connected her with a therapist who worked with her to give words to the sexual abuse and trauma she experienced. And after a long and difficult road, Aicha was eventually granted asylum.

“They did so much for me. And they gave me that ability to believe in myself again, because the day I walked into the Tahirih Justice Center, I knew I was worthy of love and attention. For so long, I forgot that,” she states.

Along the way, Aicha found her voice, and she’s chosen to use it to help others who have been through similar experiences. She has been a passionate volunteer and advocate for Tahirih since 2008.

“I want to set every young girl free that ever experienced gender-based violence or even forced marriage or sexual abuse. I want to set them free, because I know there are many in hiding, afraid to talk about it. That’s what I want to do with my life,” she states.

Archi credits Aicha as a key member of the board of directors who has not only changed how they function but how Archi and others see Tahirih as a whole.

“When it feels like it’s unclear what to do next, Aicha will share wisdom that makes everyone’s light bulb turn on,” Archi says. “She guides the organization with clarity, concision, passion and with an expertise that none of us have, because we haven’t been through the things that she’s been through.”

As part of her work with the development committee and membership department, Aicha speaks about her experiences at events with potential supporters, a testament to the work the center does, as well as to survivors as an example of how trauma can be overcome. One night in 2018, she told her story onstage after being honored with the Courageous Voice Award. The organization raised $1M that night after the audience was moved by her journey.

“People were coming to me to say that because of what I said, they were going to leave their abusive marriage,” Aicha recalls, thrilled at the thought of all the people who would be helped with the funds.

It’s not often that a former client becomes a public advocate once they’ve reached a point of stability in their lives.

“Fear of retaliation from an abuser is very strong. People are very nervous to be public, because they or their family in the home country or even family here could be threatened or targeted,” Archi explains. “I think there’s also a feeling of wanting to move on, because talking about what one has experienced can be very retraumatizing and triggering. And sometimes people just, frankly, want to get on with their life.”

Aicha has essentially rebuilt her life and feels like she’s moved beyond the repercussions of her harrowing past. But she finds fulfillment in her work and helping others. Looking towards the future, she hopes to build a public speaking career, encouraging others to tap into their inner strength, build resiliency and create a fulfilling life. She would also like to write a book.

And yes, one day, she still hopes to return to school and perhaps even join the Tahirih staff. In the meantime, Aicha fights for the vulnerable and cares for her son who is nearing his tenth birthday.

“You’re not determined by your trauma. You’re not determined by the things that happen to you,” she emphasizes. “You’re determined by who you choose to be. And that’s how I live my life. That’s what I want people to remember.”

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Aicha? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Kristin Park