When K sits down at a sewing machine at the Dayton Sewing Collaborative, she’s not just creating art, or stitching a useful blanket, or putting leftover fabric to practical use. She’s learning to heal.
K grew up in Algeria in a strict Muslim community, but with an encouraging family who raised her to value her freedom. When she met the man who would become her husband, her family had reservations, afraid that a move to the United States would mean a restriction on that freedom. K, though, wanted to be with the man she loved.
“The U.S. was big,” K said with a smile. “Everything was big. But I was restricted by my husband. I am a free thinker, but I grew up in a strict culture and my husband was very restrictive. So, everything was big, but I was always only at home. I was in the United States, but inside my home, it was Algeria.”
Isolation is often the first step to convincing a victim that their abuser is the most important person in the world. For K, the isolation was also from her family thousands of miles away, and from her culture, which now only existed between her and her husband. Ten days after she arrived in the U.S., K began to face the situation her parents had feared.
“He took my phone and found that I had Instagram,” K said. “He didn’t like that. It started with just insults. I discovered through his Facebook that he was using dating apps. I asked him, ‘Why does it matter if I have Instagram? You go out and sleep with other girls, and we are married.’ And he said, ‘If I can go out and sleep with American girls, then you can go out and sleep with American men.’ That was the first thing. That really hurt me.
“Then, it went from insults to threats to action. The first time he physically abused me, he was drunk. He had come home late, and I asked him why he was late. He got angry. There was a table, with all this food on it, and he just flipped the table. Everything went everywhere, and he started beating me. The day after, he came and said, ‘I’m so sorry. I married you because my mother and sister wanted me to. I don’t love you.’”
K knew that she needed help, but with no connections and limited English, she felt completely alone.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” K said. “I couldn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t go anywhere without a VISA. When you come here for marriage, your family thinks you’re happy. My mother and father think I am happy. I couldn’t tell them. I couldn’t tell my aunts because I knew they would tell my mom. The only person I told was my cousin. All I said was, ‘Today, [my husband] hurt me.’ And she told me that all mothers suffer for their children. Just resist. So that’s what I did, I kept resisting.”
But she also took steps toward safety.
“He wouldn’t let me go anywhere, but I managed to begin English classes at Brunner Literacy Center. When he saw that my English improved, he asked, ‘Who are you practicing with?’ Then, I learned that he was cheating on me. It wasn’t that it had happened in the past. It was in the present. It was during Ramadan. I prayed. There is a prayer in Islam where you ask God for the truth,” K said. “I did this three times that night. Then I called my aunt and told her that I wanted to return to Algeria.
“My ex-husband took me to the airport. While we were there, he kept trying to make me stay. He would say, ‘I don’t want you to go. I am sorry. I love you. I want you to stay. Your kids will have more opportunities.’ And I don’t know how, but he talked to the agency, or the consulate, and he told them that with my VISA, I couldn’t leave.”
K was left without a home to go to. Unable to leave the U.S., unwilling to return to life with her abuser. She reached out to one of the few connections she had.
“I called Miss Sandy,” K said of her friend at Brunner Literacy Center. “I told her what was happening, and they connected me with someone who helped me understand my VISA. She explained that it was actually a green card for one year and hadn’t expired. They found someone to take me to the airport.”
With the help of her family, K was able to safety plan. In Algeria, though, filing for divorce is a difficult process, and K did not possess enough evidence of her abuse to satisfy Algerian legal requirements. Her attorney advised her to file for divorce in the U.S. – but she would need to first return. Where would she live? And would she be safe?
“Miss Sandy asked me if I wanted to live at the YWCA, where it was safe,” K said. “I said yes, and she helped me contact YW so I would have a safe place to live. While there, they also connected me with other community resources – including the Dayton Sewing Collaborative.”
The Dayton Sewing Collaborative is a nonprofit organization that helps train students in the skills of industrial sewing, with the goal of acquiring local employment. K, interested in both the training and a job, joined the Dayton Train to Sew workforce development program, where she met manager Brenda Rex.
“K came in with the intent of taking the sewing training, but I could tell by talking to her that she knew how to sew already,” Rex said. “I just had that feeling. We gave her the test we normally give people before they graduate. She sat right down and did it with no problem. Then, she showed us some of the pictures of the things she had been making, and off we went. She’s one of our team now.”
K, who has been with the Dayton Sewing Collaborative for the past year, has benefitted from the program, not just through the job she was offered, but through the community she has since built. And in the middle is YWCA Dayton.
“YWCA Dayton has been involved with Dayton Train to Sew since the Dayton Sewing Collaborative was conceptualized,” Rex said. “They provided initial input on the training program, and we have recruited some students from YWCA into the course for training. It’s a free training program. We work with local manufacturers to develop curriculum, so people can come and take the training and within 6 to 8 weeks they can, through our program, go to the local manufacturers and get hired on the spot. Everyone who has graduated from our program, anyone who has sought jobs sewing, have gotten jobs.”
Today, K’s community is as big as she first saw the U.S. to be.
“My husband and I have kind of adopted K,” Rex said, reaching out to hold K’s hand. “She’s part of the family now. When she came to the U.S., she was completely alone. So while she was [experiencing abuse], she really had no one. I just can’t imagine how scary that must have been. I’m so glad our community stepped up – from Sandy at Brunner Literacy Center to the YWCA – to help her get out of that situation.”
This October, during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, you can support both domestic violence survivors like K and the Dayton Sewing Collaborative. The two have teamed up to sew 100 Purple Things – the color of domestic violence awareness – which will be for sale at 3rd Sundays Market on Oct. 21 from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Items will also be made available for purchase online at a later date. All proceeds benefit YWCA Dayton’s domestic violence shelters, 24/7 hotline, and crisis services.