Immigrant women in the Washington area who suffer from domestic violence or other forms of abuse can turn to a local non-governmental, non-profit organization called the Tahirih Justice Center for help. There, their first point of contact is usually Negar Ashtari, a young Iranian woman from Botswana, who herself immigrated to the United States six years ago and our guest today on New American Voices.
Negar Ashtari first came to the Tahirih Justice Center as an intern while a student at Middlebury College, in the northeastern state of Vermont. She says the service the Center provides to immigrant women of all ethnic backgrounds and religions was especially interesting to her because of her Baha'i faith.
“I think it's more generally an interest in justice, and in enabling people who have not historically had access to justice to gain access. A lot of my work academically has been on land rights in Africa, and I've been interested in the intersection of women being framed as property themselves, and their ability to access forms of economic sustenance, and just access to law.”
The Tahirih Justice Center has three full-time lawyers on its staff, and more than one hundred attorneys who work there part-time, pro bono, assisting women and girls fleeing various forms of gender-based violence. Ms. Ashtari says immigrant women who learn about the Center are often desperate, and have no place else to turn. She is the one who takes their calls.
“Our first task is to listen to these women's stories, and it really stays with you. I mean, these stories are incredible. The courage and resourcefulness of these women is just extraordinary. And so what we then try to do is figure out the legal remedies, which are often directly immigration-related, to help them stay legally in this country and to access social services.”
Day in, day out, Negar Ashtari listens to the heartbreaking stories of women trying to escape husbands who beat them, or in-laws who insist that their daughters undergo genital cutting, or masters to whom they have been sold as virtual slaves. She says she has to find ways of dealing with the emotional stress caused by her work.
“It's difficult, because often it's in great detail you hear about the experiences the people have suffered. I think one thing that makes it easier is that we're in a position that we're actively trying to help. And so it's a productive encounter. It's not you just having to listen, and then can't do anything.”
The impulse to help, to be of service, is something that Negar Ashtari inherited from her parents, she says. Raised in the Baha'i faith in Iran, her parents moved to Botswana in the early 1970s to serve the Baha'i communities in Africa. Negar attended the International School in Gabarone, Botswana's capital (where English was the language of instruction, and where the student body was a mixture of many nationalities), and took part in various service projects in southern Africa. At age 18, she won a scholarship to study in the United States.
“I probably had a bit of an odd introduction to the United States in that I went to a liberal arts college in Vermont. And so I was fortunate that I had a splendid education, but was also a bit shocked at the lack of diversity in Vermont. And so, not being in a large American city, it was a different experience. People were very warm and open, but didn't necessarily know that much about the world outside. And so a lot of my interactions with people served a sort of educative function, where we were sharing knowledge.”
After college, Negar Ashtari went back to Botswana, worked on a public health and literacy project in Ethiopia for a year, and then returned to the United States for graduate studies in geography and land rights at the University of California at Berkley. After six years in America, she has come to appreciate the opportunities this country offers, but she is clear-eyed about some of its negative aspects, as well.
“Certainly I've been exposed to cultures and opportunities here that I would never have been otherwise. I'm very fortunate, for I think the education that I've received has enabled me to question things critically in a way sometimes that education doesn't happen abroad. For example, I think had I been raised as a woman in Iran and gone through the education system in Iran I would view things very differently. I think one of the things I've struggled with is that the U.S. is very materially focused. Often, success in life is based on how much money you make, the material acquisitions that you procure. And for me, that's something that I don't aspire to, but it's often a challenge to fight, and to realize that there are other things that are more important.”
Negar Ashtari says that dealing with immigrant women on a daily basis in her work with the Tahirih Justice Center has definitely influenced her view of the United States.
“One of the things I find most exciting about the United States is that I see it as a land of great potential. And in particular, that it has historically been made up of immigrants, and that there are people from all over the world here. And I feel that if the United States can make it work, then it offers a model and a hope for the rest of the world. Because ultimately it's becoming an incredibly interconnected global world - and the United States is so diverse, and there's so much opportunity to make it work, that to be a part of that is exciting to me. And I feel like, as much as we help these women, it's women like these who are resourceful and courageous and intelligent that make this country stronger.”
Some day Negar Ashtari hopes to go back to Africa with her Ethiopian husband, to apply there the experience she has gained in the United States helping to ensure that women have equal access to the law.