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Reconstructing Homes as Safe and Accepting Places

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By Samah Sisay, Esq., 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by BNY Mellon and Sullivan & Cromwell LLP

Photo of Samah Sisay
Photo of Samah Sisay

Sometimes, home is a place you are forced to flee. When I was seven years old, my family fled civil war in Monrovia, Liberia and began a new life in the United States. In this new life, I was forced to reimagine the meaning of home. I grew up surrounded by many other African immigrant families who struggled daily to redefine their lives and find some semblance of safety and community in a country that was foreign to them. This history of fleeing home and trying to build a new life is one I share with the numerous women I assist as an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the African Services Committee.

As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, I provide legal immigration representation and advocacy tools to African and Caribbean immigrant women in New York City who have faced, or are facing, gender-based violence. My Fellowship project serves transgender and cisgender women alike by creating an inclusive space where low-income African and Caribbean immigrant women can receive culturally competent legal representation and build voice and community.

A majority of the women I work with need legal assistance applying for asylum or Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) self-petitions. Asylum provides immigration status for individuals who were harmed, or fear being harmed in the country they fled. The VAWA self-petition allows individuals who are married to abusive U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents to apply independently for permanent residency, a Green Card, in the United States. Through sensitive and zealous legal advocacy, I can help traumatized immigrant women gain immigration relief and an opportunity to begin building safer lives in the United States.

One of my cases exemplified how legal advocacy can transform someone’s life. In February 2019, I helped Ayanna, a transgender woman from Jamaica, gain asylum in the United States. Ayanna came to my office at African Services Committee extremely depressed and unable to speak fully about her past. It took several meetings before I learned of all the violence and discrimination she had experienced in Jamaica due to her identity as a trans woman. Her community and family members viewed her as a gay man and refused to accept her as a woman. As a child, she was a victim of frequent beatings for being effeminate. She was forced out of her home at a young age and experienced homelessness and unemployment for years. She was not able to access hormone therapy or live publicly as a woman without fear of being attacked or killed.

One night while walking on the street in feminine clothing, Ayanna was attacked and violently raped. When she sought assistance from the police, they called her slurs and refused to take her complaint. After this incident, Ayanna fled to the United States in hopes of starting a safer life. I connected her with a social worker, which allowed her to focus on her mental health and take a more active role in her immigration case. The process of applying for asylum gave Ayanna control of her narrative, and she was finally able to bravely explain all of the injustices she had faced in Jamaica. She told her story, and the asylum officer listened to her. Ayanna is now receiving gender-affirming hormone therapy and no longer has to worry about her immigration status limiting her ability to live authentically in the United States.

It is an honor to work with courageous immigrant women as they navigate the U.S. legal system and gain autonomy over their lives. It is incredibly difficult to rebuild after experiencing extreme violence and rejection from people and places that are supposed to represent home. However, with the right support and advocacy, it is possible to reconstruct home as places and communities that are safe and accepting.

To learn more about Samah and her Fellowship, view her profile.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow