A Relationship Built on Trust
At the age of 20, Mandesa* learned she would never see her mother alive again after the terrorists raided her small home town not far from the East African coast. For Mandesa, this was only the latest in a series of painful events that shaped a life of constant movement and fear. Mandesa was first raped at the age of 13 by a government soldier. Her only brother, just a kid, was brutally beaten and abducted into a child army. She never slept through the night without waking in a panic. Never satisfied with their conquests, she understood the young men with fatigues and machine guns would eventually reach her wherever she went.
With determination and cunning, Mandesa escaped and is now one of the approximately 500,000 survivors of torture and war-related trauma living in the United States. Like the majority of torture survivors, Mandesa carries around deep physical and psychological wounds. Even without these profound challenges, Mandesa needed to find a way to survive without money, support from family or friends, or even the benefit of speaking English.
As an asylum seeker, Mandesa was barred from accessing public housing or financial emergency services from both county and federal sources. Not eligible to work, she could not afford food and basic health care. A crippling fear of being returned to her oppressors through deportation and a post-traumatic fear of institutional detention made it nearly impossible for her to seek help. Without support, Mandesa’s only choice was a homeless shelter where she was at risk for abuse or violence.
Sarah’s… an Oasis for Women provides women fleeing abuse and torture with a safe and comfortable home where they can recover and get help to resume their lives. Twenty years ago, Sarah’s began collaborating with the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), an international organization based in St. Paul that provides torture survivors, refugee communities and public leaders with resources to promote sanctuary and healing. To ensure survivors receive the most appropriate services available, Sarah’s and CVT work together, referring clients to one another as well as outside agencies. About one third of the clients at Sarah’s are referred by CVT.
“We see survivors of politically motivated torture. They come from countries that are in the midst of conflict or where the governments are particularly oppressive against a religious group or an ethnic group,” says Casie Iwata, an experienced torture treatment center social worker and case manager for CVT.
The problems these women face are wide-ranging and compounded by their legal status. Moreover, most of them have had little or no schooling. These factors make them easy prey for exploitation, according to Iwata.
“We often see women who have been targeted by governments in their own countries. Then in their pursuit to get out of the country, they are often more vulnerable to other kinds of human rights abuses, including trafficking. A lot of women who come to CVT have been victims of family violence at an early age,” says Iwata.
Because of the complicated and delicate nature of the recovering women they serve, and because they cannot provide critically-needed housing to their own clients directly, Iwata says CVT is particularly devoted to creating and strengthening strong relationships of mutual trust.
“That fact that Sarah’s is designed as a ‘home’ is something that our clients will talk about,” says Iwata, “It’s not just housing for them. It’s a warm, inviting place that they say they can feel comfortable in.” Because of that factor, Iwata says she is “highly confident” in sending referrals to Sarah’s.
“One of the areas that we’ve seen to be very helpful in partnering with Sarah’s is that the staff is very mindful of that community. For our referrals, having that safe place to live, and safe people who are helping has really made a relational impact in people’s ability to trust again,”
After the women have moved from Sarah’s, relationships with others become particularly important as the women begin building lives within the greater community. Typically, an asylum seeker has no friends or family to count on for support. In the absence of loved ones, Sarah’s creates an atmosphere of caring and trust that promotes new beginnings and a greater sense of hope and optimism.
Three years after first arriving in the United States desperate and afraid, Mandesa has built a new life for herself. She works in a neighborhood bakery and lives nearby in a small apartment that she pays for. The nightmares come back on occasion, but they are fewer and farther between. By ensuring access to safe and reliable housing, along with on-site support and a nurturing environment, the collaborative relationship between Sarah’s and CVT has resulted in the freedom of self-sufficiency for hundreds of women like Mandesa.
Stories like these give solace to Iwata: “We hear so much about the way our clients have been damaged by their tortures, so it’s heartening to be around women who are healing and who can provide a different narrative about humanity. We are happy to have this partnership with Sarah’s.”
*Mandesa and her story are a composite based directly on the actual experiences of residents at Sarah’s. Information presented above has been modified out of an abundance of caution and absolute respect for client privacy.
From August 2014 through June of 2015, I was the St. Joseph Worker placed at Sarah's ... an Oasis for Women. Today I am the Program Enrichment and Volunteer Coordinator at Ascension Place in North Minneapolis. I wouldn't have my current job if it weren't for my time spent at Sarah's. It is truly a special place, which is no surprise, based on the caliber of the women who founded it.
I was terrified when I started at Sarah's. I still remember the feeling as sharply as it was then. Trying to understand people who spoke very different levels of English from me, attempting to relate to someone whose life experience is opposite to mine in almost every way, and feeling completely out of my element with even the simplest task was far beyond my comfort zone. I was 22 years old and had what felt like no qualifications to support these women. Eventually, I came to learn that my humanity was qualification enough.
It was at this point of complete desperation and fear that I started to understand what it means to partner with someone rather than lead them-something the CSJs do every day in their ministries. When I learned to stop expecting that I should have all the answers and instead opened myself up to the reality of knowing very little, my time as a St. Joseph Worker and at Sarah's shifted for the better. Being able to say, "I don't know the answer to that, but let's try to find it together," became my number one task every day at Sarah's. This is the piece of advice I gave to the current St. Joseph Worker there, and is still what I report as the greatest lesson learned from my time spent at Sarah's ... an Oasis for Women.
Whenever I think about the most unforgettable CSJ community members I've had the fortune to meet, there are a few common traits: humility, unyielding compassion, and never-ending support for all people. Because of these incredible women I learned a valuable lesson, one that I think will carry me through many years of work with vulnerable populations: the key to supporting anyone in life is to accompany them. Not to guide or dictate, but to walk with them on their journey. I don't know what someone's life will look like or what it should look like. Only that person knows the answer. I am simply a supportive column for the larger temple of their life-one out of hundreds. And that is beautiful.
The CSJs have taught me how to accompany someone. Learning from so many inspiring community members, I was blown away throughout my St. Joseph Worker year and beyond into the present. Many other communities I've come into contact with have started to grasp at this concept, but I believe the CSJs have been practicing this for far longer.
I sincerely hope that my former residents were impacted by my time spent with them. I know for a fact, that I would not be who I am today without each and every one of them. The privilege of hearing their stories taught me more about my own life than I learned about theirs. Without being open and willing to be their companion, I don't believe that such a relationship would have developed . I cannot imagine a more effective or loving way to approach my job and my larger community. We are all human. Because of that, not one is better than another.
by Monica Shaffer