The June 2018 Ministry Stories feature Sarah’s… an Oasis for Women and show how it is a home dedicated to safety and dignity for a diverse community of women where they can begin new and productive lives.
Support Sarah’s by attending the Breakfast Buffet and Benefit!
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.
The Impact of Sarah’s… an Oasis for Women
As Sarah’s enters its 23rd year of ministry, it’s important to pause and reflect on the depth and breadth of Sarah’s impact in the Twin Cities, greater Minnesota, and the world.
There are numerous transitional housing programs located in the Twin Cities that serve specific populations. Examples include domestic violence shelters, homes for the elderly and/or disabled, homes for HIV-positive persons, and programs for homeless teen-agers. Few however are suitable for immigrant women who lack access to these and other public programs and resources. Adding to the complications are language and cultural barriers, misogyny, racism, and untreated trauma resulting from torture, discrimination, war and other types of abuse.
Sarah’s holds a unique place as a one-of-a-kind transitional home in Minnesota serving primarily immigrant women who are struggling to become established in the USA. Housing women who face similar challenges allows Sarah’s to tailor its community-based service model toward the needs of residents. The women of Sarah’s find strength and resilience living in a community of women who are going through comparable experiences.
During 2017-2018, Sarah served 43 unique women. Of those 43:
- 13 moved on to permanent housing
- 18 secured employment (full or part-time)
- 22 furthered their education (high school, ELL, college); and
- 4 gained permanent residency or begin the U.S. citizenship process.
Sarah’s occupancy is limited to 32 residents. All 43 unique women experienced healing, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.
Sarah’s has served over 650 women from 70 different nations and stands as a testament to the impact of the CSJ mission: always moving toward profound love of God and love of neighbor without distinction. Your support and gifts of time, talent, and treasure are needed now more than ever. With this in mind, Sarah’s extends deep gratitude to you for your support.
written by Martha West, Community Relations Associate
Women of Substance
Two weeks ago, a group of women from Sarah’s and I went to a Lizzo concert at St. Catherine’s University during their Women of Substance Festival which seeks to bring empowering and inspirational women to campus for a beautiful week of events.
It was a beautiful spring night and the ladies of Sarah’s were dressed to impress in each of her own ways varying from our sister from Kenya in her habit to our younger resident in ripped jeans and Nike’s. Going to a concert is a rare occasion for the women of Sarah’s let alone a hip hop concert, so needless to say this was a big event. I mean, Lizzo is famous.
In my endeavor to round up concert-goers, I learned that the women of Sarah’s love experience. When our sister in-residence came to me asking if she could go see Lizzo, I honestly laughed. The image of risque lyrics referencing butts shaking and the dance moves on stage to match in front of her very eyes made me anxious and giddy all at once. Since when do sisters like hip hop I thought? So, I reminded her “It’s a hip hop concert, Sister. Very loud and very…different”. And all she replied with was, “I know, so can I go”? I was floored. How ready she was! By the end of the day, we had two of your youngest residents, a woman who is highly religious in practice but loves to get down, and a sister all excited to attend the concert.
In our mini-van, we drove off to St. Kate’s double-checking we all had our tickets and talking about who the opener for Lizzo would be. I gave the women a “pep-talk” in case I was still right about being hesitant to bring some to the concert. I explained that there would be a lot of singing about butts and cussing accompanied by dancing, bodysuits, and all. “Anyone want to turn back now?” I thought in my head.
It wasn’t long after hustling through busy crowds and long aisles that we found our seats and prepared ourselves for a wonderful show. Walking into a concert venue followed by a nun and three other African women is probably the most amusing moment as a 22 year old white American women. Watching people gazing and most likely wondering how we were all connected. Wondering what our purpose is being at this concert. How did I get to this moment of attending a Lizzo concert with a group of refugee and asylum-seeking women through a Catholic program? Seven months into the St. Joseph Worker program, and I still am surprised every day and amazed at the things I do, hear, and see. I find myself in experiences I never imagined to have.
This night was a beautiful example of such unexpected experiences I will cherish from a year of service at Sarah’s. The opening performances were delightful and with much applause we welcomed Lizzo on stage to a spectacular show. All that was expected happened. Speeches about body empowerment, female empowerment, black empowerment, people empowerment. Beautiful singing that carried through the auditorium and dancing ladies doing splits on stage happened. Twerking happened. And I tightened my fists before glancing over at the residents to my right. What were they thinking? Did they hate it?
After the song finished and there was a moment of quiet, I turned to the women to hear their opinions. Our sister from Kenya only said, “We should do that at Sarah’s”! “…..What?! Really?” I replied. “You want to “twerk” at Sarah’s”? The women laughed and nodded. I played along and suggested we should have one of our many volunteers come and teach us sometime. And what was the response you might ask? The most perfect answer of all that told me this night was truly special and I had only assumed the worst: “In Africa, we don’t need someone to teach us this. Because this is how we dance.” We all laughed and settled in to see Lizzo and her beautiful body empowerment, body suits, and…twerking…as I thought about all the assumptions I had made that day to only be taught different.
written by Lindsay Schaefer, 2016-17 St. Joseph Worker