Texas shelter a refuge for Muslim women

Plano, Texas -  She had no clue what abuse meant when she came to the U.S. two years ago, suddenly a target of her new husband's angry alcoholism.

A South Asian Muslim in her early 40s with dark skin and piercing olive eyes, she's still shaken by the experience, recalling the horror into which she'd unwittingly stepped.

"All I knew was that..." She paused, eyes wet with tears in a quiet meeting room in Plano. "I was getting hit and getting blamed for everything."

Eventually she would find solace in Peaceful Oasis, a shelter for Muslim women fleeing domestic violence. Though the North Texas shelter accepts clients of all faiths, it's focused on the needs of Muslim women who want to feel comfortable following Islamic customs.

"We try to be as helpful and supportive as we can," said Hind Jarrah, executive director of the Plano-based Texas Muslim Women's Foundation, which opened Peaceful Oasis in late 2012. "Our aim is for them to stand on their own."

When foundation leaders asked women in the community what issues needed attention, domestic violence loomed large. More than that, women wanted a shelter with a culturally specific approach.

"When they went to mainstream shelters," Jarrah said, "some said it was as if their identity had been stolen. They preferred to go back to their abusive husbands."

Traditional shelters, they said, posed language barriers and were ill-equipped to meet needs such as a diet free of the pork products that Islam forbids, or a space in which to pray the five times per day that Islam calls for.

"They worried about whether it would be allowed, how it would appear," Jarrah said. "Would it be accepted?"

That's how Peaceful Oasis came to be. About 80 percent of the shelter's clients are Muslim, many of them Asian or Middle Eastern immigrants. Others come from North Texas or even other U.S. states.

For many, response to abusive situations derives from a mix of ingrained culture and religious beliefs- a pattern of behavior trickling through generations until the cycle is broken.

Those who come to Peaceful Oasis, like the Southeast Asian woman in that meeting room in Plano, are taking a step toward breaking that cycle.

The woman did not want her name, exact age or native country divulged for fear of retribution within a community that still places a stigma upon speaking publicly about such things. Only her parents back home knew anything, and when they began calling more often to check on her, her husband only resented her more. He shut her off from everyone.

"He said he was trying to save our marriage," she said. "I was completely isolated."

It wasn't until the night he assaulted her in public that others found cause to intervene. Police were called.

The woman went back to her native country, but despite her fears, she returned to the U.S. for her husband's court proceeding. With nowhere to stay, police connected her with Peaceful Oasis so she wouldn't have to go back to him.

"The only reason I'm alive," she said, "is because I didn't go back."

Even now, she can barely talk about it. Only with the shelter's help, she said, has she made it this far, to a life with a grocery store job and foundation-sponsored yoga sessions that have helped her find the peace eluding her sleepless nights.

She celebrated her birthday at the shelter. "We had cake," she said, managing a smile through bittersweet tears.

"Staying here has made me feel that- maybe I can survive," she said. "I didn't know something like this existed in the world. I felt safe from the first day I walked in. I have received more respect here than I did in my entire marriage."

As the number of Muslims in North Texas grows, both the foundation and its fledgling shelter are raising important questions: What does Islam really teach about women? Why are women still underrepresented as board directors of houses of worship?

Even the foundation itself has had to fight for credibility.

"People have all kinds of stereotypical ideas about Muslim women and what role they play," Jarrah said. "We had to establish that we were qualified, that we could run a strong program."

Jarrah's first step was getting religious leaders of all faiths to recognize the problem, since they're often the people approached by abused women finally pushed to seek help.

"I'm very proud of this effort," said Imam Moujahed Bakhach of the Muslim-based Mediation Institute of North Texas. "Some people, they laughed at her. They said, 'What are you talking about? It does not exist.'"

Part of the problem is the stigma attached to airing dirty laundry and risking negative perceptions within a population still feeling burned by the harsh spotlight cast upon it in the wake of 9/11. It's a sensitive topic.

Peaceful Oasis can house up to 23 people at the shelter at any one time, including 16 women and seven children. Clients come from places like Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan, India, Somalia, Eritrea and the Palestinian territories.

When the shelter opened in December 2012, agency leaders estimated it would serve 64 people the next year. The actual count was nearly twice as many: 122.

In addition to on-site staff, the foundation employs five case managers and two lawyers to help with family and immigration issues. In all, communication is offered in 15 languages, including Arabic, Kurdish and Urdu.

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