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Out of the Shadows: The quiet work of the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation (TMWF) to rescue, empower and protect women

All names and identifying details have been changed or removed to protect the privacy of individuals helped by Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation.

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Nadya

Just to reiterate, if, at any point, you don’t want to continue, we’ll stop. Okay?

Yes.

How were you connected with Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation?

I got a very bad bruise on my eye from my husband. I ran to my place of worship, to the clinic, and they checked but they didn’t have an eye doctor. Then they said, “There’s TMWF if you want to get help.” At that time, I was still thinking that I would go back to my husband. But then I justI ran away from him.

When you came to Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation, what did you find?

I thought it was just a shelter. But it’s more than that.

Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation is currently helping Nadya complete her education.

The location is confidential. The clients are protected, and the identities of the staff are kept on a need-to-know basis. It’s a secret in the hearts of those who are in the know, a word-of-mouth system built over a decade ago to do lifesaving work. Friend to friend. Woman to woman. Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation (TMWF) was born out of compassion and grief to provide a holistic approach to empowering women by offering counseling, financial support, legal advice and protection. Most importantly, Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation shelters women escaping domestic abuse.

“It happened after 9/11,” says Mona, Chief Philanthropy and Operations Officer at Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation. We have met for coffee. She has lived in and loved Plano for decades now. She has a sharp mind and a head for the business side of their operations. Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation was started by a diverse group of Muslim women like her who came together in the wake of 9/11 out of grief and fear. They saw an opportunity to advocate for peace and tell a different story about the values of the Muslim community, for the sake of Muslims everywhere.

As these women grieved together, they began to discover women in their own circle who were trapped in abusive situations, afraid to stay and even more afraid to seek help from mainstream shelters. They faced prejudice against themselves and their children and feared that any attempt to get help would be blown out of proportion and used to paint the Islamic community with a wide and unflattering brush. They were caught between their own trauma and the greater trauma of the Muslim community who found themselves under attack. They were being forgotten. They had slipped through the cracks.

The founders of Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation had inadvertently discovered an underserved population. If a woman is being abused, where does she turn if her parents are in another country? If she only knows her husband and his family, if she only speaks limited English, who does she ask for help? How does she, in the midst of her trauma, express herself in a language that is not her own? How does she seek escape, knowing she may then find herself penniless in an unforgiving and unfriendly wilderness?

Noor (with the help of a Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation translator)

When you’re ready, tell me your story.

My husband wouldn’t let me go out of the house for years. I went out…maybe one time. I wasn’t allowed to have a friend, or go and drive, or study. His family used me to clean the house. I had to clean his family’s house and my house, cook for them. I was like a slave for years. I went to the hospital two times from the stress before I came to the shelter.

Did his family, your family, know that you were imprisoned in your own home?

Yes. They were using me. They liked to control my kids too.

What happened?

I know a friend, and I called her. She asked if I was okay. I told her no…Then, I called the shelter.

Case worker: She finally left her abusive situation after two weeks with the help of police.

The police came two times. The first time, I couldn’t make it.

How is life at the shelter?

Oh, it’s very good. They’re nice people. They’re like my sisters. I feel like I’ve known them for a long time. We all have the same problems. All coming with the same issues. It’s like a house.

Where do you want to see yourself in a year?

I want to have my own house, have my kids and a job to support them.

Noor is currently on a waiting list for legal representation so that she can get her children back.

The shelter opened in December, 2012. Clients flock there from all over Texas, from outside of the state and even outside the country. Usually, women stay at the shelter for approximately 1–3 months before being moved into other housing once they can financially support themselves and their families. The mission goes beyond providing for their clients’ physical well-being. The shelter is about understanding and preserving their cultural identity.

“We understand where they’re coming from,” Mona explains. “For example, there are a lot of situations where abusers are in-laws. And what does a woman do then? Does she leave her husband?” And better yet, how does she begin to explain her situation to someone who is unfamiliar with her culture and may have never dealt with in-law abuse?

The staff at TMWF speak 15 languages between them. When women are escaping from a terrifying and traumatic situation, they can be helped in their native language and understood without judgment, removing a critical cultural and linguistic obstacle.

The women who take refuge in the shelter are incredibly diverse; it is a microcosm of the world, African American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and South Asian families, four continents under one roof. Among all of them, one fact resounds. They had no one. They had no safe place to take their children, nowhere to go to rebuild and often, no support from their families. But the caseworkers at TMWF offered a place to be comfortable, supported and valued.

Most importantly, it’s a safe place to care for their children who have been living in fear too. As one woman explained to me, “It’s better to have a broken home than to raise your child in a hostile environment.” When there’s peace in the home, there’s peace in the community and peace overall.

Rashida (With the help of a Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation translator)

How did you find Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation?

It’s my third shelter. The first shelter I was at moved me to another shelter because of my language. Then they suggested that TMWF would be the best for me. I was so scared to come here, because it was the third place I had to move to…But when I came here, I was surprised. It’s different from other shelters. I found the help I didn’t find anywhere else. Financial help, emotional help. All that we ask for, they offer. They are like a family.

What’s an example of how TMWF treated you differently?

The first thing, at the other shelters, I said was I wanted to get my passport. I lost one year asking at one shelter, then at the other, and I still didn’t get it. TMWF got it for me. And when you get to the shelter, they ask you what food you’d like to eat and ask if you need clothes, what size you wear. They get everything.

Did you come to the shelter alone?

I don’t have family here. But I found everything in this organization. I found family, I found support, I found everything. My life is up and down, and my case is very difficult with immigration. When I cry, the staff is with me. When I am happy, they are with me…Sometimes family members can’t support you the way this organization supports you. They help me a lot, and it’s small for them. It’s nothing.

I didn’t know anything about this country. I know a little now, but thank God that I have more than support, more than family. It’s not only me. All of them there in the shelter. Everyone is known by name. People come from all over. But everyone is taken care of. What I experienced in this country was really tough, but this organization gave me hope. They let me be optimistic about my future.

Rashida is in the immigration process thanks to Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation.

When clients and their families come to stay at the shelter, they have often been robbed of their agency. They’re tired; their self-esteem has been degraded. They are in need of comfort. They need to provide for their families.

To rebuild their sense of self, TMWF starts slow. “Small steps,” Mona says. “Small decisions. We ask: what would you like to eat tonight?”

TMWF gives the clients the tools and encourages them to choose their own menu and prepare it themselves. They can eat anything they wish. Religious and cultural diets are accommodated with grace; cravings are indulged. Cooking empowers clients to win back their identity, starting at the most basic level, with the most human need. Local volunteers donate their time and money to the shelter at once to provide clients with whatever they need to cook three times a day.

“Sometimes, they need simple things,” Mona says. “Sometimes, it’s been months since they had a hot dog or cheesecake.”

Many have been abused financially, but the simple action of taking charge of dinner helps them take ownership of their lives, bit by bit. Because of these volunteers and a partnership with the North Texas Food Bank, the food cost for the shelter is greatly reduced.

Faiza

        I’m ready when you are.

I was a doctor. When I finished my school, I got married. I came to the U.S. I had a child. First, it was just verbal abuse, psychological. But then it progressed. It became more and more aggressive…Then it became physical.

I informed my parents and went back to them…But my husband said he wanted to make us happy again. My father said he was only sending me back to [my husband] for three months, and if anything happened, if there was one complaint, he was bringing me back.

        …My husband became more abusive. He tried to blame me for infidelity and all sorts of things, whatever he could think to bring up. In one argument, he brought up that people murder their wives. It doesn’t really happen so often.

But three days later, he was choking me. He was on top of me. His knees were on my hands. I couldn’t breathe. My husband’s parent was right in the room next door but didn’t come in…I used to spend hours thinking what can I do? What can I do to protect my child?…I love TMWF. I pray for the people that built it. I always refer people here. I tell them that this is an institute where you can get comprehensive help. People here communicate and build a system for you.

TMWF is currently providing Faiza and her child with legal help.

Though it was founded by Muslim women, TMWF has expanded out of the Muslim community and continuously innovates to find new ways to help those in need and educate them on domestic abuse before it begins. Victims are often manipulated or intimidated into returning to the perpetrator again and again, before they finally break away. Building a swift connection with these women makes all the difference in helping them find their way out.  It’s a race against the clock and every moment counts.

“Plano is rich in culture,” Mona says. “A beautiful place to call home. It’s full of families supporting each other.” The City of Plano has been instrumental to TMWF’s work, and at every level of the City, TMWF has good partnerships, even up to the mayor. In addition, TMWF works with local families in the hopes of establishing further connections between families with similar backgrounds. Knowing who to go to for help and having resources in place is critical, and TMWF works tirelessly to build on the relationships they have forged, which allow them to act as an island in the storm, a point of light and understanding.

 TMWF speaks fearlessly into the community and encourages others to do the same, particularly local mosques.

“Domestic violence is one of the hardest topics any pastor, rabbi or imam can speak about,” Mona says, “and since 2008, TMWF has been regularly partnering with imams asking them to do this. And they have.” Roughly 30–40 local mosques have declared that there is a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence in their mosques.

Amal

        Tell me your story.

I got married when I was 16. He had been married with kids. I took care of them and raised them as mine. I didn’t have kids until years into my marriage. That’s when I got my child. During that whole time, he was very abusive. I didn’t know anything better. Because, you know, that’s all I knew. I never saw my dad be mean to my mom. I never saw him hit her or do anything of that nature. But I thought maybe everyone is different…He wasn’t just mean to me; he was mean to his kids. His family. His mother. My life was all about him. There was so much infidelity.

I loved him. But [one day], I don’t know what happened…I woke up. I had daughters and thought why am I taking this? The way I’m taking this is going to make them feel like this is normal. And I don’t want history to repeat. That’s why I started to stand up for myself. That was a shock for him…  

The family was so mad at mehis familybecause they weren’t getting upset about what he didinfidelity, abusethey were getting upset that I caught him doing it. Like…the calories don’t count if no one sees you.  But there’s an authority up there who sees everything.

Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation works on a national scale, and though they specialize in Muslim clients, their cultural sensitivity allows them to open their doors to all, regardless of race, religion or background. They also seek out refugees, providing basic orientations for newcomers to the area. TMWF has an art program, Islamic Art Revival Series and many other events such as the Annual Juried International Exhibition of Contemporary Islamic Art, where artists from all around the world contribute for a breathtaking exhibition in the Irving Arts Center.

Their long tenure in Plano has made them a beacon of hope and culture. But even so, Mona estimates that 20–30 clients must still be turned away each month for lack of space.

“I daydream about what we want all the time. One is a bigger shelter. It’s heartbreaking every day when I see we’ve had to turn people away,” she says. “We are the bridge builders, and we want to make sure that the people in our community are happy and that they know each other. That’s my goal: to see where we can connect and pool resources with others in the community. We want to build each other up through art and interfaith; we want to build relationships and build community.”

Amal (cont.)

These days, there’s no oneI mean no onein the world that can make me feel bad about myself. My kids are with me. That was my priority, and I got that. So I’m happy. Whenever I talk about my kids, I get goosebumps. Those kids are awesome. I cannot explain the place I have in my heart for them. And I have such a beautiful relationship with my grandkids. And he’s a loser, and he’s away. He doesn’t even know his grandkids. What a sad guy.

        I left three times, but I came back. It’s like a war. You come back from war, and you have symptoms. The guy who hurt me is the same guy I had kids with. At the end, it was very hard to even go close to him.

…He told me I was looking for freedom. And by freedom he meant you know, going to the club, stuff like that…He told me I was not capable of running the house. I’m doing it now. You wouldn’t believe how much I’ve learned. I do every single thing, from finance to calling people to getting things done, and I’m very happy.

Here, [Amal taps her head] I’m free. I’m going to be okay.

I left with nothing. I bought everything brand new. It was for my kids. I had to show them that this was a better life. And you can’t give something bad to someone and ask them to take care of it. You give something good to them and ask them to take care of it. I can’t ground them unless I give them video games [laughs].

What would you say to women who are where you were three years ago?  

Stand up for yourself. Stand up. And get help. You can’t do it alone. I couldn’t have done it without my son, without TMWF.

        By her count, Amal’s ex-husband took $30,000 from her. She and her children are safe and rebuilding in the wake of physical, verbal and financial abuse.

Domestic violence is not restricted to any nationality, language, race or religion. It’s not a culture problem; it’s a human problem. The staff at TMWF say that across the board, domestic violence shelters report increasing numbers. Whether this is because more people are coming forward or because more abuse is occurring, we can’t know, but regardless, the tide is rising.

Plano is nationally recognized for its diversity. It’s a beacon to those who want a good start, to creatives who want a chance to nurture a growing business, to millennials and baby boomers alike, to newcomers chasing the American Dream in a city where it still seems possible. As people flock here, the work of our nonprofits grows. More clients arrived yesterday, perhaps belittled, perhaps afraid, but unbroken. Hungry for freedom. They arrived today. They’ll arrive tomorrow. TMWF is there for them.

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