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Each year, the Justice Center’s Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project works with individuals applying for asylum, a complex process riddled with countless documents, witness and expert accounts, and legal red tape. Here are the stories of two women whose lives were saved because we helped them get asylum in the United States.

Musaddiqah—Threatened with death for being a “Western” woman

Winstona Cole, a former Justice Center immigration attorney, met with an Afghan woman who wished to apply for asylum from her homeland. Musaddiqah (her name has been changed) worked with Cole and former Justice Center immigration attorney Attracta Kelly to produce a compelling case that would prove she suffered persecution and/or has a well-founded fear of future persecution in Afghanistan on account of one of the five protected grounds: race, nationality, religion, political opinion or belonging to a particular social group.

In Afghanistan, Musaddiqah had been an outspoken member of her community, an unusual and potentially dangerous position in a country where, as she described it, women are regarded as “less than animals.” Unlike other women in her family, who married young and stopped school at an early age, Musaddiqah completed her education and convinced her father and brothers to allow her to get a job. She became a vocal member of her community, refusing to be limited by Afghan law, and in turn often faced persecution her community for not adhering to the social norm of marrying and tending to her family.

It wasn’t until after Musaddiqah came to the U.S. that her entire family began to suffer. They received angry phone calls accusing Musaddiqah of living an immoral lifestyle abroad and threatening to kill her upon her return to Afghanistan to restore honor to the community. In order to protect themselves and their daughter, her father arranged a marriage for Musaddiqah which she couldn’t see herself honoring. In her words: “As an educated woman, I refuse to be a victim of forced marriage. I want to work and study… and do whatever I wish as a woman who is entitled to fundamental human rights.”

Musaddiqah was in grave danger of being killed if she returned to Afghanistan, Cole said. “She could not go back to the place she once called home. That was the turning point in her decision to apply for asylum.”

Musaddiqah traveled to Virginia for an in-person interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). After an agonizing waiting period during which she was unable to work and lived with constant worry that her case would never be approved, Musaddiqah was granted asylum.

“I can’t express in words the joy when she came in to say thank you for what we had done for her,” Cole said. “To live free in a country where she won’t be persecuted, living as a woman… she says that that’s human rights, to be able to do those things.”

Gabriela—A victim of domestic violence

Gabriela Ramirez (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) traveled to the United States in 2005 with only a visitor visa and desperation to escape her life in Honduras.

She was 17 when she married a man she hoped would offer an escape from an abusive household. Yet it soon became apparent that Gabriela had traded one prison for another. Her husband beat and raped her, and forced Gabriela to attend a Mormon church against her will. She tried to leave time and again, but she didn’t want to leave her two sons, and her husband repeatedly told her that he would find and kill her if she tried to leave.

When a cousin’s wedding in Chicago offered an opportunity to start fresh, Gabriela took it. She soon settled in Asheville and found work cleaning houses. She gave birth to two daughters over the next several years.

Yet Gabriela lived with the persistent fear that her old life would catch up with her. Gabriela, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder, learned that her husband knew about her new children. Gabriela realized her family would be in grave danger if she returned to Honduras.

Applying for asylum was her only option. In fall 2008, Gabriela’s case was referred to the attorneys of the Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. Former attorneys Lisa Chun and Attracta Kelly worked with Gabriela to build her case, using letters from her psychiatrist and Gabriela’s own testimony to demonstrate that if forced to return to Honduras, Gabriela would be persecuted by her husband and lack protection unprotected from her government.

Asylum is not easily granted to victims of domestic violence, Chun said, as the victim must show she suffered from an “inescapable relationship” with her abuser, and that her native government does not properly protect victims. The attorneys used affidavits from experts who addressed the conditions of women in Honduras and demonstrated the cycle of abuse that plague abusive relationships.

Gabriela was officially granted asylum in March 2010, before a legal precedent existed for victims of domestic violence seeking asylum. Luckily, the timing of Gabriela’s case was fortuitous: her status was accepted after a precedent was set in August of that year, when the Obama administration granted asylum to a Mexican woman who had been abused by her husband, and the woman proved that her life would be in grave danger if she returned to Mexico due to her husband and the lack of protection offered by Mexican authorities.

“I’m a different person now – I’m not afraid anymore,” Gabriela said, recalling the joy felt on the day she was granted asylum. “I saw my life ahead of me. I saw a different future.”

Gabriela still lives in Asheville and is now eligible for residency. Her children in Honduras would also qualify.

Of the day her children finally join her, Gabriela said: “I will be the happiest woman in the world.”