Lesly Ramirez, 41, is a proud Latina working mom with permanent resident status, thanks to Sarah’s Inn and her introduction to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
Under VAWA, special provisions have been enacted for battered immigrants that allow them to gain legal status in the US without having to rely on an abusive spouse to petition for them.
As a living snapshot of a troubling statistic: Prior to and during her marriage, Ramirez says she was isolated, verbally abused and battered: Slapped, hit, punched and in the face, spat on.
“One in four women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lifetime,” says Carol Gall, executive director of Sarah’s Inn, adding that one in five teen girls will experience teen dating violence. “That is a shocking number to hear and register. That is why our prevention work is so important and vital,” says Gall.
In light of Sarah’s Inn’s 35th anniversary, and October being National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we recently sat with Ramirez to learn, through advocate Caitlin Ramsey, who has been her Spanish-to-English translator since 2013, her survivor story.
“I met the father of my children, who is 8 years older than me, and after going out for a while, we decided to live together. That’s when I got pregnant with my first son (now 21). I thought it was strange that he never wanted to bring me around his family.”
She soon learned why: He was simultaneously secretly married to another woman, who bore him a child as well. He separated from that woman when Ramieriz’s son was two-years-old.
“After that, he decided to take me around his family. One time at his sister’s, I found a memento of the other wedding. A lot of problems started around that. To defend himself, he would say, ‘I chose you, so you always have to be grateful for that.’ This is when he started to hit me.”
Even so, in 2002, Lesly became pregnant with her second son (now 13), and that year, at age 27, she married her abuser. At the time, they moved into his sister’s basement.
“When his sister would see me with the marks, she would just laugh, because she was going through domestic violence with her own husband, and apparently it brought her pleasure to know that her own brother was doing the same thing to me. [After he made me get an abortion] he started repenting for his behavior a lot, [saying] ‘everything was going to change.’ But nothing changed.”
Her kids were exposed to and traumatized by the domestic violence in their home.
“My children’s father would go into the only bathroom, and stay in there with the door closed for an hour when the children had to go to the bathroom. Once, by the time he opened the door, my second son had gone pee outside of the door from waiting. [After standing up for her son] his father punched me in the face, and I fell through the accordion door, into the bathroom stall and hit my head. My oldest son saw all this and called the police.”
Lesly requested that the police make her spouse exit the house. He did, but was back the next morning, as if nothing had happened, drinking heavily day and night…and secretly selling drugs and philandering. At that time, she became pregnant with her third child, a girl (now 8).
When her husband was caught, then incarcerated he found a loophole to secretly stalk his wife while he was in a low security prison with bus privileges for felons to job interviews, in preparation for starting a new life. This unlawful act provoked Lesly to pursue a court order of protection, with the assist of an advocate from Sarah’s Inn.
Soon a sea of services began rushing in, enabling all of them to attend group and individual counseling, while Lesly worked with an advocate to get on Public Aid and find pathways to completing her GED. She matriculated through the highest level of English as a second language coursework, and is now finding resources to earn a college degree.
“[Before], if he hit me, I had asked for it. If he spit in my face, it was because I deserved it, because I had provoked him. During a family therapy session my oldest son turned to me and said, ‘Why did you stay with him when he hurt you so badly. Why, oh, why did you stay with him so long?’ And I told him, I did it for you to have something I never had, to have both of your parents together. And then, my oldest son told me ‘who told you that we wanted to have him around?’ Now, he is gone, yes, and with my advocate at Sarah’s Inn, we looked for an attorney who would help me for free, and to finally divorce myself from him. Officially. Now, me and my children have a healthy and peaceful life. We may not be rich, but we are doing well.”