Charity Spotlight: Tahirih Justice Center

by Editorial

Executive Director Layli Miller-Muro and her team advocate for the needs of immigrant women and girls.
By Kinne Chapin

At Tahirih’s 15th Anniversary Gala, Author Fauziya Kassindja recalled her history as the first person to achieve asylum in the United States on the basis of gender-based persecution. (Photo by Michael Collela)

Facing gender-based violence such as genital mutilation, trafficking, or forced marriage, is a reality that most of us cannot even imagine. Yet these injustices take place across the globe every day, affecting hundreds of women and leaving them in need of support and advice. The Tahirih Justice Center serves just this purpose, counseling immigrant-women and girls who hope to seek justice in the United States for the crimes committed against them in their home countries.

At the Tahirih Justice Center, Executive Director Layli Miller-Muro and her dedicated team work to provide pro-bono legal services for women from Zimbabwe to China, South Africa to Spain. The Center helps their clients seek asylum in the United States or negotiate divorce, custody, and visitation. But the Tahirih Justice Center does not only support their clients in the courtroom – in 2007, they began to offer women fleeing violence the dental and medical care that they desperately needed, free of charge. They also provide social services case management to help their clients meet their daily needs and provide food and clothing. By being a supportive force as their clients seek justice and meeting every area of their needs, the Tahirih Justice Center helps ensure that they can lead a safe and healthy life in America.

Tahirih also works comprehensively to raise awareness about the issue of gender-based violence. From speaking at universities, law schools, and churches, to conducting training sessions for Virginia law enforcement, legislators, and judges, the Center is unceasing in its efforts to start a discussion about gender-based violence and increase sensitivity about the needs of their clients. At their recent 15th anniversary gala, held at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, supporters of the organization such as Congressman Jim Moran gathered to honor the 13,000 women and children that Tahirih has served since opening its doors in 1997. These continuing efforts demonstrate the passion of the Tahirih Justice Center, its staff, pro-bono lawyers, and other volunteers to decrease their number of clients and instead envision  a world without gender-based violence. One can only hope that their optimism, enthusiasm, and tenacity will be enough to put themselves out of business.

Quick Q&A with Executive Director Layli Miller-Muro

Washington Life: What is your mission?
Layli Miller-Muro: The Tahirih Justice Center is a national nonprofit working to protect immigrant women and children in the United States fleeing horrific forms of violence, including female genital mutilation, rape, domestic violence, trafficking, and forced marriage. Tahirih protects vulnerable women and children through a holistic model of direct legal representation, public policy advocacy, and community outreach. The stories of our clients directly inform our public policy advocacy, which works to raise their voices to policy debates at the local, state, and national level.

WL: How were you founded?
LMM: When I was a law student, I met a young woman named Fauziya Kassindja, who had fled her home country of Togo in fear of female genital mutilation and a forced polygamous marriage. I represented her as a law student, arguing her case before the immigration judge and helping on appeal as a student in American University’s Human Rights Law Clinic when her case climbed to the highest immigration appellate court. After a high-profile legal battle, she won asylum and established national legal precedent by becoming the first person to receive protection under our refugee laws for female genital mutilation. We published a book together about her case, called Do They Hear You When You Cry? In the wake of the publicity of her case, I began to receive numerous calls from women and girls like Fauziya, looking for help with nowhere to turn. I used my portion of the proceeds from the book to found the Tahirih Justice Center. Now, fifteen years later, Tahirih has helped over 13,000 women and children through direct services and referrals.

WL: How can DC locals get involved?
LMM: Tahirih is able to multiply every dollar donated into $4 though our award-winning model of leveraging professional volunteers. We can especially use the services of volunteer attorneys, medical professionals, and interpreters and translators, but we have many needs to be filled by those who are dedicated to helping vulnerable women and girls find safety. Due to our incredible volunteers, Tahirih makes effective and efficient use of every dollar donated, so the impact of your financial contribution will be multiplied by a factor of four.

WL: What sets you apart from other DC nonprofits?
LMM: Tahirih’s holistic service model is unique. We recognize that a woman’s legal case may be only one part of rebuilding her life. Tahirih provides social services case management to help each client access basic needs like food, clothing, and housing for herself and her children, and become a self-sufficient member of the community. We promote long-term change by raising the voices of our clients through our public policy work, advocating for systemic changes to better protect vulnerable women and girls fleeing violence.

WL: Finish this sentence: “I want people in DC to know that…”
LMM: Immigrant women and children fleeing violence face unique challenges in finding safety and protection. Our clients and women like them are not familiar with the American court and justice systems. They aren’t aware of all their rights and can be swayed to believe misconceptions or blatant lies about our laws or their rights. Their vulnerability is compounded by a lack of knowledge of English, few local family or community ties, and feelings of shame and guilt about the violence they have suffered. Though United States law provides for their protection, they need help to access justice and to rebuild their lives. The work that the Tahirih Justice Center does is vital to saving the lives of these courageous women and children.

Rep. Jim Moran and Actress/Tahirih Board Member Debra Winger at Tahirih’s 15th Anniversary Gala. (Photo by Michael Collela)

Jasvinder Sanghera, a survivor of forced marriage and founder of Karma Nirvana, a UK charity that supports individuals fleeing forced marriage and “honor” violence, recounts her own experience fleeing a forced marriage and spoke of Tahirih’s work to bring attention to the issue of forced marriage in the United States. (Photo by Michael Collela)

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