Editor’s note: Names and some details of this story have been changed to protect the identity of the woman featured and the safety of her friends and family, both here and abroad.
When Kadi entered the United States for the second time, she knew there would be no returning to her home country of Mali. An activist who fought for women’s rights and who defied her husband and community to protect her daughter from female genital mutilation (FGM), she knew that returning would cost her her life and leave her daughter without a protector.
Kadi’s story is difficult. After being shielded by a sympathetic uncle as a girl, she endured forced FGM at age 23 at the command of the polygamist man she was forced to marry, all with the support of her community. And after obtaining a level of education that is rare for Mali women, she built up and ran a successful business only to have it destroyed by her abusive, influential spouse.
After she fled successfully to the United States, her husband used her children as pawns to lure her back to Mali, threatening to hurt or kill them unless she returned to be punished. After her brief return, Kadi barely escaped with her life. Her husband attacked her as she slept, leaving her with severe scarring and the certainty that she could never again return and survive it.
“It’s the most personally and professionally satisfying thing I’ve done since I’ve been practicing law,” Biberstein says. “You’re kind of in the business of saving a life."
Although Kadi’s story is difficult, it is not tragic. She is now reunited with her daughter — who was expedited out of Mali just weeks before her scheduled circumcision — and living and working (as she loves and fought to do) safely in the United States.
Her asylum would never have been granted without the work of the Tahirih Justice Center in Houston, a young non-profit that provides legal resources to women seeking refuge in the U.S. as victims of gender-based crimes.
When Tahirih expanded from Washington, D.C. to Houston at the end of 2009, its staff of one initially encouraged prospective staffers to look at other organizations due to the intensity of the work. Thankfully, due to the devotion of its staff, partnerships with other community organizations and with donated time from Houston law firms, Tahirih has successfully represented hundreds of women who would have found themselves in Houston without legal or social resources and facing deportation to nations that would not protect them.
With the generous assistance of pro-bono attorneys like Baker & McKenzie’s Andrew Biberstein and Emily Harbison, who worked on Kadi’s case, Tahirih strives to select cases that establish legal precedent. Tahirih works to select cases that have the potential to expand our country’s definition of refugees and give women like Kadi a better chance at safety and freedom from persecution on the basis of their sex.
“We want systematic reform, so we try to take complex cases that push the law,” founder and director Anne Chandler says. “There are other community organizations than help with many immigrant needs.
"We work with honor killing, forced marriage, FGM, and rape as a tool of war. Not very many organizations do that type of work.”
The United States’ definition of a refugee was formalized after World War II, and designed to protect those fleeing persecution due to their political or religious beliefs or their belonging to a “social group” with “immutable characteristics.” Sex and gender claims usually fit only vaguely into the latter category, so Tahirih is dedicated to expanding the definition to include gender-based persecution, particularly since the U.S. has never adopted the gender guidelines set forth by many other nations.
The organization's already found success, spurring reform in the international marriage brokerage industry, creating legal precedent to expand the law to cover the ongoing harm persistent in cases of FGM, and applying the lessons learned trying cases to public policy advocacy — particularly in cases of citizen daughters with immigrant parents who are facing culturally-sanctioned mutilation abroad.
It means as much to the lawyers who donate their time as to their clients.
“It’s the most personally and professionally satisfying thing I’ve done since I’ve been practicing law,” Biberstein says. “You’re kind of in the business of saving a life. The most impactful part is the human component.
After she fled successfully to the United States, her husband used her children as pawns to lure her back to Mali, threatening to hurt or kill them unless she returned.
"[Kadi and I] interacted for hours and hours; I’ve interviewed her, I’ve seen her cry. It’s a much stronger bond than seeing someone a few times in a board room.”
Of the some 400 cases that come to Tahirih each year (about a third of which are asylum cases), its staff is able to take on approximately 30 percent. Ninety-nine percent of these are successful, with Tahirih clients eventually being granted asylum and freedom in the U.S.