By Elizabeth Wagner
April 10, 2010
Ann Mollah wept uncontrollably in her Glen Oaks, Queens, home as she remembered
how her husband used to beat her.
He punched her stomach when she was pregnant with their first son, kicked her when
she was carrying their daughter and did it again during the third pregnancy. He
hit her when they disagreed over the Con Edison bill, or when he had headaches,
or when he disapproved of school supplies she bought the kids. He repeatedly called
her “worthless,” “garbage” and “good for nothing,”
and made her believe it.
One day she used the family car to run errands without his permission and he got
mad. They argued and he grew madder. Then he flew into a rage, wrapped his hands
around her neck and squeezed. She tried to scream for help as he strangled her.
She was able to utter, “I’ll call the police.” Then he shoved
her to the ground.
She buried her face in her small hands and sobbed as she recalled her fear and the
horror in her children’s eyes as they watched.
Mollah was a victim of domestic violence for two decades. As a Muslim immigrant
from Indonesia, she knew no one in New York City she could turn to for help.
“You are hopeless,” she said. “You don’t know what to do.”
Anna Mollah describes the domestic abuse she faced for years.
So Mollah remained silent for 20 years, divulging her secret to God only.
For Mollah, and thousands of battered immigrant women like her, breaking the silence
proves to be excruciatingly difficult. Foreign-born women fail to report abuse more
than American women for a number of reasons: language barriers, the fear of deportation
and cultural taboos about discussing marital problems, according to New York City’s
Office to Combat Domestic Violence.
Mollah hid the abuse for years and was even too embarrassed about it to confide
in her mother and sister when they later moved to Queens.
“I felt ashamed. I felt embarrassed,” she said. “You chose the
person yourself. We agreed to get married, and now I failed. So I couldn’t
tell anyone. I never told anyone.”
Hundreds of non-profit organizations in New York City provide support for abused
women. The OCDV operates facilities that direct victims to the various support groups,
shelters and legal resources. Staff members speak more than 20 languages collectively
and have capabilities to communicate in 150 languages.
“If we are talking about support to victims, it’s there,” said
OCDV spokeswoman Ruth Villalonga. “The services are right there and they are
But some anti-abuse advocates say many organizations aren’t able to cater
to specific immigrant groups, which are newer to New York City. They say victims
often prefer to seek help among people of their own ethnicity or religion.
Robina Niaz, director of Turning Point for Women and Families, said the most recent
immigrants to arrive, such as South Asians and Muslims — like Mollah —
are still struggling to create their own resources.
Niaz founded the Flushing-based group in 2004 to address the needs of Muslim women.
It remains the only Muslim-based abuse support organization in the city today.
“If you feel you belong then you can overcome some of the challenges,”
said Niaz, a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan. “Abuse isolates you. How do you
break isolation? Create organizations. The sense of safety is key.”
Niaz believes many agencies cannot meet the needs of Muslim women and subsequently
fail to create that safety zone. For instance, Niaz says few shelters have extra
space where devout Muslims can pray. She also mentioned many safe houses do not
take fasting and dietary needs into consideration when preparing meals; Muslims
do not eat pork, for example.
Niaz added Muslim women are traditionally reticent in discussing personal hardships.
She admitted she kept secret the verbal abuse waged against her by her husband.
“Our women often come from cultures where they wait for someone else to ask
what’s wrong,” she said. “The onus is on families to step up and
see if someone needs help. Here in America people (ask), ‘How was I supposed
to know that you needed help if you didn’t say anything?’ And Muslim
women will say, ‘Well, you never asked.’ ”
Niaz believes if Muslim organizations become more visible, domestic violence will
become less of a stigma. New York City is home to the second largest Muslim population
in the United States, and Niaz expects to see an increase in the number of Muslim
victims seeking help.
Keeping up with the demand has proved challenging. Turning Point has counseled more
than 250 women since the group’s inception, but Niaz believes she could provide
more help with more employees and money. Niaz has a fulltime staff of two, with
just three more part-time workers. Office space is limited and consists of one small
counseling room. And she is short on funding. A large grant given to the non-profit
by its main funder will sunset in June.
Money is not exactly pouring into Muslim groups. Islamic organizations including
Turning Point still face post-9/11 hostility.
“The anti-Muslim sentiments are going strong,” said Adem Carroll, chairman
of New York City’s Muslim Consultative Network. Carroll said Americans are
growing increasingly cautious about having their names affiliated with Muslim organizations
and refuse to donate to Islamic charities.
Niaz credits city, state and federal agencies for being aware that immigrant-based
abuse organizations need aid. But she is discouraged that the government is not
making such assistance a priority.
“Saying we’re in touch with the problems is not the same thing as physically
making sure needs are met,” Niaz said.
Until city agencies step in with funding, Niaz encourages the Muslim community to
build its own arsenal of resources. She warns there is a severe lack of Muslim social
workers and attorneys.
While New York City’s Muslim community strives to establish more anti-abuse
organizations, people like Mollah still agonize over their own fractured support
webs. She finally visited a few organizations after her husband choked her. While
the groups provided emotional support, few offered the help she needs to combat
a series of legal and financial problems.
In February 2007, Mollah filed for divorce and her husband moved out. She said he
still refuses to pay child support and make mortgage payments because he has a “good
lawyer” who can “get him out of it.” Mollah’s lawyer quit
when she couldn’t afford to pay $2,000 she owed him.
She desperately is seeking employment since being terminated from her computer-related
job after a car accident left her in the hospital and unable to work for months.
A social worker dropped her case when she missed appointments, opting instead to
attend technology classes and job interviews.
She admitted every day it’s a challenge to feed her teenage son who still
lives at home. Her other two children are at college living on financial aid and
scholarships. She doesn’t know where to turn for a new attorney, food stamps
or temporary assistance to pay medical bills and mounting debt. And, she said, she
has exhausted her options.
“I really don’t know anymore what to expect and how to get help because
if you name any organization that could help me, I’ve already been there,”
she said. “It’s a long, lonely process when you need help but nobody
Her gaze wandered to a window in the family room where she watched rain pound the
glass for a while. A dim glow peaked through the blinds, which were half-drawn.
It was the only light in the house. Then she turned back around, wiped her tear-stained
cheek and asked, “Where is my justice?”
The uncertainty has caused Mollah to unravel emotionally and physically. She has
little time to maintain her appearance or the appearance of her home. Black makeup
caked under her eyes thanks to dried tears — she looked tired from all the
stress. She kept apologizing for the overflowing boxes of divorce paperwork and
piles of clothing on the living room floor.
“I’m so embarrassed,” she said
Mollah manages to hold herself together for the sake of her children. She said she
still prays every night, and she is comforted by her belief that the worst is behind
But Mollah still needs help and isn’t ashamed to speak up this time.
“I am as American as anybody else,” she said. “I pay my taxes.
I pay my duty. So now when I need help, who helps me?”
Editor's Note: This story is republished with the courtesy of