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The American Dream: Whose Dream is it Anyway?

By Katherine Rose Johnson, Middlebury College (2018)

“tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine” — Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

Grappling for words, hoping shear will alone equated to fluent Arabic, I explained how much goes into a lawyer meeting. I fought desperately to tuck my exasperation behind my tongue. We had waited for so long for someone to take her case, and they had. If she didn’t go to court tomorrow, her husband could take her daughter away. She would have no protective order, no protection.

Halfway down the hallway, we stood there and I said this. And she interjected. No one here spoke her language. They just pushed papers in front of her and didn’t explain. No one at the shelter would help her. All she did was cry and beg, and they never followed through.

Kate (Middlebury 2018) with Shepherd Internship colleague, China  Ibuakaeze (Berea College 2017).  They lived and interned in Atlanta in 2015.

Kate (Middlebury 2018) with Shepherd Internship colleague, China Ibuakaeze (Berea College 2017). They lived and interned in Atlanta in 2015.


This summer, sweltering in Atlanta, working with immigrant victims of domestic violence, I heard a lot of stories and I met a lot of women. All survived unthinkable horrors and left me with this ineffable mix of outrage and admiration: they taught me about the world and about myself. But the hardest case for me was a woman I met my first week working at Tapestri.

Seated in the passenger side of my supervisor’s Camry, we rolled to a stop in front of a plain, white, don’t-look-at-me-twice house. Ninety-five degrees outside, stubborn beads of sweat had already staked claim everywhere I didn’t want. Welcome to Atlanta.

My first client intake meeting, I tagged along to observe, and because our client was Libyan and I had a semester of Arabic in college. (Identifying characteristics including names have been altered to maintain client confidentiality.) Pushing apprehensions aside, I pressed the buzzer and followed my supervisor into the shelter. Just down the hallway, on our right, sat a wary woman, poking her head cautiously around the corner. She watched intently, peering over the small toddler in her lap, who was grabbing idly at her face and shirt. My first thought was that she was spying – reconnaissance, perhaps, for another woman, or maybe just plain intrigue. I was wrong, though. She was scoping us out. But because she knew we were there to meet with her.

Ten minutes later we were in a cramped, white room at the corner of the domestic violence shelter. Meet Mahja , and her daughter – observant, engaging, one and a half year-old – Aali. We soon found Mahja’s probing eyes matched her firm, fiery voice. She seemed stubborn, demanding, even frustrating. Starting right in with her story, she pushed across a folder with what documents she had. Then, with the snap of a finger, she grabbed them back, snatching them out of my supervisor’s hands. “They are mine,” she said forcefully, “Tell me what you need and I will give them to you. But they are mine.” A little startled, we slowed down and took a step back. We took a moment to really explain who we were, what Tapestri does, how we could help.

Tapestri, an Atlanta non-profit, supports immigrant victims of domestic violence (DV) and human trafficking. As a DV intern, I shadowed a caseworker, helping manage the caseload – from intake, to everything that happened next. Primarily, this meant legal advocacy; filing for protective orders, finding divorce and immigration attorneys, and organizing necessary documents for visa applications (there are two visas for which immigrant victims qualify – the U-VISA for immigrant crime victims and VAWA for battered immigrants married to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents). But it also meant filling out Food Stamps and Medicaid applications, making therapy referrals, finding daycare or rent assistance, driving clients to appointments, or just plain checking in.

When we met with Mahja, the most pressing concern was her pending divorce: she had not responded to her husband’s filing, and a court date was coming up quickly. To make matters trickier, her motion for a full year temporary protective order (TPO) was pushed back and lumped together with her divorce case. If she didn’t file or go to court, any of her husband’s divorce claims could be granted. She could lose custody of her daughter, and her protective order would be thrown out. (An order against a husband who used drugs and slept with a gun next to him, cussed at her, hit her, made her wait on him hand and foot and nearly kidnapped their daughter from the first shelter where she stayed.) She needed a divorce lawyer, and soon.

I found a local agency that does pro-bono work for homeless individuals and we went a few days later bright and early. It took half the day to finish the process and the whole time she sat talking to me, telling me of her story; her family back home, her evil husband, and how terribly tired she was. Without warning, this loud, demanding woman became someone else entirely. She was soft as she spoke, her breaths growing heavier and tears falling from the corner of her eyes. Underneath the brave face she put on to fight for herself and her daughter, she was hurting. Her little girl pulled at her cheeks and giggled while all this was going on, a slight smile escaping from the sides of her mouth. I looked at her and hoped she would grow up in a safe world with her mother: in a new life. I told Mahja we would fight together, and we wouldn’t give up.

But the wheels of justice turn slowly. We were supposed to hear back within three days if the divorce lawyers would take her case. We did not. I called, and was greeted by, “they’re in court, leave your name and number and I’ll have someone return your call.” I heard some version of this every day for two weeks. Eventually they knew me by name, and were artfully dodging my calls. “Oh Kate? From Tapestri? I remember… yes I’ll have someone call you … ok bye.” (These were busy lawyers doing incredible work, but I really wished they were doing that work for Mahja.)

While we waited for a response, I applied for Food Stamps for Aali and called Mahja at the shelter almost daily. Each time I told her we hadn’t yet heard back from the divorce attorneys, but I would keep trying. We would keep trying. Still, I listened as she told me how people stole her food, how everyone was constantly yelling in the shelter and she couldn’t sleep. Her daughter was sick. They had to go to the hospital. Her life wasn’t supposed to be like this. Maybe she just should have stayed with her husband.

I found her a therapist and set up an appointment with an immigration lawyer. We were working on finding a local apartment so she could leave the shelter. And finally, FINALLY, we got the name of a lawyer at the homeless law agency and spoke to someone directly. They would take her case (!!!). We set up a meeting with the divorce lawyer and with a volunteer interpreter who moved her schedule to attend.. We had a plan. We had hope. We would meet on Monday, file before court on Tuesday and then see the immigration attorneys on Wednesday. “Progress.” Check. But what does “progress” mean? And for whom?

Monday came, Mahja didn’t. No one at the shelter had seen her since that morning. We called every number we could think of and waited as long as we could. An hour passed. We couldn’t reach her, and there was nothing we could do. We went late and still the divorce attorney graciously spoke with us on Mahja’s behalf.

We drove back to the shelter one last time to drop off a copy of the attorney retainer, hoping Mahja would sign so she would have legal representation at her hearing Tuesday morning. Just as I climbed back into the car, Mahja turned the corner at the end of the street, pushing Aali in a stroller. She looked at me with empty eyes. My heart sank a little. I had spent my whole afternoon just hoping she would show up. I didn’t think I had a right to feel this way, but I was frustrated, maybe even mad at Mahja. I was knitting a sweater, but as furiously as I worked to make it whole, it was unraveling even faster at the other end.

I approached her and with my semester’s worth of Arabic tried to grasp the situation.

“We had a meeting today, with the divorce lawyer.”

“I know.”

A short pause, a sigh, scrunched lips and sympathetic eyebrows, “…where were you?”

“You know, I woke up this morning and I really just didn’t feel good. I couldn’t sleep last night and my daughter needed food. I went to a friend’s house for help. I couldn’t go to the meeting.”

I could not go to the meeting. I replayed the words in my head. We walked inside as I waited for my supervisor, who was on the phone with another client. And I started trying to explain. Not because I was upset with Mahja or frustrated, though deep down, I was. But because I really didn’t think she understood.

Tackling the legal system, applying for benefits, living in a shelter: it’s hard. It’s not just hard; it’s really hard. If you speak English, and grew up in America and have a basic understanding of how the system and services work, or maybe even are going to school to study these systems; even then it’s hard. Let alone if you don’t speak English and grew up in a country or culture with an entirely different way of operating. A fear of the system makes accessing necessary resources even more complex. And often it leaves gaps in understanding and in access.

So, tightly tucking my exasperation, I tried to explain: how much goes into a lawyer meeting, what could happen if Mahja disappeared before court like she had for the lawyer meeting. My supervisor came in.

We went back down the hallway to that same cramped room and got an interpreter over the phone. The four of us – Mahja, her advocate at the shelter, my supervisor and I – in that tiny room, talking into a cellphone; our voices all measured, but frustrated. I couldn’t open my mouth, because I certainly wasn’t about to cry. Not from sadness or disappointment or anger, all of which I felt. Just simply from overwhelming emotion, emotion I really didn’t know how to catalogue. So I sat and watched as the heated conversation grew heavy. And then, Mahja: “I made a decision yesterday. I told my advocate and I’ll tell you. I give up. No more papers, no more documents, no more lawyers. No more. I don’t understand what you don’t understand, but I don’t want anything more.”

That was it. No means no.

Mahja did not sign the retainer or go to court. Later, we found out she had two previous lawyers through the state. Both withdrew because Mahja was inconsistent in her story and uncooperative. In the days before our meeting, she spoke to her religious counselor who encouraged her to reconcile with her husband, to fix her marriage. There was so much more to the story, more going on behind the scenes, and we just didn’t know.

Her advocate called from the shelter two weeks later, asking if the immigration lawyers would still meet. Given their caseload, they could not. We referred her to a few other pro-bono law agencies, but that was the most we could do. The heart-wrenching truth was that when Mahja decided to stop working with us, she didn’t just disappear into thin air – she was still out there fighting (and getting nowhere).

I thought about her and I wished a lot of things. I thought if she had gone that day she would have felt more included, more hopeful. I felt guilty because I really thought something got lost in translation. Language is only the first barrier, but it’s a big one. Somewhere, there was this tiny black hole where all the escaped words and meaning went. I don’t think she really understood the process at all and I don’t think things were communicated well. (Translating over the phone without context is really hard.)

That afternoon, when I tried to explain, I told her that there had been a Libyan woman who spoke her language and understood her culture and could really explain and clarify at the meeting. And she looked at me and told me that I was the only one who spoke Arabic, the only one who had really tried to help. How could she possibly see “progress” when everything just seemed to be more of the same?

I made a mistake. I had felt hopeful. I had thought there was a chance. I looked at her and thought, “You were so close. We were so close.” But she didn’t feel that. I had labeled the lawyers meeting “progress,” but maybe for Mahja it wasn’t. I thought she really didn’t see that there was a chance, an opportunity to start and try and build a new life. But maybe that was because it was my vision. Maybe that’s what I wanted for her and not what she wanted.

Even if she had gone to that meeting, it would have been the first of many. It would have taken years for her divorce to go through, or before she saw any kind of immigration document. We were going nowhere at a moderate pace. And it only would have continued to feel that way, especially for her.

Working with Mahja wasn’t about checking off boxes, and we certainly weren’t knitting a sweater. Maybe someday there will be a whole garment; maybe it will have patches sewn over gaping holes, or small tears or frays at the seam; maybe it will never get finished. I’ll never know. But it wasn’t about knitting a sweater. All we could do was supply the yarn; Mahja had to knit.

Even though it didn’t always feel right, my job, Tapestri’s job, was to help our clients do what they wanted to do. Not what we thought they should do, not what we wanted them to do, but to explain and clarify what we could and then let them make the choices. I think this may be the most important aspect of Tapestri’s work and mission. Without realizing, we all get up every day and put on these glasses. Our culture, our experiences, our opportunities have all shaped our values and beliefs. They affect how we see the world. I want to continue to learn other languages, to experience other cultures, to figure out exactly how my glasses fit me and how they shape the way I, and others, look at the world. To make it so that someone who has already suffered so much pain, does not have jump through yet another hoop. So they don’t have to sit there and watch with confusion as people talk and the world moves around them, while they have no idea what is being said or done.

Navigating the legal system and getting access to resources, government-provided or otherwise, takes time. And in the meantime, people have to live their lives. From what I saw this summer, most immediate help came from churches and NGO’s, not government provided systems. Government systems provide people with longer term solutions for food and housing; it also takes a long time to get them. The medley of charities and other incredible organizations provide immediate help where it is needed. But just throwing money or resources to fix the right-now problem isn’t a sustainable answer. And unfortunately these immediate resources come from a patchwork of mostly uncoordinated efforts, leaving lots of gaps between what different groups do.

There are 161 homeless shelters in Atlanta. And they’re not all equal – some have incredible reputations, and others not so much. Shelters can be so crucial for providing temporary assistance and aid, but what about after that? To build a family, to “start a new life” is betting against all odds if they don’t have a home, or if that home is in a dangerous neighborhood that will only set them up to get stuck in the cycle of poverty again. The “bridge to a better life” mantra may in some cases be a load of crap.

I keep asking this question. I haven’t found an answer. I don’t think I will. But I see others wrestling with it too. People struggle every day to feed themselves, and their kids. They’re scared of getting sick because if they have to go the hospital they won’t be able to pay for it. They may not even know where they’re sleeping tonight. Why is that okay? Why is that how our world works? I don’t know. But this summer taught me that there is a way to live with this cognitive dissonance that isn’t just passive. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. While charities and other organizations providing immediate assistance aren’t permanent solutions, they are necessary – they help make ends meet. They make a difference, however small. But there needs to be more coordination among these providers. And they certainly aren’t the long-term answer. There needs to be cogent policy in place that makes accessing these resources a reality, not a dream at a long shot. And that policy should reflect access to services by immigrants.


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