By Connor Adams Sheets
Terry and Suzie have spent most of their lives living in fear of their husbands, abused by them, broken down by them, manipulated by them. Their lives were taken by the men they once loved and who they thought loved them back.
They lived their personal nightmares in silence for years on end, taking the beatings and the insults, thinking there was no end in sight until they finally could not take it any longer and sought help. These brave women, who asked that their last names be withheld, learned that though they were chronic victims of domestic violence, there was a way forward for them. They eventually made their way to Women and Work, a program at Queens College where women with broken lives or grim futures spend 15 weeks working hard, learning job skills and rebuilding their senses of self, all with the goal of personal empowerment and employment.
“At Women and Work, you’re not just taking classes, you’re entering a community. Women and Work is like a home for them in that it is highly structured, but it’s non-judgemental,” Carmella Marrone, the program’s executive director, said. “People can come in and be the architects of their lives. We provide them with the tools.”
Maspeth resident Terry, 40, watched more than a dozen years ago as her husband threw her toddler down on the floor, and for years thereafter she endured a seemingly endless series of threats and emotional abuse that lasted through the childhoods of her two children and a long struggle with breast cancer. Her husband’s abuse ended last year after he had a stroke and she was left with no job, no self-esteem, two emotionally scarred children and a crippled mate.
“I was just sitting watching TV after he came back from the hospital and I said, ‘Why am I here? What is my life? Is my purpose just to be a caretaker and look back at my life?’” she said during an exclusive interview with TimesLedger Newspapers. “I said, ‘I know I want to improve my computer skills and do something productive,’ and I came across Women and Work and, and I said, ‘OK, let me call.’ Wow. I found out this is like this movement of women that’s coming together to talk about domestic violence and breast cancer and all these issues. And I said, ‘Thank you, God. Finally, here’s a place where I have a voice.’”
Domestic violence is a scourge on communities nationwide, Marrone said. At least three women die of domestic violence every day in America, and 70 percent of female homicide victims are killed by intimate partners, she said.
“It’s like an array of psychological assaults and they’re using these when you’re down,” Marrone said. “According to the Centers for Disease Control, the post-traumatic stress disorder you get from this domestic violence is as close as you can get to the trauma you get as a prisoner of war. These men are domestic terrorists.”
Richmond Hill resident Suzie, 38, a Trinidadian immigrant, knows far too well the toll domestic violence can take on a woman.
She was abused for years by her husband but in recent months escaped his violent ways. She has not been able to secure the safety of her children, however, who she prays he will not kidnap and take to his homeland in Pakistan, a real fear because he still has unsupervised weekend custody of the 6- and 9-year-old children despite a stack of police reports filed against him.
After Suzie married her husband in 2000, he began to systematically deconstruct her identity, making her quit her job when she had a child later that year and moving from Queens to New Jersey, many miles from her family and friends. He even stopped her from practicing her Hindu faith.
“I gave my religion up and I didn’t even feel comfortable praying in my own home. I turned off part of myself. He made me name my kid a Muslim name, he made me get him circumcised,” she said. “I played the part so well for so many years. My family said, ‘You’ve changed. You’re not the Suzie we used to now. You have become a Muslim woman hiding behind your husband.’”
She questioned her station for years, but she could not leave despite wanting to with all her heart because he had taken her ability to make money and with it her freedom.
“I held on for the sake of my children. I didn’t know it was abuse. There were no physical scars, but in my heart I was dying a slow death,” she said.
In 2008, her husband had an affair with her best friend. He left her for the friend, started to become physically violent and threatened to kill her. She feared for her life and those of her children, and after a particularly scary incident got an order of protection against him and found her way to Women and Work, where she is taking the 15-week program.
In the end, Suzie and Terry came forward for one reason: to try to help other women start down the path to a better life.
“In telling my story, I hope it will get to another woman’s ear or lips or mind and help them,” Suzie said.
For more information about Women and Work visit qc.cuny.edu/womenandwork or call 212-642-2070 or 718-997-4899.
Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4538.