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A Place Created for Women's Personal Refuge

A shelter helps those who fled Africa's turmoil only to find themselves at the mercy of domestic violence.

March 04, 2002|SHARON BOORSTIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Morning glories spill over the fence surrounding a large two-story stucco house in Hollywood. The lawn is freshly mowed, the roses in the garden have been pruned and in the backyard a kids' climbing structure sprouts from a mini-playground. It appears to be the home of a family with young children and, in a way, it is. It is Refugee Safe Haven, a residential shelter for battered women and their kids.

L.A. County has 25 short-term emergency shelters for victims of domestic violence but only a handful of residential shelters like this one. Refugee Safe Haven caters mostly to refugees and immigrants, primarily Africans.

An outgrowth of the African Community Resource Center, the four-bedroom, four-bath shelter opened a year ago. Since then, women from countries such as Gambia, Ivory Coast, Congo, Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, Barbados, Guatemala and Italy have found refuge here. Nikki Tesfai, founder of both the resource center and the shelter, is herself an abused refugee. A 47-year-old Eritrean whose eyes hint at an inner strength, Tesfai started the resource center in 1984. From an office on Vermont Avenue near Fifth Street, the center offers resettlement assistance, family support and counseling, job placement, education, youth support groups and English-language training to refugees from countries in Africa as well as from the Middle East, Asia, Eastern Europe and Central America.

Tesfai was raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the oldest of eight children in a middle-class family. Her father sent her to school in Switzerland where she earned a scholarship to study economics and public policy. Later, a scholarship enabled her to continue her studies at Union College in Tennessee.

In 1974 Tesfai returned to Africa to join the Eritrean rebels fighting for liberation. When she spoke up for women's rights, however, the rebel leaders put her into a prison camp. Two and a half years later, she escaped and trekked across the desert for four days with a friend to Khartoum, Sudan.

She found work with an agency of the United Nations and the job brought her to Italy, where she married a fellow Eritrean refugee. The couple moved to Texas and started a family. But her husband became controlling. "He wouldn't let me have friends; he criticized everything I said," she says. When his verbal abuse escalated into physical abuse, she fled with her two young sons to L.A.

Here she discovered that the county's refugee centers catered mainly to Latinos and Asians and lacked the staff to handle clients who spoke African languages (about 550,000 African refugees and immigrants live in L.A. County). With help from city Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, Tesfai opened the resource center. It runs on federal, state and local government funds as well as private donations.

At the center, Tesfai soon realized that there was a need for a shelter for refugee victims of domestic violence. "The African women came to us for help in learning English, getting their papers, and finding jobs," she recalls. "When we interviewed them, we learned that they led abused lives. We didn't tell them to leave their husbands, but we explained that in this country women do not have to tolerate spousal abuse."

Tesfai estimates that more than 75% of refugee women suffer from domestic violence. One reason, she believes, is because they adapt to American life more readily than their husbands. The men then take out their frustration on their wives and children. "The women are eager to learn English, to get a job. They are naturally more open to change," she says. "Many men become hostile in the face of change. In my experience, it takes men 10 times longer to adapt to a new environment than women."

Tesfai takes pride that since Refugee Safe Haven opened, with the help of a $659,000 grant from the city of Los Angeles, 22 residents have completed the six- to nine-month program and have gone on to find jobs and to get their own apartments. At the moment, the 20-bed facility houses residents from the Congo, Egypt, Gambia, Guatemala and Los Angeles, most in their 20s and 30s, with six children among them, ranging from an infant to an 11-year-old. They share household and kitchen duties, and they take turns making dinner.

"You wouldn't believe the variety of delicious ethnic foods that are served here," says Tesfai. "The clients share their different cultures."

In the dining/multipurpose room is a sewing machine. There are also several computers, but only two are in working condition. A TV, VCR and a piano dot the living room. Much of the furniture in the spick-and-span house came from private donations--down to the books in the bookcase and the painting over the fireplace.

A key player in the success of the shelter is psychotherapist Gerrie Rosen, the clinical director. Rosen spends five days a week here doing group and one-on-one counseling.

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