Phenomenal Woman: The Escape Artist
She fled an abusive arranged marriage, a brutal African prison and a perilous refugee camp. Now Nikki Tesfai dedicates her life to helping the displaced and discouraged “52,000 of them so far” find homes and hope.
It’s 11 o’clock on a Friday morning in Los Angeles, and Nikki Tesfai has an hour to find beds for a Somali woman and her three small children, newly arrived in America and penniless. “Shelters close their lists each day at noon, and she has nowhere else to go tonight,” Tesfai explains to the small crowd in her office between urgent telephone calls. “This woman trusted a man who then took all her money. It happens all the time.”
As usual, the 47-year-old founder and executive director of the African Community Resource Center is doing three things at once. She and a colleague are designing a program that will sensitize members of the Los Angeles Police Department to the special needs of African refugee women who’ve suffered domestic violence. A realtor has just stopped by to show her a property that might serve as a second shelter for these women and their children. (Last January she opened the first American shelter for African refugee women and children, though others are welcome, too. It already houses 20 to 25 people, with 16 more on the waiting list.) And I’m there to interview her when she has a free moment, which doesn’t seem likely.
It’s difficult for me to remember that this elegant and serene woman was once a prisoner of war and a desperate refugee herself. Born in Eritrea and raised in Ethiopia, neighboring East African nations often at war, Tesfai knows flight and danger in her bones. She also knows how to transform suffering into compassionate action.
Since 1984, the African Community Resource Center (ACRC) has offered more than 52,000 refugees and immigrants from 52 countries the skills and support they need to start new lives. The ACRC makes sure that newcomers to America have access to health care, counseling, education, job training, temporary housing and legal aid. Thirty to forty clients a day “double that on Wednesdays, when the food bank is open” come to the ACRC’s modest but welcoming headquarters, decorated with bright Senegalese fabrics and Cameroonian dolls. Most of the visitors are African, but there are also plenty from Europe, Asia, and South America. “The feeling is the same whether you are Asian, Latino or African,” Tesfai says. “You’ve been uprooted from home. You feel lonely, disoriented, scared, you lose your whole self, all your tradition and you need a support system.” Drop in on the ACRC and you’re likely to find a dozen people sitting around a wooden table chatting happily in French, English, Amharic- an Ethiopian language- and ten other tongues, as if the office were a social club.
The 12 staff members and 10 volunteers, most of them refugees themselves, attend to both local and global issues daily. ACRC’s resident psychotherapist, Gerrie Rosen, PhD, might be on the telephone between appointments. Tesfai, in the middle of preparing to testify before Congress or the United Nations about the treatment of refugees, often rises from her desk to cradle a baby or offer a slim hand to welcome three generations of a family from Burundi who’ve dropped by just to say good morning. “Hello, sweetheart, tell me how you are,” Tesfai greets clients in her sweet bird of a voice. She treats everyone she meets as a member of an extended, talented family ready to be tapped for support. Eustace Pearce, the ACRC’s wise, soft-spoken receptionist, for example, was the Sierra Leonean ambassador to the USSR. “I seek his guidance often,” says Tesfai. She’s not shy about asking big favors: Would a friend mind fetching an Armenian refugee at the airport or taking in a family from Kosovo for a month? Would a client with troubles cheer up a client with bigger troubles? The answer is nearly always yes.
“I have seen misery that people shouldn’t have to face,” Tesfai tells me over coffee. “I never expected to be alive.” Though she encourages other African women to share their histories with one another in support groups, she is reluctant to tell her own story. “Many Americans have been practicing since childhood to say how they feel,” Tesfai says with a laugh. “We didn’t grow up this way. We were told to keep everything a secret.”
The eldest of five boys and three girls, Tesfai was raised in Addis Ababa by a loving mother and father, a homemaker and the owner of an automobile repair shop, who were committed to educating their daughters as well as their sons. Nevertheless, they felt compelled by traditions to marry off Nikki, at 13, to a man her father’s age. The marriage was horrible and bitter, Tesfai recalls. Her husband and his mother beat her regularly, and after two years she fled to her parents’ house. “When I write a book about my life, it will be called Escape,” Tesfai says. “In my life there have been so many escapes.”
Tesfai, who earned a PhD in humanities in 1997, has piled up honors: she was named refugee woman of the year by the Women’s Commission on Refugee Women and Children in 1994, and in 2000 the chief justice of the California Supreme Court appointed her to the California Family and Juvenile Law Advisory Commission. But she’s proudest of helping individuals—the West African woman, her children taken away by a manipulative American husband, who learned enough English to speak up for herself in court and got her kids back; the mentally ill client who found a job and an apartment. “When he told me he’d gotten a job and a place to live, it was like someone had given me a million dollars,” she says. “It was like therapy. It gave me peace in my heart.”
Besides providing comfort and safety, the shelter offers on-site job and workshops in self-esteem. “Domestic violence makes even the most intelligent women feel hopeless. We validate them and help them find jobs. But for someone to see that she can have a life again does not happen right away.”
Back in her office after a tour of the shelter, I ask Tesfai why she thinks some people faced with misfortune shrivel in bitterness while others, like her, are able to share the wisdom learned in their ordeals. “People get bitter when they feel enchained,” she says. “When you have a way out, like working, you are free- and you don’t have time for bitterness. Besides, the worst thing would be to be like the ones who have hurt you.”