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Finding life after domestic abuse

The murder trial of Muzzammil "Mo" Hassan in Erie County Court has shined a spotlight locally on domestic violence, but the issue is a global epidemic.

The United Nations Development Fund for Women estimates that at least one of three women worldwide will be beaten, raped or otherwise abused during her lifetime. The abuser is usually a member of her family.

Just ask Sarita Palhan, 40, of Niagara Falls, born in India, who not long ago won the Courage to Change award) from Family and Children's Service of Niagara. Her award is presented to a former client of the agency like Palhan -- and it does indeed take courage to leave an abusive relationship.

Today Palhan, who came to Niagara Falls in 2006 and is now happily single, works as a recreational aide and speaks to women who seek help at Family and Children's Service of Niagara's PASSAGE program.

>How did it feel to win an award?

I'm glad if I can help and give back to our community. No other woman should go through what I went through.

>Tell us what you endured before you came to Niagara Falls?

I had an arranged marriage, which was fixed when I was 17. From the start, my in-laws weren't happy with the dowry that my parents gave to them during marriage. As with tradition, we lived in a joined family, with my mother-in law, sister-in law and brother-in-law. They all tried their best to treat me as a slave and put me down daily.

>How old were you?

I was only 20 years old and was raised to obey my husband.

>How did the abuse start?

It started slowly, through verbal and emotional abuse. I was isolated and controlled -- not allowed to go out without permission. I had left my parents, and I had no home. I was never taught how to drive, and due to limited English, I couldn't talk to my neighbors.

>Did it become physical?

I remember when I was slapped for the first time, just two months after my marriage. When I was pregnant with my first baby, I became more vulnerable. It was hard for me to stand up to it. Words attacked my self-image, and eventually they shattered my self-esteem. At age 25, I was the mother of three children -- who are my life, and who motivated me to live.

>What happened then?

As years passed by, and physical abuse increased, and I'd allow him to take out his anger at me because I felt this is my fate and my destiny, God is punishing me because I must have done something wrong in my "previous birth."

>You weren't Christian at the time. How did this affect your outlook?

I slowly became an atheist.

>Did the violence escalate?

Violence was brutal. I was beaten up with shoes, broomsticks, and so on.

>Was your life at risk?

He threatened to kill me with a big steak knife, and also pulled the trigger of his shotgun -- but luckily it was empty.

>Why did you stay?

In an abusive relationship, it can be hard to get out, as the victims' love may be strong, despite the way their partner is treating them. But there was a wake-up call for me, because my children were witnessing violence too.

How was that a wake-up call?

I used to think I have to live with him, because I have kids, but then I started to think, that I have to leave him because I have kids. I just needed a sign. One day door-to-door Bible-study folks knocked at my door and gave me a Bible. I found a way. There is a good God who gave his life for me.

>What do you have to consider in protecting the children?

In that regard, among the most important issues are -- how do you leave an abusive relationship, and how do you cope with it after you do leave?

>And how do you do that?

Just take first step and seek help.

Family & Children's Service of Niagara's PASSAGE helped me a lot here. It took time to build my self-confidence back. Through PASSAGE I got shelter, food, clothing, protection and security. There's help here, once you step out of abuse and hold on to your strength that we all have within ourselves. Just believe -- do not fear. It's possible to overcome this fear, and live this life in peace, harmony and happiness.

>How are you doing now?

I'm doing very good. I'm about a year away from becoming a nurse.

>What would you say to a woman (or man) who may be reading your comments, yet still is considering a return to an abusive spouse?

Don't go back -- focus, and don't give up. It's not the end of the world. My fear is all gone.

>We also understand you later had a bad experience that started with an online dating relationship.

An online predator.

>What did you do first to handle that?

I called the cops.

To contact Family & Children's Service of Niagara's PASSAGE. call 285-6984.

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Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Louise Continelli, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or e-mail her at lcontinelli@buffnews.com

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