PALO ALTO, Calif. – The Indian American community’s response to domestic violence has undergone a dramatic evolution, said Maitri president Sonya Pelia at the organization’s 27th annual gala here March 3.
The sold-out evening event, attended by many Silicon Valley luminaries, raised $650,000 for the non-profit organization, which provides services and transitional housing to victims of domestic abuse.
Two-thirds of Maitri’s $1.6 million budget will come from government sources and grants, said Pelia, adding, however, that community donations allow the organization to spearhead innovative programs.
“Clients used to call us with fear, not knowing whether we would support them. At community events, the Maitri outreach booth would get the cold shoulder; people avoided making eye contact,” said Pelia onstage. “This is such a sea shift for us. It is so gratifying to see community leaders talking about domestic violence,” she said, noting that the organization now gets calls from mothers, fathers, and other relatives on behalf of survivors of spousal abuse
One out of every three women and one in seven men are believed to be victims of severe violence by a partner. The United Nations has labeled domestic violence as one of the most unaddressed human rights violations in the world.
Noreen Raza, who serves on Maitri’s Board of Trustees, said onstage: “Maitri has helped break through a wall of denial. It has taken shame and embarrassment out of the equation for bringing about consciousness.”
In one of the most moving moments of the evening, a video produced by children who had experienced domestic violence in their homes was screened onstage.
Children in the short documentary spoke about being unable to tell their friends about what was happening at home. The film noted that children who experience domestic violence at home are more likely to commit suicide, suffer from depression and rages, and are more prone to committing violence.
Raza and Shamik Mehta, who also serves on Maitri’s Board of Trustees, led a pledge drive, starting with donations of $27,000 to celebrate the organization’s anniversary. Seven donors immediately raised their paddles. Funds were also raised via a silent auction, which featured several bespoke saris, among other auction items.
California state Assemblyman Ash Kalra presented a certificate of commendation onstage. “Maitri has had such a special place in my heart for so many years. We’re talking about an issue that has been swept under the rug for so many years,” said the Indian American politician.
“There are a lot of forces pulling women down, including some tweeted from the White House,” said Kalra, in an oblique reference to President Donald Trump.
In an interview with India-West before the gala began, Pelia said she was gratified to see the Indian American community getting behind Neha Rastogi, a former manager at Apple, who was abused by her former husband Abhishek Gattani for over a decade. Gattani got a light sentence of 30 days in 2017, and served only 15 days.
“People were saying this is not acceptable, that justice must prevail. There was amazing response and such a shift in consciousness,” said Pelia.
Board of Trustees member S. Suresh, who has served with Maitri for over a decade, told India-West that Gattani’s karma did catch up with him. He was fired from the company he founded – Cuberon – and virtually disowned by the community. “But the justice system failed Neha,” he said.
Suresh’s wife, Jaya Suresh, heads up Maitri’s transitional housing and economic empowerment programs. Maitri provides up to nine months of housing for survivors of domestic abuse and their children. The facility has room for nine families and is always full, noted Suresh.
Maitri clients staying at the facility set goals to exit transitional housing. Suresh said the economic empowerment program offers development in basic skills, such as how to apply for a checking account, how to use an ATM machine, interviewing for a job, and finding housing.
Maitri offers direct loans, grants, and housing deposits to women who have no sources of income as they exit transitional housing. The organization also helps with legal fees of $5,000 or more for clients who need to fight custody battles or immigration issues, said Pelia, noting that many women are dependent on their spouse for their immigration status.
Since its inception, the grants and loans program has disbursed more than $1 million, she said onstage, to cheers from the audience.
Two years ago, Maitri launched a mental health program which provides one-on-one counseling, a weekly support group, and services for children who have been exposed to domestic violence. Mariam Ali, a marriage and family therapist intern, helps the counseling program, with support from marriage and family therapist Meghna Hindia, who also serves on Maitri’s Board of Governance.
Ali told India-West that survivors enrolled in the mental health program often come in suffering from a lack of self-esteem, low confidence, depression, and post-partum depression.
Through the weekly support groups, one-on-one counseling, and assertiveness training, “women come out hopeful about moving forward,” said Ali, adding that most of the clients have gone on to get jobs, and some have even started to date again.
Hindia told India-West that domestic violence sometimes gets worse when a woman is pregnant. “There is a loss of control by the perpetrator,” she said, noting that this is a fairly-established pattern.
Victims needing counseling or other services can call Maitri’s toll-free help line: 888-862-4874. Maitri volunteers are fluent in several Indian languages.