Tapestri on Ending Violence and Oppression in Immigrant and Refugee Communities

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Photos Courtesy of Tapestri

When Vanisa Tabakovic, executive director of Tapestri, came to the United States in 1996, it was as a refugee fleeing the ravages of the Bosnian war with Herzegovina. She crossed the ocean looking to begin a new life in the U.S., free from violence and conflict. 

“During the war in Bosnia, we lost everything that we had,” she says. “A new beginning in the United States was not easy, but certainly an opportunity that many wished for.”

After settling in Georgia, Tabakovic begin using that opportunity to give back to her community, first as a volunteer translator, and then in 1999, as a member of the nonprofit organization, Refugee Family Services (now New American Pathways), in Clarkston. There, she served as a caseworker for other Bosnian refugees, helping connect them with healthcare, transportation and employment. 

In 2000, Tabakovic joined the organization’s domestic violence program and began providing direct support and legal advocacy services to battered refugee women—a group that faces the added challenges of immigration law, language access, and lack of financial resources when it comes to escaping and seeking protection from their abusers.  

Tabakovic wanted to continue her work with that population, and decided to do so in 2002 as a board member for Tapestri. Tapestri began in 1996 as a coalition of women who wanted to address what they saw as the unmet needs of immigrant and refugee women in metro Atlanta shelters who were victims of domestic violence or human trafficking. 

“The women had gotten out of the abusive situation and got into the shelter, but for some reason they were not staying too long,” says Tabakovic. “So [the coalition] was trying to figure out what made them leave so quickly.”

What they discovered was that many battered women shelters were ill-equipped to deal with the language access issues and unique cultural needs of refugee survivors. 

“Language barriers, a lot of the cultural clothing or food was not provided. Not intentionally, but people didn’t know at the time what the needs [of these women] were.”

Tapestri was formed to meet those needs, and became an independent 501(c)3 non-profit in 2002, advocating for “immigrant and refugees affected by domestic violence, sexual assault, and exploitation.” Tabakovic served on the board for two years, and then worked as a legal advocate for the organization. She became Tapestri’s executive director in 2009. 

Today, through culturally-competent victim advocacy and outreach, Tapestri works to address gender-based violence and oppression in refugee and immigrant communities all throughout the state. It provides support services for domestic violence survivors, victims of human and labor trafficking and unaccompanied minors. They also conduct a 24-week, state-certified men’s program for refugee and immigrant men who have perpetrated violence.  

“It’s really designed specifically for refugee and immigrant men, meaning that the language component is there,” says Tabakovic, “because there are mainstream programs, anger management classes for example, but language access is a problem. The refugee or immigrant men will be sent to anger management, and will sit there and get their certificate not to be in trouble with the law, and then off they go having not really benefitted anything.”

The key components of Tapestri’s services are those language and cultural sensitivity pieces. From the outreach materials it distributes to communities, to the classes and talks it conducts at schools and churches, to the multi-lingual facilitators of its programs, everything that Tapestri does for its clients is done with awareness of and respect for that client’s culture. 

“We’re not just being language-appropriate,” says Tabakovic, “but culturally appropriate as well.”

The bulk of Tapestri’s advocacy, outreach and community education is dedicated to refugee and immigrant survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. Tabakovic, her staff and volunteers work closely with other organizations, including Caminar Latino, Raksha, Catholic Charities of Atlanta, GAIN, Tahirih Justice Center, New American Pathways, Helping Mamas, Amplio Recruiting, DeKalb County Magistrate Court, Women's Resource Center and World Relief, to provide survivors with the tools and services they need to live life free from violence and exploitation. 

Tapestri is an ally to its clients from the minute they call for help until they’re able to be self-sufficient again, helping them secure representation in court, navigate the legal system and file protective orders, and obtain shelter placement or other living arrangements. Tapestri also helps survivors deal with immigration status and documentation issues, connects them with medical and mental healthcare services, trains them to be cyber-safe, helps secure safe options for their children and makes sure they have clothing and furniture when they’re ready to live independently. 

Tapestri also recently began looking into employment readiness programs to help their clients who are ready to rejoin the workforce after transitioning to safety.  

“We just applied for a grant where we would have an employment specialist who would work with our clients,” says Tabakovic. “Start building the resume, helping them if they need to get to GED classes. Some of our clients are educated. They have certification, but they are from another country and there’s a language barrier. So we would connect them with someone who can translate their diploma.”

Through funding from the Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime, Tapestri also provides cultural competency and sensitivity training for local law enforcement and healthcare providers who may have little experience working with refugee and immigrant families. And they’ve created translated materials and language cards to help law enforcement overcome potential language barriers.  

Perhaps the most important part of Tapestri’s work though is making sure that the women and families in the communities they serve understand that Tapestri is there for them, that there are resources and systems in place to protect them, even now, in a hostile political climate that can leave many abused immigrant and refugee women too afraid to call for help. 

“A lot of the time there is that fear of calling the police, fear of calling for help,” says Tabakovic. “We want them to call 911 [first], but a lot of times they’re very afraid, especially with recent events. They’re afraid to call 911 because they think they might be questioned about their immigration status. They might be asked about their green card. Are they a refugee? Where are they from? It’s just a lot of fear.”

Not only are these women worried about their status being questioned; they also fear not being able to speak English well enough to accurately make a report. In the case of a spouse or abuser speaking English, women also fear they’ll take advantage of the language barrier, saying something against them to the police that could potentially lead to the woman being arrested rather than her abuser.  

“We’ve seen a lot of that,” Tabakovic says, “and we have to step in and make sure that we explain to the police that she’s the victim and he took advantage because he speaks English.”

That’s what Tapestri does—it stands in as a bastion of defense and protection for vulnerable women and families looking to escape dangerous situations. Tabakovic and her staff go tirelessly into refugee and immigrant communities, speak to them in their own language, make sure families know that there is somewhere for them to turn. 

“It’s an effort to continue to make sure [we tell them], ‘we’re here for you. I know you might be watching the news, and it seems like everybody’s going to get deported,’—because that’s the fear the clients are getting—‘but we’re still here.’ Just trying to be available in the community. Making sure they know there’s still laws in this country that protect them as a survivor.”

It’s a tough job, but it’s work Tabakovic feels passionate about, even on days when the stories of survivors seem too painful to hear.

“My personal experience of being a refugee, and knowing how much our survivors go through, that gives me the strength to run Tapestri so we can provide the most effective and culturally appropriate services. Also, seeing our clients reach safety, and having life without abuse, that gives me the motivation to overcome the everyday challenges.”

This past year was a successful one for Tapestri. They hosted forums on human trafficking and domestic violence, each with over 100 attendees, including judges, law enforcement and attorneys. And on Mother’s Day weekend this year, they hosted their first baby shower, collecting necessities for babies and moms-to-be that received Tapestri’s services. They served 184 clients from 33 different countries, provided community education services to 200 refugees, provided communities with over 2000 translated outreach materials and trained over 2000 individuals on domestic violence and human trafficking. 

Tabakovic is especially proud of these accomplishments in light of the fact that she’s operating in a cultural environment that isn’t always kind to refugee and immigrant communities. 

“We’re just trying to operate on a positive note,” she says. “The work is really hard as it is. The stories of our clients are heartbreaking. It’s like when you hear one, for weeks you can’t stop thinking about it. And we can get depressed, but we’ve decided we’re going to take a positive approach, the best that we can, with our survivors. We’re still here. We’re still operating. People are calling and getting services.”

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And to Tabakovic, that’s what matters most. 

If you’re interested in contributing to Tapestri’s vital work visit tapestri.org and learn how to donate or contribute. They’re currently in need of:

  • Volunteers for clothing deliveries, administrative work and grant research

  • New members to keep growing and diversifying their board

  • Financial donations

  • Personal care and hygiene items for survivors, as many leave abusive situations with nothing but the clothing on their backs. These include shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, face and body wash, toothpaste and toothbrushes, feminine care products, clothing, school supplies and backpacks for children

  • Items on their Amazon Wish List