"I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.
We must always take sides.Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."
~ Elie Wiesel (Political Activist)
In the mid-1980s, I embarked on my career in the seniors' department of a small inner-city community center, fresh out of school and naively unaware of the deep-seated issues of classism, racism, and inequality that lurked in the world beyond my middle-class suburban upbringing.
Working with low-income seniors, I could not have foreseen how this experience would shape my life. No one I encountered during my career touched me as profoundly as Norma did. Norma, an older indigenous woman living in poverty, was bound by her abusive husband of over 50 years. Homebound and without a telephone, she had no connection to the outside world except through him.
The day I first met Norma to arrange a shopping service, I sensed her fear and uneasiness immediately upon entering her apartment unit. We spoke briefly about the service, and I explained that I could help with various problems, including abuse. Little did I know that this initial interaction would mark the beginning of an agonizing journey.
Norma, a meek and frightened woman, never sought help openly. Instead, she developed a resourceful way to communicate with me. She would secretly pass a note to the volunteer shopper, bearing only two words, "help me." Nearly every time I visited her, it was because she had been sexually assaulted or beaten by her husband within the last 24 hours.
On several occasions, I took her case to the police, but they informed me that Norma had to come forward on her own behalf to make a formal report. Her response was always the same when I encouraged her to take action: "I was raped and beaten as a young child. I was raped and beaten as a young woman. I am raped and beaten as an old lady. This is my life."
For four long years, I worked with Norma, offering her a glimmer of hope and support in her darkest hours. But her ordeal continued. Even when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and faced with the looming specter of death, the daily beatings persisted.
One day, after her husband brutally broke her arm using her walker, Norma decided she had had enough. She wanted her husband to be charged with assault and held accountable for the years of torment. She also made the courageous choice to leave him and move into a long-term care facility, seeking peace in her final days.
Norma's husband was arrested and charged with assault. However, upon his release, he visited her in the hospital, where he apologized and begged her to come back to him. He promised change and a better life. Norma, against all reason, agreed. She was discharged from the hospital and returned home.
The next day, I received a call from the police, asking me to identify Norma's body. Her husband had beaten her to death upon her return home from the hospital. Norma's life ended in a brutal act of violence, and I felt a profound sense of helplessness.
In an effort to restore some dignity to Norma's memory, a dignity she was denied in life, I made it my life's mission to share her story and protect vulnerable individuals from abuse. As my career evolved from a front-line worker to a manager and independent consultant, I encountered many others who had experienced bullying and abuse.
My work became dedicated to those who had bravely shared their stories and experiences, survivors who fought for their right to live and work with dignity, as well as those like Norma who met a tragic fate.
The cycle of violence must be broken, from the playground to our homes and workplaces, so that no one else suffers the way Norma did.
Rest in Peace Norma
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