By David Brand
During the past few years, Ana has attained a visa, two New York City Marathon finisher’s medals and a chance to pursue the career for which she studied. Ana, who is from El Salvador and lives in Flushing, has tapped into a deep reservoir of courage to overcome hardships and thrive.
But five years ago, Ana’s life was marked by danger and uncertainty, her opportunities limited.
“If you had asked me then if I would run a marathon, I would have said ‘Never,’” she said.
Ana — who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym for this story — is a survivor of domestic violence. She was, until recently, an undocumented immigrant.
She began running to help manage her mental and physical health and take back control of her life. She rediscovered a passion for exercise and running, which translated into an improved sense of self.
“Every time I was feeling blue or in a depressive mood, I would go out running and I would feel better,” Ana said.
Ana continued running with a group of veterans and civilians through a program called Team Red, White and Blue (Team RWB), which addresses the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of its members.
In 2017, she completed her first New York City Marathon. In November, she completed her second, despite injuring her ankle along the route.
While running with her fellow RWB members, she came to understand that she had post-traumatic stress disorder related to childhood trauma of watching her stepfather abuse her mother, she said.
As an adult, Ana’s own relationships were marred by domestic violence.
“I grew up in a domestic violence environment and I grew up seeing this,” she said. “When I started dating, I encountered abusive people, but to me it was normal because it was what I grew up with. The abuse started mentally at first and it broke my confidence as a woman.”
“I was stuck,” she continued. “I didn’t know how to break out.”
Ana said that when her partner abused her in front of her daughter, she recalled watching her mother get attacked.
“Something deep inside me knew it wasn’t right and I said, ‘I have to put a stop to this. I have to break the cycle,’” she said.
Ana connected with the organization Her Justice, which provides free legal assistance to women living in poverty, including immigrants and survivors of domestic violence. Nearly one-third of Her Justice clients live in Queens, according to the organization.
“Last year Her Justice was able to provide free legal help to more than 9,000 women and children in NYC, a growing proportion of whom reside in Queens,” said Her Justice Executive Director Amy Barasch. “We do this by training and mentoring volunteer lawyers from firms across the city to be able to help with family, matrimonial and immigration cases.”
Her Justice paired Ana with pro bono attorneys who helped her obtain a visa for undocumented immigrants who are victims of crimes. Barasch said attorneys who would like more information about volunteering with Her Justice can visit herjustice.org.
For the first time, Ana had documented status in the United States.
“It was a relief,” she said, adding that she has since applied for permanent residence.
Ana works as an office manager at a Brooklyn mechanic’s shop, but she said she now plans to pursue a job as a surgical technologist, the career she studied in school.
“I was unable to practice my career because of my documents, but now I can,” she said. “I believe that 2019 is going to be a great year for me.”