March 23, 2001

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Raksha Eases Life for South Asians in Atlanta

Sonia Chopra

Sonia Sharma and Aparna Bhattacharyya were both born in Georgia. Growing up, these second-generation desis realized that they were quite lucky, as they watched new immigrants struggle with a multitude of problems. And, although their paths were yet to cross, both had the same calling: to work with the South Asian community and help those in need.

Five years ago, Sharma and attorney Sunita Iyeran teamed up with friends to start Raksha, a non-profit, social services agency for South Asians in distress. Bhattacharyya, who was working with the Victim Witness Assistance program for the city of Atlanta, soon joined them.

Today, the small volunteer agency has a huge presence in Atlanta's South Asian community.

With an annual budget of almost $300, 000, it has helped hundreds of people in need through its support and referral network. It's free services are supported by 30 regular volunteers and numerous supporters.

"We wanted a place where the South Asian community could come for help with anything-immigration, employment problems, housing difficulties, teen pregnancies and AIDS. Each case one is different," Sharma, a 29-year-old program coordinator at Emory University, said.

Raksha's programs encompass domestic violence, youth education and mentoring, community education and peer support. But the bulk of calls are from domestic violence victims.

"Raising awareness of family violence in the South Asian community has enabled us to build a larger emotional support network for battered women," said Sharma. The organization also assists police departments, emergency rooms, battered women shelters and domestic violence agencies.

Domestic violence occurs in one out of five South Asian families, experts estimate.

"It is a very alien idea for a woman to publicly admit that she has been physically, sexually, or mentally abused by her husband or partner," Sharma observed. "Women are generally reluctant to seek help due to language barriers, lack of familiarity with the social services system, cultural expectations of women's roles and the shame associated with airing of dirty laundry."

Raksha shows women that they are not alone and have other options.

"Most women who call sincerely believe that abuse does not occur in our culture and that they must be the only South Asian woman subjected to family violence ...we help women regain control of their lives," Sharma said.

But perhaps, the most challenging part of their work lies in community education and fundraising.

"While working with the city agencies, I used to watch a lot of South Asians, immigrants and refugees struggle with the system. They couldn't deal with the language and legal barriers," said Bhattacharyya, 29, the executive director of Raksha. "I love working with people. I enjoy this and working with immigrants makes me feel closer to home, in a sense."

To create awareness of family violence within Atlanta's 70,000-strong South Asian community, Raksha makes presentations on the effects of family violence on spouses and children.

"Many South Asians don't believe that these issues affect them... we constantly hear denials that we are unaffected or that it actually happens in our community. Even when we were planning the youth project, many volunteers told us that their peers did not believe there was a need for South Asian youth," Bhattacharyya said. "I wish some of these people could see the youth who are struggling in school, have no support system, and don't even have the bare necessities."

Raksha's principal sources of income consist of donations at coffee-houses, cultural, religious and social events. Last year, their biggest fundraiser -- Ek Shaam Raksha Ke Naam -- generated nearly $20,000. They also apply for grants and corporate sponsorships.

"What is most important is that we are building a stronger community that knows no distinction between age, region, religion, and class," Bhattacharyya said. "Our volunteers become empowered to take on leadership roles and make change in their own community. They are the true heart and soul of Raksha."

The future of the organization depends on the needs of the community, Sharma added.

"I got involved with Raksha because I want to give something back to my community. Our culture has a lot of beauty but it also has a lot of problems. We can't ignore them because they won't go away if we do," she said.

"We want to deal with the issues of elderly parents, assisted living, whatever is needed. Obviously we are needed or we would have closed shop a long time ago."

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