“It’s like a Cinderella story, honestly,” the woman said. But she meant the first part of the tale, before the ball and the prince and the glass slippers.
She had done it all for her young daughter, the woman explained: entered the world of Internet matchmaking, relocated the two of them to the United States from their home in Eastern Europe, moved in with an American man she thought she knew and planned to marry.
“I was just looking for a good person to be a good father for my daughter,” she told me.
The woman asked me not to share her name. “I don’t want him to understand it’s me,” she said.
Even now, many years after it all started, the nightmare is too easily conjured.
After the two connected online, the man traveled to her country to meet the woman’s family. He seemed kind, a good provider. And so several years ago the woman came to the United States with her daughter on what’s called a fiancee visa.
But within two weeks the man had changed.
“The relationship started to be very different with him,” she said. He became critical of her skills. Her English wasn’t good enough, he said. She could not run an American household to his standards, operate American appliances, cook food the way his children liked it . . .
The man soon made it clear he would not go through with the marriage, but would wait for the woman’s three-month visa to run out and then send her home. “I realized he just kept me there to do all the housework until he could just get rid of me,” she said.
He demanded certain other things from her, too. She has difficulty talking about it.
“I was not allowed to go to my daughter in the night,” she said. “I had to be in his bedroom. I felt like he used me in every way.”
Sometimes, she would walk around the suburban neighborhood where they lived, feeling trapped in an unfamiliar world.
“There is nobody to talk to about it,” she said. “You don’t know the area. You cannot go anywhere. It’s just many big houses. . . . It feels horrible and lonely.”
But there was someone the woman could talk to, someone she met at a church she briefly attended. And it was that person who took the woman and her daughter to a shelter in Northern Virginia.
After nearly a year of living in shelters, the mother and her daughter were placed with Homestretch, a charity that helps homeless families in Fairfax County and is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
Homestretch provided a fully furnished apartment and gift cards for clothing. It provided tutoring for the girl. Homestretch helped the woman sign up for a certificate course that gave her the skills to land a full-time job in the medical administration field. It helped the woman save and manage her money.
At the same time, the Tahirih Justice Center, a District-based nonprofit group that works with immigrant women who have been victimized, took the woman’s case. They helped her secure what’s known as a T visa, one that’s reserved for victims of human trafficking.
The visa, the woman said, is for when “you are used like a slave.”
She received her green card, too, and hopes, in a few years, to apply for U.S. citizenship.
The woman was a Homestretch client for a little more than two years, graduating from the program in 2015. Today, she and her daughter share a one-bedroom apartment. She no longer receives public assistance, and she pays the rent herself. She has learned to drive and has a car given to her by Homestretch.
“I can’t believe I went through it,” she said, meaning both the lows and the highs of the past five years. “I didn’t believe I could do it. I can’t believe now I’m driving or have a full-time job. But it’s still scary. Psychologically, I’m traumatized. It’s always there.”
Fortunately, Homestretch is always there, too.
This is the last column of this year’s Helping Hand campaign. So far readers have donated $147,800. That’s an incredible number, but about $80,000 short of our goal of $225,000. If you’ve ever considered giving, now is the time to act.
To make an online donation to Homestretch, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to “Homestretch” and send it to: Homestretch, 303 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church, Va. 22046, Attn: Nan Monday.
At any one time, about 50 families in Fairfax County are enrolled in Homestretch’s two-year program. More than 90 percent of the households are headed by single mothers; 60 percent are homeless because of domestic violence or human trafficking. Your contribution can help heal those wounds.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.