It is Senanmi’s 33rd birthday. Before she enjoys the birthday cake, celebration, and presents that have been arranged for her this evening, she agreed to sit down and share her story with us. It is one of desolation and despair. A story that could only be overcome by strength and resilience, and a mother’s love for her child.
Senanmi met her husband in 2011. She was living with her family in Benin, a country on the west coast of Africa, where she was born and raised. Her husband, also born in Benin, had immigrated to the United States a few years prior. On a return trip to Benin, to visit his family, they met. With each subsequent visit, their romance grew. Soon they were married. Shortly after that, they discovered that Senanmi was pregnant. Their daughter, Charlene, was born in August 2013.
Soon after their marriage, Senanmi began her immigration application. The process is a long and difficult one to navigate. In the meantime, the family was separated; Senami and Charlene living with her family in Benin, her husband in the United States. Senanmi’s husband would return to Benin to visit her, and their new baby girl, as much as possible. Just over a year after the birth of their daughter, the good news finally arrived that Senanmi’s green card was approved. She and Charlene could now immigrate to the United States to join her husband. On October 26, 2014, she landed in America. She remembers it well. “I was very excited to arrive in the U.S. with my daughter. We were joining my husband and would finally have the opportunity to be together as a family and raise our daughter to have a bright future. It was a dream come true”
Their time as a family in the United States began as joyful as they dreamed. While her husband worked full-time in Charlotte, Senanmi was working part-time with her sister-in-law and caring for Charlene. They were a happy family, experiencing the freedom and opportunity that their new adopted country has to offer. Over time, however, her husband’s behavior began to change. He became more controlling. He maintained the only access to the family’s money, bank accounts and the buying decisions. Then he began controlling with whom she could be friends or communicate. Lastly, he demanded that she stop working with his sister and stay home. Senanmi knew that something was not right. However, she did not know what the future would be.
The final answer came on Halloween, 2018. Senanmi and Charlene were out trick-or-treating. When they arrived home around 9:00 PM, they discovered their apartment was empty and the power not working. Senanmi’s husband had left. He had taken all of their money, immigration documents, marriage and birth certificates, shut off the power to the home, and terminated their lease. They had no money and no place to live.
Senanmi did not know what to do. The following day, she went to the police to seek assistance. Because there was no crime involved, she was informed that all she could do was to restart her life. The police suggested that they seek assistance from the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter. However, the shelter was full. Through her own research, Senanmi was able to identify five other shelters in the area, and called each one, leaving a message regarding her situation and phone number. None of the shelters ever returned her call. It was at this point that Senanmi was at her lowest. “I was so scared and desperate. I did not know what else to do. But I knew that I could not give up. For my daughter’s sake, I needed to keep searching for help.”
A day later she discovered Catherine’s House. “I can remember calling on a Friday. The person that I spoke with was so kind. She listened to my story and needs. She told me to call back on Monday to speak with a member of the staff. I did. By Tuesday, Charlene and I were moving in.”
Senanmi’s first priority at Catherine’s House was her documentation. Because her husband had taken all of their important documents, including her marriage license, green card and birth certificates, she could not get a job. Just as important, her green card was set to expire in a few months. If she could not get her immigration status renewed, she would face deportation back to Benin. However, because she no longer had Charlene’s birth certificate, Charlene was unable to live in Benin. The chance that mother and daughter might be separated was very real. The situation was terrifying and the outcome was quite uncertain.
The Catherine’ House team immediately worked to help Senanmi address these issues. Staff was able to connect Senanmi with International House, a Charlotte non-profit that helps foreign-born residents successfully integrate into the greater Charlotte community. The staff at International House helped Senami successfully navigate her way through the difficult labyrinth of immigration requirements, paperwork and documentation. After much effort and several months of work, Senanmi and Charlene received the green card renewal and immigration approvals that they needed. It was a day of celebration and relief for everyone involved.
With tears strolling down her face, Senanmi talks about her feelings of Catherine’s House. “Catherine’s House has been a blessing to me. When I am here, I feel like I am back home, with my family. Everyone here loves me and my daughter. They want the best for us. I do not know where we would be right now, if we had not found Catherine’s House. I am so thankful.”
With many nightmares behind them, Senanmi and Charlene are now focused on their dreams. While there is still much work to be done, they are making great progress. Senanmi is working again and Charlene is doing well in school. Senanmi is now focused on successfully achieving the next goals for her life. “I would like to be able to gain some additional education or skills that will allow me to earn more money. With more money, I will be able to find a permanent home for Charlene and me. That will be a wonderful day.”