Somy Ali: Philanthropist “President and Plumber” Changes Women’s Lives
- Interview by Mary Liepold, Editor in Chief
The Peace Philanthropy Award goes to Somy Ali, founder of the nonprofit No More Tears, which assists survivors of domestic violence. Ms. Ali spent her early years between Pakistan, India, and the US, earning acclaim as a Bollywood actress and model before settling in the US to attend college. She has contributed more than $200,000 of her own money to the Florida-based organization, and works personally with each of the survivors it assists.
You’ve done so many things in your life, Somy! If I asked Who are you, what would you say first?
I am No More Tears, the organization I founded. I love helping women. I love to intervene and take a stand wherever there is abuse and violence. I feel like I’m meant to do exactly this.
What are you most proud of, in your life so far?
That I was able to initiate this organization and bring it to where it is today. Since 2008 we have rescued 228 women and 516 children. And not a single woman has gone back to her abuser! The stats say the average woman goes back seven times. The women and children I rescue are my true heroes.
Tell me how No More Tears got started.
In 2007 I had finished my studies and I wanted to start a charity. I was very inspired by Three Cups of Tea. And I was all over the place―I wanted to help children and plants and everything. Then one evening about six o’clock a woman came to my door and asked to come in. She had been brought here from Bangladesh and been horribly abused, kept as a prisoner, anally raped by her father in law, and much, much more. This was five houses down, on my street! I called 911. I had seen police at this house before. The police came and took a report, but they weren’t doing anything to protect her, so I brought her into my home. I had savings, $286,000, from my acting career. I got her a lawyer and helped her get a divorce. I told my brother about it, and he said “If there’s one woman like this, there must be more.”
And so it grew. I registered the new nonprofit right away but it took a year, so I used that time to study other models and other nonprofits. The glitch in most of them was too long a waiting period, too many lists before a woman could get help. I approached top-notch psychologists, immigration attorneys, doctors, dentists, starting with people I knew. I decided not to ask them to provide free services; I would pay these service providers, but at a significant discount. I wanted them to prioritize my women’s and children’s cases. Immediate assistance needed to be the norm.
I told the attorneys, “You’ll get $1,000 flat for each case, no more and no less,” and I found 20 immigration attorneys willing to join the No More Tears family. I found about 6 family law attorneys. That wasn’t as easy―they can get up to $25K for a divorce―but they agreed. I found two psychiatrists who usually charge $125 an hour and agreed to charge us $30. My personal dentist helps for free sometimes, other times charges rates that are minuscule compared to the regular fees. The same with our OB-GYN. I work with driving schools too. We built a family, a network.
Now I get 15 or 20 calls every day, but at first I had to let women know there was help. Even the women who are kept prisoner are usually allowed out to buy groceries, so I went to the Arabic grocery store and put brochures there. I put brochures in various languages in the restrooms of restaurants and in doctors’ waiting rooms. I took them to the mosques, where the clerics said “There is no domestic violence in our culture.” I went on a Friday, snuck in some brochures, and got a call the next day from a woman who had been abused for 10 years. The police were my friends by then, so they went with me to her house. We found her locked in a room where she had been beaten for three days. She had large chunks of hair missing, and she fainted outside because she had not seen the sun in three months.
Shirin had been brought to the US from Jordan through an arranged marriage. She was hungry to learn, but her husband beat her whenever he caught her studying. He told her that her only job was to cook, clean, and produce children. In 2008 she went back to school at NOVA Southeastern University, where I got my bachelor’s degree in psychology. She graduated last year with a Ph.D. in pharmacy. That was the best moment of my life, to see her walk.
That gives me goose bumps! How do you get from here to there?
From those 10 or 15 calls every day to my personal cell phone, I prioritize based on the intensity of the abuse. I pick the most severe cases and refer the others to other organizations. For each one I help, we first pay for five nights in a hotel. Often it starts with 3 am calls from the police officers, who bring them straight to the hotel. (I sometimes say that my insomnia has been instrumental.) I sit down with them right away and hold their hands, fill out intake forms, get them settled.
I don’t want to run a shelter. There’s stigma attached to that. We give them the privacy, the dignity of a room. In those five days we file restraining orders, start therapy, line up jobs, get a one-bedroom apartment. We pay the rent for the first two months and sometimes we break the rules and go two or three more. For the five to eight women each month who I’m able to help, in two months it’s a complete 180 degrees, a huge transformation. Women are so resilient! Just hold their hand for a little bit, give them that extra push.
Who are your best allies?
I don’t have a staff or any kind of bureaucracy. I’m the president and the plumber. I do have good friends though, like the person who helped me start, Dr. Laura Finley. She did an intake with me once and met a woman who had been raped at 13 and 14 and has a son with Crohn’s disease―such a sad history. We walked out of the meeting and Laura gave her the keys, the tag, the title, and the registration to her car. She was my first board member. She’s my dear friend, one of the nicest, most honest people I’ve ever known. We have a wonderful board, our family of professional helpers, volunteers, and interns; that’s it.
What happens next?
When we had helped 200 women, my brother said, “There, you’ve done that. Maybe now you should call it ‘job well done’ and do something else.” I reminded him that he pointed me in this direction.
I’m not corporate. We hug our women and children, take them out to dinner, watch movies with them on Sundays.
It was easy before the money ran out. By late last year my savings were depleted. I have two rental properties and I live on the income from those. That’s enough for me. We have applied for two grants and been turned down twice. We get contributions―sometimes it’s $20K and sometimes $20. Facebook has been wonderful for getting donations: a laptop, a microwave, whatever our women need. My So-Me t-shirts benefit No More Tears as well. We recently hired a nonprofit consultancy firm based in Miami. For $1,000 they teach you how to reach corporations, train your board. I have high hopes.
Meanwhile, we’re expanding. We have rescued women in Virginia and DC and replicated our model there. In November I’m leaving for two weeks in Los Angeles to see what I can do to help.
What’s your biggest, most audacious goal?
I want us to be financially secure. I don’t want to be helping hundreds. Becoming big could lead to corruption, and that thought scares me to death. I do what I do because I love it.
I want to know every woman and child I help. How do you help if you don’t know who you’re helping? I enjoy transforming these lives. There’s truly nothing else like it! I wake up every morning knowing that today I will help someone, and I go to bed knowing I’ve done it.
Is there anything people need to understand about domestic violence―any common myths or misunderstandings?
I’ve noticed that people are very quick to judge. They like to say, Why didn’t she just get up and leave? They don’t know that the women from other cultures, who make up most of our clientele, fear being deported and losing their children.
If you call the cops when he’s punching you, he does not have the right to call Immigration, but wives don’t know that. Husbands use that threat to control them. Even women who are born here are terrified of the abusers. These women are called stupid, ugly, and fat long enough that they begin to believe it. It lowers their self-esteem. I wish people had more of a soft heart for domestic violence survivors.
They should also know that domestic violence has no prejudices. It is prevalent everywhere, in every culture. At first I thought it was just my culture, but we help Jamaicans, Haitians, and women who were born here too.
I hope you can find a way to continue, Somy.
It’s been a good journey, and I anticipate more good to come.
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