Interviews with Sakshi Shah & Brianna Singer, two of Sakhi’s helpline volunteers for the Fall/Winter of 2022.
How did you find out about Sakhi, and why did you choose to join our helpline as a volunteer?
Sakshi: I heard about Sakhi when I was looking for my first year field placement at the School of Social Work at Columbia. I started following Sakhi’s work with Southeast Asian immigrants and came across the volunteering opportunity on social media.
Brianna: I sent a text to the SMS version of the SafeHorizon human-trafficking hotline. I wrote “This is not a human-trafficking emergency, but do you know how I can become a volunteer for the hotline?” I got an automated message saying that the hotline was over-capacity. A couple weeks later, a volunteer texted me back and sent me an ad for a volunteer position with the Sakhi Hotline evening shift. I emailed Manisha who gave me a call. Manisha had a lot of thoughtful things to say about empathy-fatique and the steps she planned to take to make sure the volunteers operate as a support system for each other. I knew right then that Sakhi was going to be a great place to work.
Sakhi’s helpline is a survivor’s first point of contact with the organization, yet this is the first time in Sakhi’s history that we have been able to develop a department expressly dedicated to expanding our helpline. How do you envision your role and what are your goals and/or intentions for the future of this program?
Sakshi:As a volunteer on the helpline and the first point of contact for the caller, I hope to provide any sort of comfort and support to the caller. I want to ensure that the caller is safe at the moment and for the next 24 hours until a case manager from Sakhi reaches out to the caller. I understand the courage it would take to make this call and the critical situation the caller would be in to take this step. Hence, my goal is to provide any kind of relief to them in the moment and help them manage their distress in the moment without making it any more difficult.
Brianna: I think for the most part my role on the hotline is to make the caller feel comfortable talking about everything that’s on their mind. Once we’ve covered the basics about why the caller needs assistance and how Sakhi can help, I refer to a list of basic questions I use to keep the conversation going and try to establish a genuine friendship. On top of everything else, women in abusive relationships are often made to feel isolated or even actively discouraged from making friends by their abuser. Asking standardized questions also helps us keep tabs on how many of our callers do not have family or friends local to NYC, how many of them have considered suicide, and other common risk factors.
Can you please share a particular moment that has stood out to you thus far? You are also welcome to share any trends or common themes you have noticed by virtue of overseeing/participating in the Helpline Volunteer Program.
Sakshi: I had one specific case where a 16-year old girl called on the helpline and shared that her mother was facing emotional, physical and mental abuse at home and it had reached an unsafe point. There was a lot of screaming, name calling, punched holes in the walls and he tried to hit her. I could hear the screaming in the background and the daughter said that if her mother did not move, the husband would have punched her. This happens almost everyday and the husband would blackmail her mother that he puts a ‘roof on her head’ and she is ‘good for nothing’. This was one of the many calls I have received where the women are stuck in a helpless situation as they are reliant on their husbands for financial security, do not speak English and have nowhere else to go and continue to live in the abusive household. This has made me realize how empowering women to take their lives in their own hands and break out of the patriarchal systems that are culturally ingrained is essential.
Brianna: Occasionally I ask a caller “Have you considered calling 911?” There is no way to ask this question without sounding at least a little judgemental. Calling the police seems like an obvious decision to people who grew up in a comfortable California suburb like me. However the word “police” means something different to everyone. If you are Brown and you lived in NYC during the Stop-And-Frisk fiasco, you might have trouble establishing a trusting relationship with law enforcement in general. If you grew up in a country where police are known to take bribes or abuse their power, you might not think to call 911 even if you are afraid for your life in an NYC apartment.
One time I asked “Have you considered calling 911?” to a caller who had just described being sexually assaulted by her wife.
“I didn’t tell her to stop. I just stayed quiet the whole time,” the caller explained.
An NYPD police officer would have the training to recognize that lack of protest is not the same as consent, especially in cases where the victim is actively afraid of being beaten. In an ideal scenario, the officer would get a statement from both the caller and her wife, then escort the caller to the hospital to assemble a rape kit. If the caller ever decides to get a divorce from her wife, the rape kit could be instrumental in the court case.
It’s risky to give advice or get too involved in a caller’s situation, but at Sakhi, we know that in order to help we need to get our hands dirty. Cases like this one provoke interesting questions among the volunteer group later on such as “How would a forensic nurse collect DNA samples for a rape kit after a sexual assault by a woman?” I don’t know the answer to that but it would be a great topic for a hotline volunteer training workshop.
How would you describe the culture of the Helpline Volunteer Program? Relatedly, how do volunteers find community amongst each other?
Sakshi: The highlight of the program for me has been that I have had the opportunity to build a relationship with Manisha and find a mentor in her. As a budding social worker, Manisha has been an inspiring supervisor and always extremely responsive on Whatsapp.
Similarly, I also had the opportunity to meet other southeast asian women who are passionate about the same cause as me in NYC. It feels like a community of people who help each other out on the Whatsapp group whenever needed and share any resources or events happening in the southeast asian community. I would love to continue getting to know the volunteers on a personal level.
Brianna: The culture of the Sakhi late shift volunteers is casual and friendly. In our Whatsapp group you might find invites to local charity events and helpful offers to cover shifts for those who attend. Occasionally volunteers offer to ask relatives who live near the caller to give rides or provide language support. I am only a student of South Asian culture, but I love that my Indian friends feel comfortable crashing at eachother house and asking for favors often.
What do you do for self-care?
Sakshi:I am an extroverted person and love walking around different neighborhoods of New York and exploring the city, especially the Upper West Side. Volunteering is also a form of self-care for me as I get to learn about what is going on around me and meeting and interacting with people from different backgrounds.
Brianna: I love this question. I experience a lot of anxiety and sometimes I worry that I’m going to get a bad performance review at work even though my manager seems to think I’m doing fine.
For self care, I like to remind myself that there is more to my life than work. If I can, I’ll spend 20 minutes doing a drawing of a woman wearing a fabric dress with challenging folds. A small accomplishment like that makes me feel like I’m not just an employee at a software company, but also a visual artist and a great number of other things. If I fail at work I still have my support system at Sakhi and a diversified portfolio of hobbies and interests to feed my soul. Is that too corny? I also like doing homemade skin-moisturizing masks.
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