TORONTO – It wasn’t an easy decision, but when Mariah Nalubuulwa fled Uganda in 2015 after years of domestic abuse, she knew it was a matter of life and death.
“It’s the worst experience any mother [could] go through. Oh my God,” Nalubuulwa said of leaving behind two young children, a boy and a girl, who are now aged three and five.
“But what was much more important was me being alive … If I stayed with them, I don’t think I’d even be alive today,” she said.
The 32-year-old had been a victim of domestic violence – sexual violence in particular – at the hands of her partner since 2008. She said she was taught that “relationship matters, like bedroom matters, should not go out there to the public.”
Finally, however, she fled and sought refuge in Toronto, Canada’s most populous city. But life as a new immigrant, alone in a place so far from home, was a shock.
Nalubuulwa said most things in Canada were different from what she was used to. She didn’t know where to find a job or social services. Even after two years, “you’re still a newcomer,” she said.
Yet it was those very experiences, and her resilience in the face of past abuse, that pushed her to join a new project that aims to make the transition easier for other immigrant women in Canada.
“If it’s going to help a woman out there, then I should be part of it,” Nalubuulwa said about joining dozens of other immigrant women across the province of Ontario to write a graphic novel about sexual violence.
One in three women in Canada, regardless of immigration status, will experience violence in her lifetime.
But immigrant women can be particularly vulnerable, especially if their residency status is tied to their spouse or partner, or if they fear deportation. Many also don’t know where to seek help or services, or what local laws dictate when it comes to violence.
“Telling Our Stories: Immigrant Women’s Resilience” is written for, and by, immigrant women. Some of the authors are survivors of sexual violence themselves.
Four groups of immigrant women attended creative writing workshops in Toronto, Windsor and Ottawa to learn how to build a graphic novel from scratch.
She said many of the women, including herself, hesitated to share their experiences during the workshop. But once the first woman opened up, everyone followed suit, and they gained strength from each other. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not alone. I’m not alone.’ Everyone has gone through this,” she said.
Each workshop group was tasked with covering a specific topic related to sexual violence. The women then exchanged ideas and questions, and shared their own experiences. These exchanges were then used to inform what the characters in the novel say, how they react to violent situations and how they eventually find help.
Comprising four fictionalized stories illustrated by a professional artist, the graphic novel covers sexual consent, rape, intimate partner violence, victim-blaming and workplace sexual harassment, and gives advice on how to support survivors.
The book was funded by the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. The Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) and Mouvement Ontarien des Femmes Immigrantes Francophones (Ontario Movement of Francophone Immigrant Women) organized the workshops, and released the book last month as part of a province-wide awareness campaign.
The book is free, and will soon be available in 11 languages – English, French, Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Dari, Punjabi, Somali, Spanish, Tamil and Urdu – at local organizations and venues across Ontario that work with new immigrants.
“[They] loved that [the book] was for immigrant women, by immigrant women,” Fayza Abdallaoui, the president of MOFIF, said of the participants. “They also talked a lot about the vulnerability of immigrant women. That was also very powerful because they recognized the fact that coming into a new country [puts] them in a vulnerable position.”
“Immigration, refugee and sponsorship processes often put one partner in a position of power over the other,” the Canadian Council for Refugees says on its website. “The reinforcement of power imbalances works in favor of an abusive partner or spouse.”
Canada’s federal government has announced plans to change an existing law that requires couples to cohabit for at least two years following their arrival in the country in order for the sponsored spouse or partner to maintain permanent resident status.
Abdallaoui said the graphic novel sends a symbolic message that the lives of immigrant women are valued.
“Violence against women is everywhere,” she said. “I’m pretty sure that anybody that will read these stories … [they] will resonate,” she said.
Nalubuulwa, meanwhile, said she hoped immigrant women would feel less alone when they read the book, and learn that it’s possible to get out of abusive and violent relationships.
On a personal level, she longs to one day be reunited with her children – and to continue to work to help other survivors of abuse.
“I want to see every woman finding the hope they’re looking for.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that most of the graphic novel’s authors are survivors of sexual violence, when in fact only some of them are.