- Raj Chaudhary, founder of SEWA, a women’s advocacy organization, has been an angel of mercy to defenseless South Asian and other ethnic minority women in the U.S.
I spoke to Raj Chaudhary – Raj Aunty to us all – over the phone while she was en route to the Gurudwara for a SEWA-AIFW Health clinic. SEWA stands for the Hindi word sewa or “to serve” while AIFW stands for Asian Indian Family Wellness. An organization started by Raj many moons back that is the sole support system to thousands of Indian Americans as well as others of South Asian origin. Whether its holding health clinics at places of worship like temples and gurudwaras, running a 24/7 crisis line to help victims of domestic abuse, answered by culturally sensitive volunteers, providing free hot meals to the homeless or those hit hard by Covid-19, unemployment or even old age, Raj’s organization is always at the forefront.
Raj is always on the move – literally. It’s rare to see her sit at one place or to catch her at her home. Slight of stature but tall, Raj speaks slowly, steadily and clearly, her bright eyes holding your attention behind her ubiquitous glasses, her voice shaking with passion only when she is either angry or emotional – like when she talks of incidents that have affected her the most over the years or the plight of senior citizens in or very own thriving communities across U.S. This septuagenarian is sure busy and wouldn’t change one thing about her ways.
The reason for my call was a story I’ve been working on for quite some time and a topic of my interest since I wrote a paper in college – Domestic Violence among the South Asian communities in the U.S. And who would you speak to better than anyone else about this issue than Raj, I was told. My editor had reached out to me asking if I had heard of this lady in Minnesota who was doing such great community service and I laughed and said I sure do. I have known Raj aunty for over 15 years or so. Always at some community gathering to either celebrate cultural days or at SEWA annual gala. Raj would always be there wearing one of her elegant sarees and trying to engage folks into her cause.
Born in India, Raj Chaudhary moved to the U.S. in 1967 with her husband of 54 years Surendra, her rock and someone who has been by her side in this mission from the start. Her earlier years were spent raising her three very accomplished children – Satveer, who incidentally was MN’s first Asian Indian State senator and the youngest to be elected to MN Legislator and is now an immigration attorney, Ravi Chaudhary, an air force veteran and daughter Bala, an environmental scientist.
In 2004 SEWA took root and since then Raj has won numerous awards including the Scholarship to Advance MN’s Priority Populations (LAAMPP) and the Asian Pacific Partnership of Empowerment & Leadership. In 2007 she was named one of MN’s Most Innovative Women by the MN Women’s Consortium and in 2012 received the Martin Luther King Jr. Award by the Governor’s Council of Asian Pacific Minnesotans.
SEWA started after an incident at MN’s Landmark Center shook her to the core. “I was attending India Association of MN’s annual event IndiaFest when a woman came over and said, ‘where were you when I needed you the most four years back.’ It was an accusation, a pain and a cry for help – and I knew I had to do something besides earning my bread and butter. I needed to be involved with community service,” Raj reminiscences.
Initially it was a 5-person team and no funding, but it was clear to the team that to be most effective and be easily accessible to those who were most in need, they needed to be at faith-based communities where folks could approach them better. The first grant of a princely amount of $3,000 came from the St Paul Foundation. And eventually word-of-mouth helped spread the word and SEWA became the go-to organization in the Twin Cities for Indian and other Asian American women of domestic abuse, immigration issues, homelessness, poverty and even a resource for those seeking legal help.
“Our 1-800 crisis helpline serves around 300-400 women from our community each year, around 3-4 per week,” Srivani Ganji, a woman’s advocate and Raj’s right hand tells me. Incidentally, Ganji herself found help in the form of Raj when she needed it the most. Not only did she end up working full time at SEWA, she is also one of the leading advocates for women’s rights within the community. “There are several cases of women from within our own community — affluent and educated – who have had to bear the trauma of an abusive relationship. These women have their visas or passports taken away, their credit cards shredded by the abusers in order to control them,” Ganji tells me. A lot of times SEWA has women call in to say they have no food because the abuser had shut the kitchen and was starving her.
These stories seem incredulous to us, but it happens all around us Raj says. She recalls a case where the woman called the police when her life was threatened. When cops arrived, the husband took a knife and hurt himself and threatened the kids into saying that their mom had attacked him. The woman was taken in custody and it took months for SEWA to get her legal help and then to rehabilitate her, provide legal help so she could fight for her kids’ custody. “Women also don’t want to go back to India as the patriarchy has instilled in them that they cannot go back to their parents after they have been married. In many cases parents themselves tell the girl to “compromise.”
“We have cases where women won’t file a police case for fear of deportation and because she fears she would lose custody of her children,” Ganji tells me.
The biggest problem that SEWA encounters is the Wall of Silence and Shame that women feel if they disclose their abusive relationship to those who are close to them in the community. “As a result, these perpetrators continue to abuse them for years before it’s enough-is-enough for these women and they seek help,” she says.
“By then it’s either too messy or they are in acute mental trauma – typical of people who are in long-standing abusive relationships. We get calls from women who say ‘their friend’ is in danger when she herself is that said friend. Once she takes that step to seek help, we provide counseling, food, transportation and many cases a play to stay. Providing shelter is our biggest challenge because we are a smaller organization and we have to afford their housing till such a time when these women can go back into the workforce,” Ganji says.
“Domestic violence sees no barriers – we have helped women in abusive relationships who are lawyers, doctors, software engineers or in corporate offices, who have found themselves crushed by patriarchy, fear of community shame, fear of losing her children. They know taking your passport is illegal in the U.S. but they won’t file a case for aforementioned cases,” Raj tells me. SEWA then steps in to first start a negotiation with the husband or his lawyers and then provide her legal resources. Sometimes, if the woman is not a trained professional, SEWA provides her with basic office skills and often these women end up being SEWA volunteers themselves to help other women like them.
SEWA volunteers are given rigorous 101 training to protect the privacy of the victims. “Our staff and volunteers are trained to not be invasive and once the woman has gone back into the community setting, we are required by law to never even recognize them unless the acknowledgement comes from the woman herself,” according to Raj.
Raj has herself been a member of the Violence-Free Minnesota for 16 years and gets her staff to train with them. According to statistics on Violence Against API Women — Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence Website, 55% of Asian women in the U.S. report experiencing intimate physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime, based on a compilation of disaggregated samples of Asian ethnicities in local communities. Of these, women of Indian or South Asian descent are the third largest ethnic minority who have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime.
Poverty Among Seniors
Today, SEWA’s outreach now involves community Chai & Chat, Healing Circle, LGBTQ outreach as well as providing seniors an outlet to meet. “Do you know that our seniors are the third poorest in MN?” Raj asks me. I am astounded, and it shows on my face. According to a study conducted by University of MN and the 2020 Census, the poverty rate among seniors is 17%, while the overall poverty rate in MN is at 7.8%. She tells me of cases where SEWA delivers weekly meals to several seniors because they have no access to hot meals. “Loneliness among seniors is another huge problem, especially as the second and third generation Indian Americans are settling down in this country and the number of senior citizens is increasing.
Raj was not always into community and social work. Her early life started as a cancer researcher for 16 years at University of MN. “I was laid off and that was probably the best thing that could happen to me,” she recalls. The next 16 years she went into entrepreneurship, doing trade shows and wholesale business. Not satisfied with that, she did a solution development training to learn computers before SEWA took shape and form. Sheer doggedness and determination and a genuine care is what drives this remarkable woman year after year! Today, SEWA works out of a suite of rooms in the CAPI building in Minneapolis with both volunteers and full and part time helpers.
If you want to get involved with SEWA – feel free to visit their website at www.sewa-aifw.org. Raj can always do with a helping hand. Their 24/7 crisis line is 952-912-9100.
Kuhu Singh lives in Eden Prairie, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. Bidding adieu to journalism a decade ago, she nonetheless loves to write and express her very strong opinions on social media and blogs and sometimes in a few Indian publications. She is a Senior Digital Marketing Manager for a broadcast retail company. Race relations, diversity, social issues fascinate and roil her into action. She volunteers her time with certain political organizations and community organizations.