Seven years ago, Comfort Dondo started to craft the organization that would become her everything.
Phumulani, which means peace in Zulu, was formed from her own pain and experiences, hoping to bring peace to others in similar situations.
Dondo, who emigrated from Zimbabwe to Minnesota in 2004, found that the domestic violence support systems in the Twin Cities lacked some important critical characteristics.
Her experience as a mother of three children staying in a Minnesota women’s shelter made her feel like she was stuck in a dorm or even sometimes a jail. She said the space wasn’t favorable to mothers with more kids, which African families tend to have.
“When I went through my domestic abuse situation, I tried to navigate the shelter system, but it was really traumatizing for me. It almost mimicked the abusive situation I was trying to leave because there were just a lot of rules and expectations,” Dondo said. “There was also a lack of culturally specific stuff and leadership that would understand my concerns. There was a cookie-cutter type of solution, but it wasn’t fitting my needs.”
Being an immigrant or person of color severely impacts outcomes when facing domestic abuse. No matter what level of education one has or how one speaks, the systems were not made to benefit people of color and have barriers for immigrants, Dondo said.
“If you look at a woman like myself, I’m quite eloquent. I spent four years at St. Kate’s (St. Catherine University), I’m a very well-educated honors student, but when it came to courts around custody of my children, I didn’t have my family support. As an immigrant, that already isolates you, and it puts you at a lower level,” Dondo said.
Her ex-husband had family support and wealth to help. She didn’t have that luxury. While this is true for many immigrant women, the experiences of other historically oppressed communities in the U.S. are similar, with some nuances.
“The immigrant experience would mimic the experience of those whose ancestors were brought here by force, or those being colonized and pushed off their lands,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether their family was here before still; the systems are selective that way.”
The cookie-cutter approach of the shelter wasn’t helping her, so she left after around 10 days. There wasn’t childcare for her children, ages 3, 3 and 5, which made it difficult to pursue anything else.
She wanted to improve her situation, and her trauma response of fight or flight kicked in.
“I fought a lot, and I became very resourceful. I realized that ain’t nobody else coming to rescue me,” she said. “Once I figured that out, I knew the only out of the situation was going to be education.”
She then enrolled in a master’s program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Her housing options were limited, and her struggle with substance abuse was often used against her when looking for apartments.
The school’s night classes conflicted with the shelter’s curfew rules, so she decided to leave.
“I would then find myself homeless and not being able to get out of the cycle of homelessness and not being able to get a job or not being able to get into an apartment because of things that had happened because of the domestic violence,” Dondo said.
She eventually moved into a dormitory, but funds were limited since she was also paying for school. She was evicted and spent the following months with her children on different people’s couches.
In 2017, while staying at a friend’s place, she was awakened one night around three in the morning. At that moment, she was inspired to do something about the problem she was facing, she said.
“I wanted to create a space for women like myself to find a place where they feel like they belonged,” Dondo said.
She met with more than 150 women and heard their frustrations about their experiences fleeing domestic violence. The majority of them expressed that the shelters were not accommodating of “non-traditional” family structures.
She applied for a grant through the Bush Foundation and received $89,000 – more than three times what she had applied for.
Seven years later, she is the leader of Phumulani, which reaches around 5,000 people a year and provides culturally specific resources to abuse survivors. Its office is in Brooklyn Park and has a workspace in the North Loop area of Minneapolis.
Dondo wanted to create a space for all the identities that women brought to the shelters.
“When a woman is going through domestic abuse, she’s not a victim of domestic abuse. She has so many identities. And then when a woman is coming as a survivor, and she’s an immigrant, or she’s queer, she’s deaf, she has a disability. Those are identities that people tend to forget, and there’s a cookie-cutter approach of ‘She’s a victim. We know what she needs, and this is what she needs.’ No,” said Dondo.
Culturally specific, to her, means creating room for all of the identities of someone to be comfortable. For example, a shelter that has accommodations for people of different religions, such as providing space for prayer, makes the shelter culturally specific and of use.
“African immigrant women or Black women, we generally have more children than the average mainstream woman. The domestic violence shelters were not created with us in mind. Because if they were, we would have more single-family homes, more private apartments,” Dondo said.
Shelters should also take into account familial structure and what “family” means to different cultures, she said.
“If you have three or four children, and your familial trees don’t look like mainstream, or you have extended family living with us. If a woman wants to flee domestic abuse, she’s fleeing with the whole village, not just herself. A lot of African immigrant women or women of color end up not staying in shelter because she cannot leave her aging mother, when she wants to flee. She cannot leave the daughter of her other late sister or the son of her late sister, who was a teenager and can’t be in a shelter with her.”
The organization takes clients from all around the world. Some of its clients don’t even live in the U.S.
Phumulani is currently in the process of helping a Zimbabwe woman, Primrose Ruwocha, whose husband splashed liquid acid on her face. Ruwocha will be coming to Minnesota towards the end of August, where she’ll receive reconstructive surgery at the Mayo Clinic.
While most clients are African immigrants, all sorts of people are welcome to receive assistance. Most of them come from Brooklyn Park, home to around 4,000 people of Liberian descent.
The organization reached almost 5,000 women in the past year through social media and in-person events.
“Phumulani turned around my life 180 degrees”
A recent client, Nataliya McCoy, was a stay-at-home mom to three when she was kicked out of her house by her husband.
“In one day, everything changed,” McCoy said. “My children were taken from me. I was left with zero dollars in my bank account. Suddenly my husband applied for divorce, I did not have an attorney and I didn’t have anywhere to live.”
McCoy, who is originally from Ukraine, was left with nothing. She went to a domestic abuse shelter, where she stayed for around six months. From there, she stayed with a woman from church and after a couple of months was connected with Dondo. In January, she moved in with Dondo.
“She (Dondo) came from Zimbabwe; I came from Ukraine. But because we went through similar experiences, she was fighting for her children for so many years; I call her my sister,” McCoy said. “It’s like so strange. We don’t look alike. We come from completely different countries. All we have in common is that we both were homeless, and our children were taken away.”
Stuck in a tough situation, McCoy had no income and on top of that, owes around $12,000 to an attorney, McCoy said.
Dondo helped her by providing housing, emotional support, and advice.
“Without her, I probably wouldn’t be alive today, to be honest with you, because there were some days when I didn’t want to live, and there was no purpose for living,” McCoy said. “Phumulani completely turned around my life 180 degrees.”
McCoy hasn’t seen her children, who are all teenagers, for almost two years. Dondo has been there for her as a shoulder to lean on.
McCoy was accused of trying to kill her kids and husband, from whom she is in the process of divorce. The court believed her husband, but now, she says he hasn’t provided payments for McCoy’s lawyers, which the court ordered him to pay. McCoy has court in August and hopes she can get an opportunity to see her kids.
She’s glad that Dondo is guiding her through the process.
“She said you have to move forward right now. You cannot change anything, just move forward and build yourself up. So when children appear in my life, I will be a completely strong and different person,” McCoy said.
Phumulani has several programs which aim to be culturally specific. Its healing circle’s program brings women together to be far from isolation, where abuse can often happen.
The circles are adapted from African healing ceremonies, Dondo said.
“It’s how our mothers used to heal each other back on the continent. So women gather over tea and just talk about everything. I noticed that when we are in the U.S., we don’t have time to do that because we’re working, and that kind of contributed to the depletion of our mental health and wellness,” she said.
The circle’s food, drinks and central attraction depend on from what region the attendees hail.
“Because we have about 22 African immigrant countries represented in Minnesota, we try to adapt based on what each region does,” Dondo said. “We have East Africans, Ethiopians, Oromo; they do coffee. We have women from Uganda and Kenya; they do tea.”
In the African community, abuse looks very different from the mainstream perception, Dondo said.
“Our labor trafficking looks very much like an auntie bringing nephews from home. They’re legal on paper; they come through the right channels. So when they’re here, it’s hard for our police officers, our justice departments to understand,” she said. “Our traffic survivors, for example, look like nurses; they’re professionals, but they’re not getting their paycheck and they have their green card over their head.”
Phumulani is working on legal advocacy for women who face immigration or child custody difficulties. It’s also creating housing for women in need.
“Housing is a big hindrance for women living in abusive relationships. Usually, in our communities, women have six children,” Dondo said. “A woman with the six children was in a hotel for a week. It was very painful, but now she’s in an apartment.”
Phumulani is renovating a six-bedroom home into a duplex in Plymouth that could house two women, each of whom has many kids. She hopes to give one unit to another survivor who has also started helping other women.
Phumulani receives some government funding and some foundation funding. It received some funds from the American Rescue Plan, the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Minneapolis Foundation and HRK Foundation, among others.
Need for diverse leadership
Another challenge to providing better outcomes for women in shelters is the lack of diverse people in decision-making roles. White women have traditionally led domestic violence programs, Dondo said.
“We have disproportionately victim-survivors who are of color. And then we have advocates of color, but the advocates are implementing rules and regulations or procedures that are being given to them from the top down,” she said. “So while the domestic violence movement, sexual violence movement, talks a lot about feminism, anti-racism anti-Blackness, it is a lot of talking, but my experience with them, there’s been not a lot of listening to BIPOC communities.”
Some other organizations, Esperanza United and Asian Women United, have more culturally specific programs and are led by leaders of color. But other programs, like Tubman or Women’s Advocates, while they are intended to serve women of color, are not led by people of color, Dondo said.
“That’s the topography in Minnesota. And then that’s my honest truth. I’ve experienced this as a survivor living in those systems as a policy analyst advocating for policy change, but also as someone working on a coalition level, leading multiple organizations and studying how those programs function,” she said.
Phumulani’s staff consists of around 12 people, including Dondo, all women and men of color.
Phumulani has changed her life in ways she never imagined.
“The other day, I was looking at my photos; it gets me emotional,” she said. “I saw the car I was staying in. And I was like, ‘oh my God, we are getting ready to finish renovating our home, a beautiful home. Who would’ve known?'”
She wants to continue to make that change for other people. Just recently, she spoke with a young woman who was a sexual assault survivor. The woman sent Dondo a message a couple of weeks later, thanking her and telling her that she’s now approaching her situation with a different mindset.
“For me, it’s hard, but that’s why I keep doing it. I keep doing it because I want to be there for someone like no one was there for me,” Dondo said.