Almost 9,000 miles across the Atlantic. That’s how far Primrose Ruwocha traveled to escape her abuser.
Not everyone is able to move away from their abuser, but Ruwocha found a way with the help of Phumulani, a local non-profit that aims to prevent domestic violence and sexual abuse in communities of color and support victims with culturally-specific care.
Ruwocha, who was born in Zimbabwe, was living in South Africa when she was abused by a previous boyfriend who was a political figure in the area.
Fear for her life
Ruwocha was burned in the face due to an acid attack in February 2020. The perpetrator was a man that she began dating around 2014.
The abuse started with words. Ruwocha began noticing behaviors, like he was always using foul language, shouting and fighting with people, she said.
In 2019, she told him she was no longer in love with him. She then decided to move out.
“I told him that I’m no longer in love with you. I think I need to go on with my life,” she said.
Right then, he threatened her.
“He told me, ‘You know what? I’m going to kill you, or we are going to die together,’” she said.
On Feb. 17, 2020, Ruwocha heard a knock at her door. Without warning, her abuser showed up carrying a cup that seemed like beer, Ruwocha thought.
It wasn’t beer, though. It was acid, which he then splashed on her face.
“I screamed, and then people woke up,” she said.
She was taken to the hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, where she stayed for four months.
According to Ruwocha the man has not been found by the police, but he has tried to contact her several times, and her family, including her two sons who are in Zimbabwe, somewhere he has access to.
“I don’t feel safe when my kids are in Zimbabwe; he can do anything to them because he knows that I’m alive. He wanted to kill me,” Ruwocha said.
Comfort Dondo, the founder of Phumulani, heard about what happened to Ruwocha through a Facebook post. She immediately reached out and started trying to bring her to the U.S.
To bring her to Minnesota, Dondo reached out to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, sending information about what happened, like pictures and doctor records from the hospital in South Africa.
Mayo Clinic wrote a letter promising to complete surgery for Ruwocha, which allowed her to get a visa. After months of anticipation, in September 2022, Ruwocha arrived in Minnesota.
New life in Minnesota
Despite the hardships she’s faced, Ruwocha is still smiling. When visiting her at her new home, she was full of jokes, laughter and positivity.
“Comfort said to me, ‘Do you like to come to America? It’s a cold place. Can you manage to stay in a cold place,’” she said.
The kindness that Dondo showed her is unlike any other, Ruwocha said.
“I saw my room, which she prepared for me. I don’t believe it,” she said. “My mom cried because she used to pray, ‘God, I want you to give my child family there, father, mother, sisters, brothers.’ But that thing, I see it in one person, this lady, Comfort.”
Ruwocha is now living in a recently renovated six-bedroom home in Plymouth that Dondo put together as a refuge, specifically for African women, whose cultures and family structures are often not supported in the traditional shelter systems, according to Dondo.
Guadalupe Lopez is the executive director of Violence Free Minnesota, a coalition that supports around 70 domestic violence organizations and also participates in policy work. She wishes the shelter system was more restorative rather than crisis-based.
“The most important thing with advocacy and culturally specific programs is that we always have to think outside the box because a lot of our community members and relatives don’t do well in mainstream programs all the time for many reasons,” Lopez said.
Dondo, who had previously been in a shelter, started her organization after observing and experiencing the systematic flaws.
“Shelters take women who’ve been told ‘You’re nothing, you’re a piece of garbage,’ and then they put them in spaces that reinforce that,” Dondo said. “I want this home to look the best, even better than it was when I was living here. Because I want a woman to come in and say, ‘Oh my God, I feel worthy.’”
Since being here, Ruwocha has grown more confident in herself.
“I used to go outside and think, ‘What are people going to say about me?” But now, I think, ‘You know what? I’m still a person, although I’m like this, I’m still a person,'” she said. “I just gained energy to go out.”
What’s next for her?
The original plan was to get facial reconstruction surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. When Dondo and Ruwocha went for an appointment, they were shocked by how it went.
Upon doing some initial testing and labs, Mayo Clinic said the surgery would be too costly to cover, Dondo said. Mayo had initially said they were going to cover the cost of the surgeries, according to Dondo.
MinnPost reached out to Mayo for the story but requests for comment were not returned.
When Dondo expressed that paying out of pocket would be difficult, she says the mood of the room shifted.
“By the time we got home from the first consult, I had gotten a call from the business office saying that because of the extent of her burns, they needed to make sure that we paid something before we talked to a social worker,” she said.
That means that if the burns were less severe, they might not have required that, Dondo said.
“It was shocking to me,” she said. “I remember coming back so deflated.”
A Mayo representative told Dondo and Ruwocha they would have to pay $7,000 before speaking with a social worker at the Rochester clinic, Dondo said.
So Dondo approached Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC). Since switching over, Ruwocha has already been assigned a social worker.
“It’s a really different experience from there (Mayo Clinic),” Dondo said.
Ruwocha’s surgery is scheduled for Jan. 16. That’s when her insurance kicks in.