Department of Family Services – Domestic and Sexual Violence Services

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Toni Zollicoffer

Partner Spotlight: Ashiyanaa--Serving South Asians

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(Posted 2022 April)

Ashiyanaa, founded more than 30 years ago to provide a safe space for women and children from six South Asian countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka), recently rebranded itself from its original name of Asha for Women to Ashiyanaa. It also joined the Domestic Violence Action Center’s (DVAC) cadre of partners. In addition to the name change and the partnership, the organization has expanded to include all people from South Asia living in the Washington, D.C. region; they now also provide support to people from Afghanistan. Otherwise, the mission is the same, says Jaya Nelliot, outreach director, in a recent conversation with Volunteer Voices. Below, our condensed conversation:

Volunteer Voices: What has changed now that you’ve rebranded yourselves? And why the rebranding?

Jaya Nelliot: From day one—1989, when we started—we were founded to provide a safe haven for South Asian families. At that time, it was only women and children. Five women started this organization at a kitchen table. They wanted to help their sisters and children impacted by domestic violence. South Asian women were falling through the cracks. They weren’t getting benefits or resources. Asha means hope, and that’s what we were providing.

But as we have grown, we realized everybody needs help in the South Asian family. We were getting questions from seniors. Sometimes we were a call just for solace. They’d call us and say, ‘We can’t speak the language. Is there somebody who can help us?’ Then teens and groups started calling. Calls started getting deeper and more complicated.

Now that we’re Ashiyanaa, which means home, the basic goal is the same. We’re moving on to helping everybody who calls themselves South Asian, regardless of gender. We provide well-being, peace, anything we can for people to have a good meaningful life.

AshiyanaaTalk to us about the partnership between DVAC and Ashiyanaa. Why this partnership and why now?

We are very excited with the partnership. We have worked together in the past. We get calls from the county. We refer clients to the county. Our advocates get training from the county. 

But we are such a small group, all volunteers. We didn’t have the bandwidth [to help everybody]. We didn’t have people who could go out and talk to people and let them know we exist. Everything was word of mouth. We really need to do more just to let people know we can help. I’ve been going from county to county –in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C.—anybody and everybody we could collaborate with for our clients. DVAC was on the list. Thanks to Angela [Yeboah, advocacy services program manager at DVAC], it finally came through.

What’s does Ashiyanaa bring to the table to supplement the other DVAC partners?

We are pretty unique in what we do. We have volunteers who speak [some of] the 650 living languages in the seven countries. We come under the big umbrella of Asians, but we’re very dissimilar. The language we speak, the food we eat, our culture—we’re very different from other Asians. It’s important that new arrivals—like Afghans—know we exist. Whether it’s assistance with domestic violence or just a social connection. Most organizations [like Ashiyanaa] have connections to the home countries; they’re serving women and children in their home countries. We serve South Asians in this area. 

What’s the best thing about joining this partnership?

Working with people who have the same goals and are like-minded. The mission may be worded differently for each organization, but the bottom line is to serve people of the community. It takes more than a village to do this kind of work. It’s kind of a feeling of comfort to be with the DVAC group because everybody has your back when you need help, and you want to do the same thing for them.

Do you foresee any challenges to the partnership? 

A challenge is when two people are taking different routes to reach the same destination. One is trying to be the top dog, reach the destination first. But this is for the clientele we serve. None of us is trying to be top dog. For us, it’s hope and open mindedness and equality. That’s what we all bring to the table. 

When I think of challenges, they aren’t [among the partners]. Finances are a big challenge. The work, it’s herculean. I stopped seeing clients about five years ago to focus on outreach. Now the cases are so many and getting so complicated, I had to return to seeing clients. But everybody is in the same boat. 

What else should we know about Ashiyanaa?

We’re looking to grow this; we just have one full-time employee. The volunteers and donors that have been with us for 32 years, hat’s off to them. Without them, this wouldn’t have lasted this long. And our clients—some of the stories are heart wrenching. They have the hardest of times. But they are so strong. They stand up for what they have to. 

Just listening to the kids, the questions they have. They are thinking so much deeper than I did at their age. When I came into domestic violence—I’ve been with Ashiyanaa for 15 years—I came in because it happened in my family back home. I thought it happened only in uneducated families. I was in denial. But these kids (now) are so self-aware. When the next generation brings their heads in, we have a very good chance to help everybody have a dignified life.


This article posting is part of the Domestic and Sexual Violence Services' Volunteer Voices monthly newsletter for current and potential volunteers. If you're not already a volunteer, learn how to get involved. Find out about upcoming trainings, volunteer trainings, happenings around the DSVS office and information about articles, books, media recommendations and more.

Learn more about the Domestic and Sexual Violence Services (DSVS).

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