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TEHRAN — Khadijeh had run out of hope. From a young age, she says was repeatedly raped by a man she knew well. Instead of protecting her, Khadijeh says her father kept her out of school and tried to marry her to a much older man.
Then one day about 14 months ago hope arrived at her door — social workers convinced Khadijeh’s father to allow her to attend classes and therapy sessions at the Omid center, Iran’s only private charity helping women and girls trying to escape poverty and domestic abuse.
Now, she has emerged from “a very dark place.”
“I see a future that I could not before,” Khadijeh told NBC News.
The 18-year-old now works in the center’s library and nurses a dreams of becoming a singer. But if that doesn’t work out, the keen hiker has a backup plan.
“I hope to ascend all the summits in the country,” said Khadijeh, one of 200 girls and young women Omid helps on a daily basis. Another 297 have already graduated.
Omid’s means “hope” in Persian. And many in Iran desperately need hope and help — some 66 percent of Iran’s women have reported domestic violence, according to the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran. Weak legal protections and a small number of safe houses compound the problem by trapping many vulnerable women and girls in what the U.N. calls “situations of abuse.”
There are government-run and sponsored organizations that help vulnerable women, such as the Behzisti, state welfare organisations that help resolve what officials call “social harms” and aid those who are disabled and deprived. Some of the women at Omid were once clients of the Behzisti.
But the need is large in Iran, where girls as young as nine can be married provided a family get court permission. Child marriage is seen as a cause of domestic abuse, which many are reluctant to report because of the risk of stigmatized by their communities.
This is where Omid’s social workers, teachers and advocates come in.
“I realized there were no provisions for teenage girls that have been disadvantaged — what existed just put a roof over their heads — but there was no program to empower young women who have been marginalized,” according to London-based psychologist and psychotherapist Marjaneh Halati, who founded Omid 15 years ago.
Her biggest challenge was finding staff members that could work with and speak to young people who had suffered great trauma.
“None of these concepts existed in Iran, so we have to do all the training ourselves,” Halati said.
Omid opened its doors to 15 girls in 2004, according to Halati. These days it trains and helps 200 girls and young women at a time, with 50 or 60 joining every year. Around 80 percent of the center’s 297 graduates now work outside the home in fields like graphic design, catering and jewelry making, Halati said.
The center has a waiting list of up to 160 places, and employs about 50 people who are paid largely thanks to private donations from the Iranian diaspora in the U.S. and the U.K.
But being helped does not make the past disappear. Some of Omid’s clients appear unable or unwilling to leave behind what initially brought them to a nondescript building on a side street of the Iranian capital
Take Lima, who like so many others says she is a victim of terrible domestic abuse. Her conservative father wanted to arrange for Lima to marry an older man, she told NBC News.
The 19-year-old rarely smiles. And unlike most of her comrades, her hair is short and she wears no makeup.
In art therapy class Lima creates windows into her dark past — huge collages depicting child brides and abused children.
“This place has given me an identity, it’s taught me to think for myself to respect myself, to understand myself,” she said.
It has been very difficult to convince her parents to allow her to attend the center, she said.
“This place is very important for me, that why I make the six-hour round trip every day,” she said. “Today, I am not going to be told who to marry or how to dress.”
And Lima too has a vision for her future: “My goal in life is to help other women in Iran, in Afghanistan, to empower themselves, to break free.”