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Leaving your children, your family to escape an abusive husband would be a heart-wrenching choice for any mother. Now, imagine being a Muslim woman, seeking shelter in a foreign country, where you have no one and you barely speak the language.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports on a refuge for Muslim women in Baltimore.

JAMIE TARABAY: Alone, yet together, three women gather in a kitchen trying to make the most of another meal away from home.

Ms. ASMA HANIF (Muslima Anisah): In Iraq they don't have high cholesterol, right? This is going to kill us.

Unidentified Woman: This is Mediterranean food.

Ms. HANIF: It's going to kill us. No, there, see - look, all of the oil. Yes.

TARABAY: Standing a safe-enough distance from the splattering oil is Asma Hanif. She's the head of this household. She's talking to a Muslim woman, short, dark hair, originally from Kurdistan. For her safety, we can't give her name. She says she'll never go back to the man she was forced to marry when she was 15 years old.

Unidentified Woman: Me, no. Me never go back. Never. Right now, I'm really happy. Yeah, I'm happy.

TARABAY: She says her marriage was so bad - her husband's beatings so severe -she had no choice but to get out, even if it meant leaving her three children behind. She left without knowing where to go. She slept in her car for a month. Eventually she bought a plane ticket and somehow ended up at this shelter.

Unidentified Woman: It's very good. It's helping me. It's helped because it's food, it's house, you know, it's everything.

TARABAY: Now she's in this cozy kitchen, joking with the other women about how differently meatballs are cooked around the world. Another Muslim woman, from Chad, is frying potatoes and her version of meatballs on the stove. It's a cheery scene that quickly unravels. Suddenly, the Kurdish woman breaks down.

Ms. HANIF: Look at me. You never have to go. I'm here, we're here together. Okay.

TARABAY: Hanif adjusts her lavender headscarf and takes a deep breath. She hugs the Kurdish woman while they both cry. The women here say the tears flow almost every day. Hanif feels it because she knows firsthand what it's like to be on the street after leaving a home filled with abuse.

Ms. HANIF: One of the main things that I like people to know is that those of us who are here, we're not bums.

TARABAY: It's a sanctuary in more ways that one. This house is an escape. For Muslim women, it's something more, a place where they can live and pray without having their faith questioned too.

Ms. HANIF: My biggest problem was that if you send a Muslim woman to be counseled or in a shelter that's run by Christians, then what the people say is -is that the reason why you're being beat is because of that religion. We do not want Islam to be the focal point of domestic violence.

TARABAY: Indeed, domestic violence knows no religion, but not all shelters are sensitive to Muslims, Hanif says.

Ms. HANIF: There may be situations such as, there would be men that would be were there, or maybe there wasn't any place for them to pray, or maybe there was an issue with the food.

TARABAY: Here, people take their shoes off at the door. There's no pork in the kitchen. And a section at the front of the house is marked for prayers.

Ms. HANIF: Sisters have, you know, congregational prayer because, you know, as Muslims, we pray five times a day.

TARABAY: Hanif is a nurse by trade, not a social worker. Running a battered women's shelter wasn't part of her plan. But over the years, she treated dozens of abused Muslim women at a health clinic. One memory sticks out: a woman who came to her with a broken jaw.

Ms. HANIF: One of the Muslim women and she had her, you know, like, her jaw was, you know, was wired. And I remember her saying that now she could lose some of the weight that she'd been wanting to lose because she had to suck her food through a straw. And we didn't inquire any more about it. We kind of laughed with her, and yet she had been beaten. And we - and I remember us doing nothing about it at all.

TARABAY: But not long after that, she did. Almost 12 years ago, Hanif set up this home in a residential neighborhood in Baltimore. And she lives here even though she has three grown children. Hanif is African-American, but most of the women she takes care of are immigrants.

Ms. HANIF: They have nowhere to go. The society doesn't want them. Their family doesn't want them, and the men who beat them doesn't want them.

TARABAY: But helping all these women and hearing their terrible stories has taken a toll on Hanif.

Ms. HANIF: I hear their voices in my head. They're crying. And it wears on my soul. And I tell people, I used to be a happy-go-lucky, smiling person, and now I carry a lot of sorrow.

TARABAY: Hanif said she's not trained to do this, but does it anyway. She does it for the voices of all those women she's been able to help and those she couldn't.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.

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