New York Daily News

Friday, October 6th, 2006

Robina Niaz, founder of the Turning Point for Women and Families, a Jamaica, Queens group dedicated to empowering Muslim women and children, says a single statistic shows one thing women of all faiths have in common.

Every nine seconds, a woman is the victim of domestic violence in this country.

"When people ask me if domestic violence is a problem in the Muslim community, I tell them domestic violence is a problem in every community," Niaz said. "A woman is victimized every nine seconds. Some of them are Muslim; some of them aren’t."

No matter who the victim is, Niaz said, "a society can never be free of violence if our homes are violent.

"We must call it what it is," she said. "Domestic violence is wrong under Islam and any other standard you want to apply."

Niaz, a native of Pakistan, founded Turning Point 12 years ago. A social worker in her native country with a master’s degree in psychology, Niaz earned a second master’s in social work from Hunter College two decades after earning her first.

Turning Point offers social services that are sensitive to the cultural differences of Muslim women, who were often victimized a second time by language and religious barriers when seeking help with domestic violence issues.

"Many of these women do not speak English that well," Niaz said. "Just because they are saying ‘yes, yes,’ as you speak doesn’t mean they understand what you are saying."

Using a network of partner agencies and referrals, Turning Point offers crisis intervention, support groups, counseling, referrals for legal services and community organizing and outreach.

There are support groups for teenage Muslim girls – "It is difficult being a teenager in any culture," Niaz said – and information on women’s legal rights as well as on immigration and other issues.

"The point is to help a woman find the strength within herself," Niaz said.

Niaz is the group’s only fulltime employee. She estimates she helps about 20 women and a like number of teenagers each year. Niaz said she hopes to soon expand her services to offer internships that would train non-Muslim social workers who serve the Muslim community.

Niaz’s work with Turning Point earned her a 2005 Union Square Award.

The second of seven children, Niaz is a Muslim who studied in Catholic schools in her native Pakistan through her high school years "because it was the best education available at the time."

Her family was forced to flee their home in the region of Pakistan that was incorporated into Bangladesh in the early 1970s.

She immigrated here 17 years ago to marry, but that union ended in divorce in 1993. Casting about for a career, Niaz found social work what she wanted to do, and what called her.

She worked for several Queens agencies, including the domestic violence unit at Jamaica Hospital, where she was the first South Asian counselor on staff.

Speaking four South Asian languages – Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and Bengali – Niaz was able to bridge cultural lines and offer help to people from a variety of cultures.

"I was able to build up my clientele," she said. "When I left, they replaced me with another South Asian, which shows that the services were needed.

"People often do not appreciate how difficult it is to be an immigrant," she said. "Even a plant that has been uprooted and replanted takes a while to get used to its new soil."

That’s one reason why, speaking at a gathering of social workers last month, Niaz urged them to include the star and crescent symbols in public holiday displays as a way of including Muslims in the observance.

"Don’t wait for your patients to come forward and ask why it is missing," she said. It’s also a good idea not to organize events on Friday evenings as that conflicts with when Muslims pray, she said.

"Don’t invite me to have dinner with you at 6 o’clock during Ramadan when I can’t break my fast until 6:30."

The devastation of Sept. 11, 2001, "drastically changed" the lives of Muslim New Yorkers, she said. In an article titled "Realities on the Ground For Muslim New Yorkers Five Years After 9/11," Niaz said the mistrust and suspicions aimed at Muslims since the attacks helped her better empathize with other groups, like the Jews, Irish, African-Americans and Hispanics, and what they often have to deal with in this country.

"An entire group of people came under fire because of their faith," she said. "Jews were persecuted in Germany for the same reason, so you would think we would never see it again. You criminalize an entire group of people because they are Muslim. Now, as a Muslim, you have to explain yourself all the time."

A community activist, Niaz said she was attending so many events, including marches against the continued genocide in Darfur, that she found herself burnt out. She has drastically cut back her schedule, focusing primarily on Turning Point issues.

Niaz lives in Briarwood, Queens, but maintains Turning Point offices in Jamaica, where it was founded. Clients come from all five boroughs. "I love Jamaica," she said. "It’s good to work in the community where you feel you belong."

Turning Point will host a Voices of Hope and Strength event, which will include a meal to break the daily fasts mandated during Ramadan, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 19 at the Queens Museum of Art, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

For information, call (718) 883-9400, or check the Web site:

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