Silence did not make Sanaz Nezami strong: Facing immigrant domestic violence

Women News Network

This Facebook image of Sanaz Nezami was placed online in 2011 two years before she married Nima Nassari, an Iranian American born in the United States. In December 2013 Nassiri would be charged with a second-degree murder charge in the killing of Sanaz under what many ‘stop against women violence advocates’ are sure is a case of severe domestic violence. Image: Facebook/Nezami

(WNN) Los Angeles, California, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: Today her body lays lifeless as her hopes and dreams for a life of accomplishment in the United States is now buried in the cold of a Michigan winter. The police arrived at Sanaz Nezami’s home near midnight on Sunday December 8, 2013 when the 27-year-old newly married young woman from Iran was taken to a nearby hospital.

Almost exactly one year to the day before she was taken to the hospital due to her life-threatening injuries, Sanaz quoted a message that tried to answer the riddle of life and death itself in her Facebook page.

The real question is not whether life exists after death. The real question is whether you are alive before death,” said Sanaz’s December 9, 2012 Facebook post as she quoted a mystic from India.

“May the stars carry your sadness away, may the flowers fill your heart with beauty, may hope forever wipe away your tears. And, above all, may silence make you strong,” said another quote posted by Sanaz in July 13, 2013. This time Sanaz placed the quote in her Facebook page only four weeks before she would marry her now jailed husband.

But the truth is that ‘silence’ did not make Sanaz ‘strong’. It actually may have contributed greatly to her death and the lethal injuries she received under what has yet to be revealed in court as a severe domestic violence case.

“A domestic violence victim may stay with her abuser rather than calling the police,” says the AIC – American Immigration Council – Immigration Policy Center.

“Precisely because so many immigrant women suffer in silence, [U.S.] lawmakers can easily overlook the specific reforms necessary to ensure that CIR [Comprehensive Immigration Reform] does not inadvertently create new barriers and establish eligibility criteria that are beyond the reach of some immigrant women,” continues the AIC.

As a community activist working on issues of violence against women I know firsthand how educated and bright young women can take dangerous risks. At one point, in one of the battered women shelters I visited in California, I met several educated young women like Sanaz who were staying at the shelter. It is definitely possible that women trapped in abusive relationships, especially those who seek help, can move on to become proud survivors of domestic violence. But first they must move beyond the emotional burden of justifying their past actions and mistakes in front of family members and friends.

“Battered immigrant women often feel isolated from their communities, both domestically and internationally. Moreover, foreign-born women are frequently uninformed, unfamiliar with or simply confused about, their legal rights and the social services available to them in the United States,” says the  American University Washington School of Law.

“This is due, in part, to the lack of interactions between immigrant victims and government agencies. Unfortunately, too often both, governmental and non-governmental agencies that help to redress domestic violence are not prepared to meet the diverse needs of battered immigrant women,” adds the School of Law.

With unresponsive brain injuries and severe swelling in the brain, doctors declared Sanaz brain dead soon after she arrived at her second medical stop, Marquette General Hospital. No one knew at the time that Sanaz would become an organ donator hero who saved the lives of seven people, some children. After an ambulance originally brought her from her rented mobile home to the small 96 bed Portage Heath Hospital emergency room only 8 minutes away from where she and her husband had recently moved, Sanaz’s emergency condition required her to be transported to a larger hospital quickly.

Fast medical intervention is important for a brain injury like the one Sanaz received as each minute, and each second lost, brings death closer.

Consistent today within other global societies, particularly in Western and Southern Asia, women in Iran continue to be ostracized, blamed and re-victimized whenever they choose to leave, not stay in, abusive relationships. I know several of these women in my community advocacy work who have stood up for themselves and I am very proud of them.

A certain amount of responsibility though can be laid on a woman who may take risks by marrying someone she hardly knows. But the government of Iran should also be specifically held accountable for a fate like Sanaz’s. Over decades Iran’s government has increased the level of discriminatory laws and gender inequality against women. With shrinking opportunities for career choice or descent jobs in Iran the limits on women are now becoming an apparent part of the fabric of Iran’s society.

“This is a parents worse nightmare come true…,” said Gail Brandly, Nurse Supervisor for Marquette General Hospital, as she outlines the experience of the medical team who took care of Sanaz when she came in through emergency. In a recent NPR – National Public Radio interview January 2014 show called “Here and Now,” with 90.9 WBUR FM Boston radio anchor Robin Young, Brandly outlines the emotional ties that the nurses made while they took care of Sanaz.

“I figured she [Sanaz] was probably a student, and so I thought perhaps she would be on LinkedIn or Facebook or something like that,” said Brandly when Sanaz first arrived at the hospital. “So I found an absolutely beautiful resume, complete with a picture, that just showed me that she was a fabulous person,” the Nurse Supervisor added. “At the time the staff did not know anything about this young woman who came in with critical injuries.”

A Facebook post made by Sanaz Nazemi says, “Some see a weed, some see a wish.” Image: Facebook/Nazemi

When Sanaz was admitted to Michgan’s Marquette Hospital no one knew anything about her. It was then that the medical team decided to search for any information they could find online. Seeing a phone number in an online resume for Sanaz one of the members of the medical team dialed the number. Yes the number worked. It was the same phone number used for Sanaz’s family back home in Iran. When the call came in Sanaz’s sister Sara Nezami, who speaks fluent English, answered the phone. But sharing a terrible tragedy of family violence for Sanaz was not an easy, or wanted, message to convey.

Warning Signs of Danger

Without knowing anything about him previously Sanaz met 34-year-old Nima Nassiri online in Facebook, outlined her sister Sara in a recent interview withIranWire. Born in the United States to Iranian-American parents, Nassiri had never visited Iran.

“Many battered women dated or knew their abuser for less than six months before they were engaged or living together,” says “Signs to Look for in a Battering Personality,” a 2004 report from California State University in Fullerton.

Married on August 19, 2013 in Ankara, Turkey with both Sanaz’s family and Nassiri’s Iranian-American family present, the couple moved to Los Angeles, California immediately after the wedding. After a few months the newlyweds moved on to Dollar Bay, Michigan close to where Sanaz would be attending graduate university classes that would start for her on January 13, 2014.

No one noticed then, but dangerous warning signs were growing the moment the brand new newlyweds left Turkey for the U.S.

As she traveled to the U.S. for the first time from Turkey with her new husband in August 2013 Sanaz used a student visa, not an “Immigrant Visa for a Spouse of a U.S. Citizen,” her sister Sara added. But the family approved marriage that had hopes of strengthening and protecting Sanaz as an Iranian immigrant inside the United States devastatingly back-fired. This was especially true as Sanaz moved from Los Angeles to Dollar Bay where she became isolated with little contact with anyone except for her new husband.

This kind of situation can be seen over and over again with numerous immigrant women who have faced domestic violence.

“Battered immigrant victims who have only lived in the United States for a comparatively short time may not have made as many trustworthy personal relationships, and as a result, have a harder time seeking support outside their relationship with the abuser and his family,” outlines American University Washington College of Law. “In addition to threats associated with immigration status, an immigrant woman may also encounter challenges from her cultural community as she begins to explore addressing her abuser’s domestic violence,” continued the School of Law. “Her cultural or religious community may so highly value marriage that she fears being held responsible for breaking up hr family if she tries to escape her abuser.”

With a height that only reaches less than five feet tall, Nima Nassiri is a small man. Standing next to Sanaz who was over five feet seven inches in height the couple would definitely have attracted attention. Referring to other young men as “dude” in his Facebook page Nima’s ‘online persona’ has a side that may have been shrugged off by others as insignificant, but it isn’t insignificant.

Nima’s words clearly depict frustration, anger and conflict with the world.

“…they’ve got you so confused, so divided inside that you cant even see right, you’ve been conned into thinking the grey areas are ok but its their of making sure you stay mixed up in your head. buy them prescription drugs instead, fattin’ ya up like cattle when it comes to battle. so they can wipe you out with a weak mind and soul, they are cowards this is how they roll,” said Nassiri in a jumble of words similar to numerous other original poems that can be found on his Facebook page.

Nassiri’s disturbing Twitter account, that abruptly stops in April 2012, can still be found online. In it are words that are littered with profanity and ghetto-slang. Along with this is one very troubling music video: showing a fictional depiction of a violent murder of a young woman who’s death is hidden and covered up by a male murderer as the dead woman’s body is systematically rolled up in a carpet to hide her body following her death. But should this have been important to Sanaz or her family?

Do violent images in media film or video, as well as violent references in rap or rock music, actually provoke violent behavior? No one knows for sure. But some studies say yes they definitely do.

A study by the American Psychological Association, based in Washington, D.C., studied 500 college students and came up with a yes to the question which was later published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. What they discovered was that violent songs did in fact increase feelings of hostility without provocation or threat.

“Aggressive thoughts can influence perceptions of ongoing social interactions, coloring them with an aggressive tint,” said lead researcher Craig A. Anderson, Ph.D. in the study from Iowa State University. “Such aggression-biased interpretations can, in turn, instigate a more aggressive response -verbal or physical – than would have been emitted in a nonbiased state, thus provoking an aggressive escalatory spiral of antisocial exchanges,” Dr. Anderson continued.

Other researchers have come to the same conclusions about the effects of violent media and music.

A Facebook photo of Sanaz Nezami and her now incarcerated husband Nima Nassiri in November 2013. By November 2013 Sanaz gaunt face appears to be showing a drastic reduction in her weight. See the difference between this image and the one taken in 2012. Image: Facebook/Nezami

“It is apparent that there is a direct correlation between violent music videos and people behaving violently,”  said researcher Eliana Tropeano after conducting detailed research and a specific study on the topic of music and violence for Western Connecticut State University in 2006. “An operational definition of violent behavior is physically and verbally hurting others, cursing, stealing, inappropriate gestures and negative views of women. Whether it is the lyrics, the beat, or watching the entertainers act violently, people in general who are viewing these music videos are behaving in an inappropriate way,” continued Tropeano.

But is part of the problem in violence against women stemming from misdirected male aggression?, ask numerous female women advocates who are working to stop domestic violence.

“…we still live in a patriarchal society. Expectations that men should be strong, masculine, and more powerful than women can be very destructive to a man at risk for becoming violent. The shame triggered by the idea that they are appearing weak or unmanly can trigger some men to become enraged or to act on violent impulses,” says author, speaker and PhD Clinical Psychologist Lisa Firestone, who has spoken as an expert for forensic crime teams in the past.

Becoming an Organ Donation Hero

After suffering under what prosecuting attorneys in the case have called ‘a lethal attack’ Sanaz managed, even with critical injuries, to call the police for help. Her voice was hardly coherent on the phone though when she called 911, outlined the postmortem police report.

“In the late evening of 12/8/13 a phone call by Mrs. Nezami had indicated that she had been assaulted by her husband…Mrs. Nezami had sounded lethargic and Houghton County Sheriff deputies were dispatched to the residence,” states the police report. When the police arrived they found “Mrs. Nezami was unresponsive with some blood around her mouth.”

“…every parent just wants to know that their child is – if they’re hurt, they’re surrounded by people that care,” continued Nurse Supervisor Gail Brandly describing Sanaz’s time before and while she was in the hospital in Marquette. Through the work of the medical team they managed to work closely with her family in Iran, over 6,000 miles away.

“And they want to be able to say goodbye to their child, and you should have that opportunity. So we were bound and determined that we were going to do everything possible to make that happen,” she added.

Using Yahoo Messenger video conferencing, the nursing team at Marquette General Hospital came up with an innovative way for Sanaz’s family to be far away yet virtually present right there beside Sanaz during her last hours. Setting a computer laptop near Sanaz’s hospital bed her family could watch as the nurses came to sit with Sanaz as the family’s instructed them to stroke her hair, to kiss her on the forehead, and to tell them that she is loved as they worked to help her. They worked even in Sanaz’s ‘brain dead’ condition, to help her feel the love of her family surrounding her.

As the process to turn off the machines that supported Sanaz’s body drew near, Nurse Supervisor Gail Brandly mentioned the idea of organ donation to her father. The tragedy in the death of Sanaz was doubled by her family history. It was only a few years earlier that Sanaz had lost her own mother to a car wreck in Iran. The decision to donate organs to save other lives was made with a love for humanity quickly by her father.

“…this was a truly loving family, and there were many of them. I actually met many of the family members [online], and then eventually, it got to the point where we did discuss the organ donation. The moment I looked at this girl’s resume, I knew that she would want to be an organ donor. And her family didn’t hesitate. They said yes right away and truly believed in helping others.”

With generosity from the heart Sanaz’s father asked that the organ donations be accompanied by one thing. A prayer that would be read outloud in the operating room.

“I’ve been a nurse for 30 years and I’ve been involved in organ donation – I’m actually the organ donation liaison at our hospital – and I’ve never had a family give me a prayer to read in the operating room. He asked us to read to the transplant team when they arrived before the [organ] recovery began, ‘God I give you my child, so that she may save many great lives, for we are all your children.’ And for a father, that just really gives you a sense of his character,” outlined Nurse Supervisor Brandly.

Each separate transplant team that brought Sanaz’s organs to recipients in different U.S. States heard the prayer from her father. All told seven lives were immediately saved when that act of courage and generosity took place.

“She saved seven lives. There were five teams that came from four different states. Her heart, lung, liver, pancreas, kidneys and intestines were recovered for transplant. They were transplanted into seven individuals all successfully, and she saved seven lives. But it’s not just the seven lives that she saved. She also – I mean, she helped thousands of people. For one thing, everyone who loves those people are all affected by this transplant. I mean, she’s a hero,” continued Brandly.

“It is sad when a life is lost so young. But it is especially sad when the life is taken. As the recipient of two organs [a kidney and a pancreas] from young organ donors, I am always amazed at the generosity of parents and loved ones to give the gift of life at the time of their loss,” said WNN – Women News Network staff member Deborah Mazon who is herself a double organ transplant recipient when she heard about the fate of Sanaz. “Thank you dear family. Please know that your gift is cherished!” Mazon added.

Stopping Deadly Domestic Violence

As a tragic hero the lives of those Sanaz touched also reach further than those who received a life-saving organs or the community that surrounds organ recipients. Iranian students at Michigan Tech, were excited to meet Sanaz when classes began on January 13, 2014, but that day never came.

In a quest to pursue her dreams by launching her doctorate education as a PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering at Michigan Tech, Sanaz wanted deeply to reach her full potential, conveyed Sanaz’s sister Sara. Michigan Tech seemed to be the best fit for Sanaz as the MT Graduate Program in Engineering Sciences is known for its excellence. Michigan Tech has also beenactively working to encourage female students from around the world to enroll.

In contrast to her husband, Sanaz was proficient in three languages with a completed Master’s Degree in Translation Studies and a Bachelors in Environmental Health Engineering from Tehran University. At an early age she was considered far ahead of other children. Bright, talented and engaged with friends and community inside Iran she won first place in a literature competition at the age of 15 with an essay titled, “Friendships and the Differences Between Us.”

But, like other women who have suffered under intimidation and/or violence in their home, Sanaz’s shining intelligence and ambition did not work to protect her from the violent danger that became part of her future. It especially did not protect her from the deadly violence that would erupt inside her own Michigan home.

Under a 5 million dollar (USD) bond, Nima Nassiri, is now in jail waiting for his case to be heard under a second-degree murder charge. On Wednesday February 12, 2014, two days before Valentine’s Day, Nassiri appeared before the judge in the preliminary procedures at the Houghton County Courthouse as he ‘stood mute to his charges’. A motion for Nassiri to undergo a mental exam as well as to fully cooperate with the forensics lab team has been granted by the court.

Every day in United States three or more women are murdered by their boyfriends or husbands, says the American Psychology Association. Each minute 24 people are victims of intimate partner violence and each year over 12 million women and men are victims of intimate partner violence, says theCDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each month the U.S.National Domestic Violence Hotline receives an average of 22,000 calls.

It’s vitally important for women, as well as family and friends, to know the warning signs for domestic violence. Unfortunately the rescue for Sanaz was not recognized or put into place in time before her deadly assault took place.

In the Park Cemetery in Marquette, Michigan on Wednesday, December 18, 2013 as winter snow continued to fall Sanaz became the first Muslim to be buried in a special section reserved for Muslims only, as requested by her family. Those involved with the care of Sanaz at the hospital and her body in preparations for burial were very careful to follow Islamic traditions.

In response to the case of Sanaz Nezami and her tragic death, that made the hearts of all women advocates heavy,  a group of Iranian women including myself initiated an open letter petition to the leadership authorities of Michigan which include signatures of concerned Iranian men and women.

While Sanaz was far from home, those who did surround her at her death treated her like a ‘beloved’ family member. Sanaz’s donated heart was small enough to be used to save the life of a 12-year-old girl organ recipient.

“We just wanted to hug her and hold her and rock her because she [Sanaz] was so far away from home,” said Nurse Supervisor Gail Brandly as she described the nurses who cared and loved Sanaz Nezami during the last hours of her life.

This video focuses on the unique challenges immigrant women face in navigating the road to independence that arise from language barriers, cultural differences, social isolation, and economic insecurity stemming from their inability to obtain legal employment. Five brave survivors of domestic violence describe the hurdles they faced in escaping abusive circumstances, accessing social and legal services, and attaining legal immigration status. Social workers, health care providers, law enforcement officers, and lawyers who wish to assist immigrant victims of domestic violence should find this video useful. This video has been created for the University of Pennsylvania School of Law documentaries and Law Program.