UAE: The 'City of Hope' women's shelter in Dubai

Al Jazeera
Sharla Musabih decided to take action against domestic violence by opening up a villa to shelter women and children who can not find help anywhere else.
Dubai is rapidly becoming one of the most popular destinations in the Middle East, and a booming economic centre in the Gulf. But some of those who live in the emirate have become victims of domestic violence, and found few places to turn to for help. In a small non-descript villa in one of Dubai's smarter neighbourhoods is what Sharla Musabih calls a "City of Hope".
When Musabih, an American by birth, married an Emirati man and moved to Dubai over 25 years ago, she immediately fell in love with its cultures and tradition, which she described as caring and embracing. Since then, the United Arab Emirates has gone through decades of growth that has given the country a new and modern face. "I could see a place that I was passionately in love with undergoing the pressures of the influx of population as well as the speed and rate of development," Musabih says.

But Dubai's swift development has brought with it, and raised awareness of, social problems such as domestic violence, abuse of labourers and the trafficking of women.

And all of these have been difficult for a society at the crossroad of modernity to deal with, especially under the scrutiny of the international spotlight. Victims of abuse. So Musabih decided to take action, opening up a villa to shelter women and children who could not get help anywhere else.

Today there are nine women and four children taking the offered refuge; they are victims of domestic violence, human trafficking or housemaid abuse.

"The types of cases that we see in the City of Hope are actually extreme, extreme cases. We don't just take any light little case, the cases that are often referred to us from the CID or the police or the embassies or other organisations are very, very severe."

At one point, 70 women sought refuge in the house. Providing only modest living conditions, City of Hope survives on private donations and the help of volunteers such as doctors, lawyers and psychologists - they help the women and children with their traumatic experiences by providing counselling and coaching in basic life skills.

The City of Hope shelter may not have all of the amenities that some of Dubai's other million-dollar charities have, but according to the women and children that have sought refuge there, it has something much more valuable - a chance to escape abuse and violence.

One of the victims at the shelter, a British national whose name is concealed for the sake of security and privacy, said she became the victim of domestic violence when her Emirati husband suffered financial hardships. "It came to the point where he was locking me up in my flat and beating me up, and leaving me without a mobile," she said. "He wasn't allowing my family to visit me."

Despite the organisation's stated intentions, City of Hope has drawn controversy. Musabih is involved in at least three legal cases involving defamation and operating an organisation without a license or certificate from the government.

"I think that it's so controversial because this culture is so private and anyone who wants to step in between a husband and a wife is considered an enemy," she says.

However, Musabih's efforts have been recognised by the highest levels of the Emirates government, which has taken her lead and has started the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.

Although the government has asked Musabih to merge her organisation with the Dubai Foundation, she has declined, opting to keep it as a non-governmental organisation for the country and a "City of Hope" for the women and children who seek refuge there.

By: Ayman Mohyeldin

November 2007