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Most people know him as the quick-witted Dwight Schrute on NBC’s “The Office,” but Rainn Wilson proved he’s more than just a funny face last Sunday during “An Afternoon with Rainn Wilson” at George Washington University, an alumni event sponsored by the Falls Church-based Tahirih Justice Center.
Wilson challenged the audience to help make the world a better place.
The Tahirih Justice Center (TJC) is comprised of lawyers, doctors and volunteers who help female refugees suffering from gender-based violence in foreign countries get established in the United States. The center is named after Tahirih, a women’s rights figure from the teachings of the Bahá’í faith. Raised Bahá’í, Wilson said he makes an effort to back organizations that parallel his own moral convictions in a sit-down interview with the News-Press.
“As I became more of a celebrity, many places started contacting me to be a spokesperson and I really wanted to use the attention that having me aboard a project would bring. The ideas of social justice and education are central spiritual tenants of the Bahá’í faith, and they’re also central to the Tahirih Justice Center,” said Wilson.
Executive Director of TJC, Layli Miller-Muro, told the News-Press that after hearing word of Wilson’s previous involvement with the Mona Foundation, another organization geared towards gender equality, she pulled a few strings to get Wilson on board. However, she said it wasn’t too much of a challenge to persuade the “Office” mate.
“He was really responsive and insisted on paying for his own ticket. He even wanted to pay for his own hotel room, but we got Marriot to donate it. Then he made a donation too, and here we were thinking we were going to use him,” said Miller-Muro.
Prior to Wilson’s campus appearance, he emceed at TJC’s 11th Annual Fundraising Benefit at the Crystal Gateway Marriot in Arlington last Saturday evening.
Hours before his Master of Ceremonies duties ensued, Wilson had lunch at Miller-Muro’s Falls Church home with four female clients of TJC who shared their stories of escaping abuse, some of whom are still in danger and were unable to be photographed. Afterwards, Wilson said he was still processing the overwhelming amount of information shared with him.
“It’s so very clear that the subjugation of women is so severe and present in so many cultures. It’s a kind of slavery – from arranged marriages to female genital mutilation – it’s designed to keep women subservient in these cultures, to dehumanize them. And it’s just so rampant throughout the world that something needs to be done,” said Wilson.
Though genuine concern fuels his involvement, “The Office’s” Scranton spirit surfaced when Wilson was asked what he expected his status to bring to TJC and charities alike. “Cash, baby,” said a straight-faced Wilson, channeling his character Dwight. Following with all seriousness, Wilson said that he hoped having a celebrity involved would get more volunteers aboard the cause.
“It’s really about them, not me,” said Wilson.
Miller-Muro also attested to that as she recalled a memorable moment of Wilson’s visit to her home. He asked for friendship from a little girl wearing a “Best Friends Forever” t-shirt. The young girl was one of the daughters of a TJC client present at the luncheon, who’d been living in shelters with her kids until she became legal in the United States, and could look for work.
She agreed and he gave this little girl a fist-to-fist bump right before she showed him that the back of her shirt read ‘No boys allowed.’ He did a whole ‘Oh, I’m so hurt’ bit, and then she ran around the rest of the day telling everyone they were best friends. “He was so immediately comfortable with the kids,” said Miller-Muro.
Wilson stuck around to sign autographs for the children and take pictures with the women, the whole time cracking jokes and asking if their snapshots turned out good enough. Though perhaps it was Wilson’s attentiveness during the women’s heartbreaking stories that stuck out the most for Miller-Muro, who said he was “very moved.”
One woman, who goes by the name Elizabeth, told her story of enduring female genital mutilation (FGM) at the age of seven while visiting her grandmother in Senegal, Africa. Elizabeth’s mother, also in attendance, said she was against the procedure and tried to protect her daughter, but was instead beaten by a group of tribesmen who woke Elizabeth during the night. At the time of the beating, Elizabeth’s mother was pregnant and said her daughter’s screams resembled that of “an animal.” Elizabeth, now 36 years old, still remembers having to crawl on hands and knees for weeks following the procedure.
“In the United States, we hear about violence against women and we hear about these customs, but I’m not sure we realize the profound life-threatening nature of them and the degree to which people go to ensure conformity to their notions of morality,” said Miller-Muro. She went on to note that “that kind of fanaticism [in foreign countries] isn’t a huge leap” from some of our own ideological convictions of “only one way being the right way.”
One little girl, running around in a princess dress at the luncheon, suffered from dwarfism and had escaped her homeland with her mother after tribal leaders suggested the only cure for what they considered her impurity was for both her and her sister to undergo FGM. After that, they said that if the 2-year-old girl could survive a severe ritualistic beating, then her dwarfism would go away. That’s when the girl’s mother decided it was time to flee, though the family’s troubles didn’t end once they entered the United States.
“After they escaped, they ended up living in a homeless shelter because they didn’t qualify for a domestic violence shelter since she was suffering abuse from someone in another country,” said Miller-Muro.
Between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day, everyone would be kicked out of the shelter and told to look for a job. The only problem, according to Miller-Muro, was that the girl’s mother was unable to look for honest work toting around three youngsters, not to mention being an undocumented immigrant.
The woman told stories of riding the Metro Transit for hours or taking her kids to the park until she was able to return at 7 p.m.
While illegal immigrants remain a hot topic in news and politics, Miller-Muro believes there’s more to it than meets the eye for women refugees in search of a safe haven for themselves and their children. She said becoming documented takes at least nine months, but more often than not, one year. Many women refugees must wait this one year out in shelters, unable to legally work.
“As a lawyer, I firmly believe in obeying the law, but I think it’s important for people to hear this story to know that there are people who are compliant, who make the best efforts to follow the law, who face imminent, life-threatening conditions and are attempting to deal with our flawed system,” said Miller-Muro. “Flawed isn’t even the right word – it’s impossible.”
Over $200,000 was raised at Saturday night’s sold-out benefit, where TJC recognized Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) with a Pillar of Justice Award for his legislative and personal efforts to protect women and girls fleeing human rights abuses. Miller-Muro said the fight for justice continues for these women with the coming of each day.
“It’s both heartening and depressing at the same time to watch this organization grow into what it is today,” said Miller-Muro. “Each day, I think I’ve seen it all with these women, and then I’m floored again.”
Female clients of the Tahirih Justice Center (6066 Leesburg Pike, Suite 220, Falls Church) have formed Tahirih’s Wings, a support group with mission to give back to the center by helping women like themselves. Their first project is to collect donations of children’s clothes and toys to give to the women who escape to the U.S. with youngsters whom are without either. Donations can be brought to the Falls Church office. In the spring, the women will be looking for citizens willing to volunteer their yards for yard sales. Proceeds will benefit the Tahirih Justice Center. The women of Tahirih’s Wings can be contacted directly at [email protected] For a full list of TJC volunteer opportunities or to learn more about the organization, call 703-575-0070.