When Robina Niaz started Turning Point for Women and Families in 2004, she never thought that the organization would gain as much acclaim as it has in its six-year existence.
In recent years, Niaz, and her organization, have been recognized by CNN Heroes, NY1’s New Yorker of the Week and recently she was named a recipient of the Bank of America Neighborhood Excellence Initiative Award. That $5,000 grant recognizes local leaders who are making a difference in their communities.
“For the organization, [the recognition] has brought us so much visibility internationally,” Niaz said. “That was something unexpected, and personally I’m very humbled by it.”
She believes that Bank of America’s efforts should send a message to other businesses. “If more for-profit organizations stepped up to the plate and recognized the need to support grassroots organizations like us, then I think we’d all benefit.”
Niaz began Turning Point after her stormy marriage ended. “I was a professional woman when I came here many years ago and I found myself in a terribly isolated, difficult situation,” she said.
Niaz was cut off from her family, who remained in her native Pakistan after she moved to Queens to marry. Unfortunately, the decision to uproot her life to start a new one did not work out. The marriage was not a happy one.
“I said if this is this difficult for me —someone who didn’t have language barriers, who was quite confident and educated and trained — then I wondered what happened to women who don’t have the language skills,” she said, “who don’t have the education, and who also don’t have the family support that I had.”
Even though her relatives were overseas during her marriage, Niaz still received support from them and managed to reach her own turning point after her divorce. She made the decision to stay in New York and ultimately found her purpose in life.
“I thought this must have happened for a reason and I needed to now find a way of helping other women who may be in similar situations,” she said.
Niaz went back to school, obtained a master’s degree in social work and soon organized Turning Point, a nonprofit organization based in Queens that provides services for Muslim women and children.
“Immigrant women come here and often because they married somebody who’s already settled in America, they don’t know what to expect,” she said. “Some don’t even know how to recognize abuse.”
Niaz noted that many are oblivious to the laws that protect them and are often unaware because of cultural norms that get misinterpreted as religious tenets.
“They often are socialized to think that because they are Muslim women, they should not speak up against abuse, which is totally contrary to the truth,” Niaz said.
But Turning Point partners with Muslim religious leaders and draws from the work of scholars and others to help women understand that is not the case.
“Islam requires us to stand up against injustice,” Niaz said. “It doesn’t ask us to protect anybody or go into denial or pretend it’s not happening.”
She added that Turning Point is the only nonprofit in New York City that caters to the needs of Muslim women regardless of ethnicity and addresses domestic violence in the Muslim community.
The center offers help through outreach in the community at mosques, crisis intervention, ongoing counseling, support groups, referrals and language and legal education regarding domestic violence and child safety.
It also houses a youth program that brings Muslim girls and young women up to the age of 20 together to support each other and acquire leadership skills.
All services are free, and women also get a free round-trip MetroCard, since many of them lack the money to come by bus or subway. Since its beginnings, Turning Point has helped close to 400 women.
Niaz made the choice to have Turning Point in Queens because it is home to the majority of Muslims in New York City.
Although the group is funded by many local organizations, Turning Point needs more resources, including a larger office and child care services.
But despite these limitations, Niaz isn’t discouraged. “Our hope is that one day we have the resources to have a branch in each of the five boroughs,” she said. “If with limited resources so much can happen, if we had all the resources we need, then imagine the change.”
The location of the foundation is confidential. For help or information, call (718) 883-9400.