One battered woman was provided with $500 to help her pay rent and cover basic living expenses. Another woman who had divorced her abusive husband was provided with a shopping voucher to Costco. A family of eight who had contracted COVID-19 received bags filled with groceries while quarantining in their home.

License to Freedom, founded nearly 20 years ago to respond to the needs of immigrant women falling victim to domestic abuse, has been at the frontline of COVID-19 by serving a growing number of residents like those above dealing with unimaginable crises brought on by the pandemic. The nonprofit’s work, which is lifesaving for so many individuals and families, is supported by a $50,000 grant from the San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund.

“It was a huge help,” said Executive Director Dilkhwaz Ahmed. “The need is so great. This generous gift has allowed us to do our work and keep our doors open.”

License to Freedom partners with organizations and agencies ranging from Blue Shield of California, the California Department of Public Health and Kaiser Permanente to the San Diego Workforce Partnership, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and Price Philanthropies in a holistic approach to combat and respond to domestic violence with legal services, crisis intervention and more. Guided by the belief that a lack of economic opportunities is one of the major barriers battered refugee and immigrant women face when trying to leave violent partners and start violence-free new lives, License to Freedom also emphasizes employment counseling, job placement and independent living skills.

While those services remain, the pandemic has led to a greater focus on emergency relief. More than 40 struggling residents to date have received $300 stipends and 20 people have received $500. Others have been the recipients of gift cards, food and diapers for their children.

“Because our office was open every day during the pandemic, we were determined to help anyone who knocked on our door,” Ahmed said. “It wasn’t only domestic violence. We are known and trusted in the refugee community, and people came to us asking, ‘Where can I get food,’ ‘Where can I get a COVID test,’ or ‘Where can I get help to pay my rent?’

“This money didn’t just go to victims of domestic violence. It went to anybody we could help,” Ahmed continued. “It went to single moms. Asylum seekers. It didn’t matter. When somebody needs help, you help them.”

A refugee from the war in Syria, Aala is among those who have been helped. “I’m lonely in this country, I don’t have anybody,” she said. “When I decided to move forward and leave my cycle of violence, the only help I could find was this agency. I did not know how anything worked here. They helped me with a restraining order and child custody. When COVID-19 happened, I lost my job and they helped me pay the rent. It is an amazing organization. It is the only family I have in this country.”

Meanwhile, the crisis continues. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported that as shelter-in-place orders began to lift throughout the country last spring, the number of victims reaching out last April increased by 15 percent compared to the previous year. Worse still, the national group expects to see an unprecedented number of survivors reporting abuse and seeking support in the coming months.

“Having to be in isolation at home is very difficult for anyone, but especially for those who are part of a community that is accustomed to being out and interacting with others,” explained Jenny Leverman, a License to Freedom therapist. “When you combine that with the financial stress, with the stress of having your children home from school because they’re suddenly forced to do all their learning online, it all factors into a rising rate of domestic violence. We’ve reached out to our clients to assess their situation. We contacted them by phone, on Zoom, in meetings at a park. It’s been a very trying time.”

Ahmed agreed. “It’s hard to see so many people in our community lose their jobs and see so much domestic violence as a result.”

Nonprofits such as License to Freedom have found the San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund indispensable. To date, the effort has granted more than $58 million to over 200 area nonprofit partners.

You can help by donating to the San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund today.