Neha Gill has devoted her career to public service and supporting immigrant survivors of gender-based violence and discrimination in the Chicago area.
“When we think of social service, we think of helping broken people,” said Gill, executive director of Apna Ghar, which is based in Uptown. “What I learned is that these women don’t come here because they are broken. They come here to find another way out or to find legal solutions to their problems. They are strong, if anything.”
Apna Ghar was established to serve the South Asian population, but it now serves female refugee and immigrant survivors from various ethnic backgrounds. Apna Ghar, meaning “our home” in Urdu and Hindi, is equipped with a crisis hotline for immigrants who need assistance, usually while dealing with some form of violent abuse. Staff also provide counseling and legal guidance.
Now in the process of expanding, Gill said the organization was the first of its kind to provide shelter to survivors of gender violence in Chicago’s underserved immigrant populations.
Through her work with the organization, Gill aims to heighten awareness of gender discrimination and the issues faced by immigrant communities.
The Chicago Reporter recently met with Gill, a self-described introvert, to talk about her life and work.
When did you move to the United States and how did you get involved with Apna Ghar?
I was born and raised in India. I also lived in Mauritius for some time because my father was stationed there as part of his work with the Indian government. When I was eighteen, we all moved to the United States since my mother’s entire family was here—it was a family reunion, you could say. My undergraduate degree is in international relations and my graduate degree is in international public service from DePaul University. I lived in Kenya for some time during my course of study and while I was there, I worked with a local NGO called Gender Sensitive Initiative. This is where I really became aware of issues of violence against women, but also women’s leadership and enterprise. When I returned to the U.S., I started looking for volunteer opportunities and ways to become engaged in similar work and that’s how I found Apna Ghar in 2003.
Tell us about your time at Apna Ghar and the work you have done so far.
I have been executive director of Apna Ghar since August 2013. When I first came here ten years prior to that, I volunteered at the shelter. So my work here has included working directly with survivors of gender violence. I have also worked on program and organizational management and development. At the same time, I have consulted on a project in northern Iraq to create survivor-centered policies and procedures for shelters in the region of Kurdistan—these policies and procedures were formally adopted by the Kurdish government in 2014. I have also worked for the Chiapas Centre for Women’s Rights in Chiapas, Mexico and done some work in India on women’s empowerment and leadership.
What pushes you to continue your work against gender violence?
I used to work at a technology consulting firm before I decided to volunteer with Apna Ghar in 2003. The culture there was very different from what I have experienced here. The constant ticking in and out, people complaining all the time. You don’t see that here, you see real commitment and real stories. It really puts your own life into perspective too. In my case, my work has made me grateful for the life that my parents have given me. Another factor that helps me move forward is seeing lives change on a daily basis. At Apna Ghar, it really is about the people we serve. By just giving a little support to the women we work with, you really do start to feel like you’re making a difference. To have that feeling and be able to see that in the work you do is truly inspiring. Over the years I believe I have become better equipped to handle my own problems.
What motivated you to get involved in public service?
I’m very strongly influenced by my parents. They are both strong, capable, and independent minded and looking back I can say that there was gender equality and true partnership in my parents’ relationship. This has guided me through my life personally and professionally. In addition to this, they instilled a strong sense of civic and public engagement and global issues. My father worked in the government sector in India and my mother was a doctor. They both worked in different ways to improve lives, provide public service and shape policy. I’m happy to carry that forward in my professional career as well.
Tell us about the clients you work with.
I was just telling my staff the other day about one of our clients who was a pregnant refugee at the time she moved to the shelter. She did not speak a word of English and she gave birth to a daughter who is grown up now. To this day, she stays in touch with us. She brings her daughter here sometimes and tells her that she was born here. She has become an advocate for the work we do and sometimes she’ll walk clients to our office. The thing about these women—and this is also something we try to validate in our interactions with our clients—is that they are very strong and resilient. They are beyond their victimization. And each and every single one of our clients is fighting it out. Fortunately, a lot of them are successful in that pursuit. Since we’re a social service organization, we see the worst of the worst, but they try to move forward after coming from a difficult, traumatizing situation. We see survivors who aren’t equipped with language skills and find themselves in completely new environments, but they come with the courage and the strength to be positive. To be a part of that journey and watch our clients thrive is truly incredible for us. There are women who come from wars and experience sexual violence as a result of those wars. Then they come here and might have to deal with family violence. So it really is rewarding for us to be a part of their support system. Some of these women may not know a lot of people here and we might be the first people they end up reaching out to, so we also become a community for them.
What do you aspire to achieve in the future?
In my role as the executive director of Apna Ghar I really hope to be able to bring the issues facing immigrant survivors of gender violence to the forefront and to affect positive systemic and societal changes that lead to the end of gender discrimination and gender violence.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.