Champions of change: White House recognizes 15 Asian, Pacific women
Aparna Bhattacharya is one of 15 Asian-American and Pacific Islander women being recognized by the White House.
May 6th, 2013
06:00 AM ET

Champions of change: White House recognizes 15 Asian, Pacific women

By Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN) - Aparna Bhattacharyya opened her e-mail on April 16 and there it was: a note from the White House informing her she was a Champion of Change.

The 41-year-old Atlanta woman was surprised. But those who know her say she shouldn't have been.

She's been working for almost two decades with Raksha, an Atlanta-based organization that addresses a host of issues in the South Asian community. Over the years, Raksha has done the simplest of things, like helping someone set up online banking. But mainly, they've done a whole lot of heavy hitting by supporting victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

She is one of 15 Asian-American and Pacific Islander women who will be honored Monday at the White House for "doing extraordinary things to create a more equal, safe, and prosperous future for their communities and the country." The event is part of the White House's observance of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said the 15 women represent the strength and diversity of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community.

Bhattacharyya has been at the helm of Raksha since 1998, when she took over as executive director. Raksha means protection in several South Asian languages. But that's not how everyone in the community saw it. Getting Raksha off the ground was difficult.

"There was a lot of resistance from the community because there was a fear the we were airing dirty laundry," Bhattacharyya says.

South Asians in America are often stereotyped as highly educated people who don't encounter issues of violence at home.

"The reality is that it affects us," Bhattacharyya says. "It doesn’t matter what your background is, or your education."

After the horrific gang-rape of a woman in New Delhi last year, Bhattacharyya saw outrage from South Asians on what was happening in India. She wants them to know that there is enough work to do right here in the United States.

"I felt people didn’t take a look at themselves and see what we can do," she says. "How we raise our sons. What we tell our daughters. Change what we do on a daily basis that makes domestic and sexual violence occur."

Bhattacharyya operates in an office space that is confidential so clients don't feel the threat of being discovered. She operates on a $250,000 annual budget and now has on staff a licensed therapist, a part-time child therapist and an advocate. All of them are South Asians, including Bhattacharyya, whose family came from Kolkata, India.

She says it's important for the Raksha staff to understand South Asian culture. To speak in Hindi or Bengali. To know why divorce is considered taboo. To know the potential perils of holding an H-4 visa. That type of visa is issued to the spouse of someone with a H1-B visa, a nonimmigrant visa issued to temporary foreign workers in the United States. H-4 holders are not permitted to work and often find themselves in financial trouble if their spouse abandons them.

It's the people who never make it to Raksha who freak her out. In the last six months, five South Asians have died, including a women who was shot by her fiance.

"Those are hard things to see," Bhattacharyya says.

The U.S. Census counts 18.2 million Asian-Americans and another 1.4 million people who identify as native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

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Filed under: Asian in America • Ethnicity • Immigration • Who we are • Women
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