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Helping Americans escape domestic violence abroad

The prominent backers of a growing non-profit recognize the legal and practical complexity of escaping domestic violence while abroad.

A group of women wearing wedding dresses splattered with red dye pose to publicize a demonstration held in Rome against domestic violence, Nov. 20, 2008. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

PARIS, France — Richard Branson, Yoko Ono and Doris Buffet are among the supporters of an organization that helps rescue Americans from domestic abuse they suffer while abroad.

The group’s founder, Paula Lucas, knows personally the predicament of U.S. citizens in such situations. There were few resources available when she was trying to flee an abusive husband in the United Arab Emirates in the late 1990s.

Lucas says her husband terrorized and threatened her and their three boys during violent fits. He would make the children eat their own vomit if they dared throw up their food after being forced to finish their plates. But she says her pleas for help from the local embassy and even her family’s efforts back home, calling the U.S. State Department and elected officials, went unheeded.

Lucas finally escaped in April 1999 while her husband was delayed on a business trip. She forged his signature on documents required to allow her to travel outside of the country with the children, as well as on a check to cover travel expenses, since she didn’t have access to her money. Now, the organization she founded, the American Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center, might have provided those flights home.

At the lowest points of her ordeal, Lucas said she vowed, “if I ever get out of this situation, I’m going to do something to help” others in a similar situation.

“Maybe it was part of my bargaining power with God,” the Portland, Ore.,-based Lucas said by telephone about the non-profit she started in September 1999 while living in a shelter after her escape. The effort evolved from an online resource site into a hotline and eventually into the Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center. The organization, possibly the only one of its kind, provides everything from legal advice and counseling to discounted airline flights to repatriate families to the United States.

As the need for services grew, the organization moved from Lucas’ living room. The international toll free crisis number (866-USWOMEN) is accessible from 175 countries. The organization, which remains a small non-profit with a limited budget, focuses on services for the 4 million to 7 million Americans living abroad. When possible, it has provided legal referrals and other helpful information to non-Americans.

The organization, which estimates it has already helped more than 1,000 families, employs five paid staff and has a cadre of volunteers. It cobbles together funding from various charities to exist, including the foundations of Yoko Ono and Doris Buffet. Lucas also used money she won from national awards that came with cash prizes.

The free and discounted flights resulted from a chance meeting in 2005 at a luncheon in New York where Lucas “strategically” sat next to Richard Branson, the billionaire businessman and owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways. “He offered, I didn’t ask,” Lucas said. “It’s a huge resource for us.”