“I believe there are angels among us, sent down to us from somewhere up above…”
Mary Ellen Mitchell has been the executive director of WomenShelter of Long Beach for five years, yet she has never met John Lemacks.
Nevertheless, she is convinced he is an angel.
Jane (not her real name), a client at the shelter, met Lemacks in 2015. She, too, is convinced he is an angel.
A partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Tafapolsky and Smith, LLP, Lemacks has been doing pro bono work for the shelter since 2013. At his firm, he specializes in business immigration, helping Fortune Top 50 companies to attract talent who might come from another country and assist those people to get business type visas to work and stay in the U.S.
But he says his efforts on behalf of Jane might be his most fulfilling because two months ago, he helped her get a green card.
“I met Jane in 2015 when she was at the WomenShelter of Long Beach,” Lemacks wrote in an email. “She and her ex-husband’s family fled Bangladesh in 2014 after suffering horrific persecution at the hands of militant Islamic fundamentalists on account of her religion (Roman Catholicism). And when I say horrific, I mean horrific.”
Lemack explained that Jane, her 4-year-old daughter, her ex-husband, and her in-laws filed an asylum case shortly after they arrived in California.
Although Jane and her daughter escaped from the South Asia country with the family, her troubles continued in the United States. The abuse she suffered in Bangladesh at the hands of her ex-husband became worse. After several domestic violence incidents, Jane found the strength to call the police and made the decision to leave her husband. With no job and no money, she ended up at WSLB.
“In 2014, I decided not to be with my in-laws because they would not let me go out of the house without permission,” Jane said. “I came to this country with high hopes and I didn’t give up. I go for it. I battle.”
One day, while her daughter was in school, she met with officials there who recommended she meet with a family counselor. The counselor told her she needed to make a decision: return to her family or seek protection.
“Right after Mother’s Day I filed a police report and I decided I didn’t want to live with them anymore,” she said.
Although Jane and her daughter were living in Los Angeles, they were sent to a shelter in another city — Long Beach.
“The people who come to our shelter aren’t from Long Beach because that would be dangerous,” Mitchell said. “By coming here from another city, they don’t have to stay cooped up. They can go shopping and do other things.”
WSLB has been in existence since 1977, providing emergency shelter, counseling and other assistance. They have recently added a new shelter that has six bedrooms with a general living area and a kitchen.
“The people who live at the shelter are like anyone else,” Mitchell said. “It could be your sister or your neighbor; you don’t know who is a victim. It’s important that the community support the work we do and support the victims and let them get on with their lives and don’t go back to the abuser. A lot of times, they have no financial independence. We do whatever we can to keep them independent.”
"… They (angels) come to you and me in our darkest hours, to show us how to live, to teach us how to give, to guide us with a light of love.” —Helen Keller
Jane says she believes things happen for a reason. She went to the shelter with virtually nothing but was encouraged to not lose hope.
“I met with people who were like angels in my life,” she said. “I remember 2015 was a struggle for me. I felt like God sent John. He is my dad figure. I looked up to him. I was scared and I was so lost. John said, ‘Don’t worry, you will be fine.’ He said, ‘I will help you.’ He was there. He was such an angel.”
Lemacks, who lives in Long Beach, remembers that the first meeting with Jane was a bit rocky.
“When I met Jane, her arms were crossed,” he said. “She was thinking, ‘who are you?’”
And he says he was aghast when he saw the details of why she was at the shelter.
“What tore me up was this was a woman who has endured the most horrific abuse — gang rapes and being urinated on — and to just leave a country and then to find that it’s not so rosy in the U.S. and the people you are with are attacking you. She showed great strength.”
With the WomenShelter’s help, Lemacks helped Jane file for divorce and started working on a U-visa, which is a nonimmigrant visa set aside for victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse while in the U.S. and who are willing to assist law enforcement and government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity.
Lemacks said the U-visa is quota-based, so the wait times can be more than five years. But once again, as Lemacks said, angelic people intervened.
“I was certain the case would be referred to immigration court, as is the normal custom,” he said, “but there are angels that work for the government; they are there, people only hear about the bad things, but someone reasonable comes down from the sky and says, ‘tell me your story,’ and it’s important for people to hear that.”
Her U-visa was approved in January 2017. And after a year of Jane being an asylee, Lemacks started working on her Adjustment of Status — the green card application.
On Sept. 29, 2020, Jane and Lemacks found out that the Department of Homeland Security had approved her green card.
“I’m always helping people,” Lemack said. “I would get in a ring with King Kong to save a kid. Don’t mess with the children. Not in the United States.”
Because of the coronavirus, Lemacks has been unable to give Jane her green card. For now, it’s locked up in a safe place.
“This has made me a better person and a better lawyer,” he said.
Jane is currently studying to take her GED exam and would like to attend a local university to get a degree in early childhood development. She was a private tutor and a school teacher in Bangladesh.
“I realize life is precious and I’m thankful to be alive every day,” Jane said. “The fact that I was able to overcome and I am able to come this far is because of John and other amazing people. Please let other women know they can do better in their life. You have to make your own life.”
More information about WomenShelter resources and services can be found at www.womenshelterlb.org. The office number is 562-437-7233. The 24-hour emergency hotline is 562-437-4663.