For 14 years Paula lived what looked like an ideal life as an American overseas: A Newsweek photojournalist husband, world wide travel, a successful advertising, marketing and PR business and three beautiful sons. She also hid a terrible secret: the children suffered severe child abuse and Paula, horrific domestic violence, at the hands of her husband, making every day a nightmare.
As the violence increased, so did her desperation. In 1997, she finally disclosed the abuse to her brother in California. Her family called the State Department, congress people and senators. Paula went to the American Embassy and pleaded for help. Their efforts were futile.
Finally her chance to escape materialized, thanks to a thief. Robbed of his passport and money on a train in Germany, her husband was locked outside of the country. Paula searched her husband's offices for the children's American passports which her husband had hidden. After a month of searching she was about to give up. In despair, Paula sat sobbing with her face in her hands. That's when she believes a guardian angel pointed her back to a file she had already checked. Inside, were her children's passports.
Without access to her own money, Paula forged her husband's signature on a check for just enough money to get them to her sister's house in Oregon. She also forged her husband's signature on documents giving her permission to leave the country with the children. She knew if she were caught, she would be put in prison, or worse. But she also knew the possibility of lethality when her husband returned was very high. In the middle of the night, with one suit case and her three children, she took a taxi to the airport in Dubai and prayed. Paula tried not to show her fear as they shuffled through immigration and boarded a flight to New York, and to freedom. Once in New York, the four of them piled onto a train to Oregon, a three day journey.
At her sister's house outside of Portland, Paula's relief was short lived. She found out that even though she, the children, and her husband were all American, he had the right to fight her for jurisdiction and force her to take the boys back to the Middle East - a certain death sentence. In disbelief, she fled her sister's house and went into hiding, living in shelters, on food stamps and welfare while fighting a costly legal battle she never expected to keep her American children in the United States. If she lost, she vowed she would go underground and disappear permanently rather than take her children back. The battle lasted 18 months and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Finally, the Oregon courts ruled that Paula could keep her sons in Oregon. She was granted divorce and custody in September 2000, but no jurisdiction for child support, alimony or court costs. Her husband received supervised visitation of the children.
Despite experiencing homelessness, poverty and extreme debt after years of abuse, Paula felt she had been given a second chance. She resolved to help other abused American women and children around the world so they would not have to go through what she and her children went through. While living in a shelter, Paula founded a non-profit organization, American Women Overseas, and began her work.
But progress was slow. Paula juggled a full time job at night to support her children while running the crisis line out of her living room during the day. It wasn't until 2003 that she received enough funding to begin really making a difference.
Paula remarried and continues to live in Oregon where her two oldest sons now attend college.