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October 6, 2010

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Ex-Bollywood gal aids abuse victims

A former Bollywood actress living in Florida helps victims of domestic abuse with her nonprofit No More Tears organization and So-Me fashions. Lisa Orkin Emmanuel reports.

Years after Somy Ali left her glamorous life as a Bollywood actress, she heard a knock on her door from a Bangladeshi neighbor, asking for help.

The woman said she had been sexually and physically abused for a decade by her husband, his father and his brother. Ali paid for the woman's apartment and divorce.

"I said 'There have to be more women like this'," Ali says.

So she founded a not-for-profit organization called No More Tears Inc in 2006. So far it has helped 48 women. Ali funds her organization in part by giving 10 percent of the revenue from her clothing company, So-Me Designs.

"These people have become part of my family," she says. "There is nothing more gratifying than rescuing a woman."

Ali's own life reads like a Bollywood script. She grew up in an opulent 26-room mansion in Karachi, Pakistan, daughter of a Pakistani movie producer father and an Iraqi mother. When Ali was 9, she moved to Florida with her mother and brother.

At 15, she decided that she wanted to marry actor Salman Khan, whom she calls "the equivalent of Brad Pitt in India," and that she wanted to move to India.

Eventually, she got her way. While in a Mumbai hotel lobby, a producer's assistant spotted her and launched her career in film. Soon after, Khan saw her at an agency by chance and cast her in a movie.

Her Bollywood romance lasted a few years, but Ali soon broke up with Khan and came back to Florida at age 24.

Now, at 34, she is trying to get the message out to victims of abuse. She puts her brochures in mosques, churches, and ethnic grocery stores, and even in Indian and Pakistani restaurants.

"If you want to help someone, it comes naturally," she says.

She meets the women in public places because she is afraid of being followed home, and usually helps the women financially for three to six months.

Some women have been helped for a year. She also makes sure they get counseling.

Currently, she said, she has only US$50 in the bank, so in October she is expanding her So-Me Designs that help fund No More Tears. So far, she has designed T-shirts (for US$24.99 each), baby shirts (US$26) and hoodies (US$45). The new collection includes dresses (starting at US$150) and formal tops (starting at U$60).

Each T-shirt has a design Ali created with the help of her graphic artist, who is also a woman she has helped. The most popular design is a clipboard with boxes to tick off either White, Black, Hispanic or Human.

Ali says as a child she would cross out the "other" in such questionnaires and write the word "human" instead.

"I consider myself a Muslim," she says. "I pray every night the Muslim way. It's important for me, for my sanity."

She says she would like to go back to Pakistan and help women, but she fears she would be killed or kidnapped.

"I just feel like I have a lot of work to do," she says.

Edith McEacheron, 35, originally from Venezuela, was put into contact with Ali in March after she says her husband left her and their toddler son with no money and no way of getting any. She is now in the final stages of trying to get a work permit and is looking for a job. No More Tears pays for her room and her attorney.

McEacheron says that without the organization, her life would be different.

"I guarantee you one thing, I probably would be in the street," she says.

Saman Movassaghi, an attorney who also helped McEacheron, gives Ali's clients the discounted rate of US$500 per case.

"I really enjoy helping them as they know that there is somebody out there who listens to their case and fights for them," she said. "I didn't go to law school to do traffic tickets ... I went to law school to help people."

Laura Finley, a professor of sociology and criminology at Barry University and a No More Tears board member, donated her purple station wagon to one woman.

"It feels really good to see somebody be safe," Finley says.


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