WHAT IS REMARKABLE about Rukhsana Maqsood is her spunk.
She's overcoming a collapsed marriage, looking for a job and raising a disabled son. Meanwhile, she's working to spread the word that help and peer support are out there for Southeast Asian immigrant women who need it -- if only they know about it.
Maqsood, who was born in India, has joined the Asian (Women's) Self Help Association, a Rockville-based group formed two years ago by a handful of women living in the Washington metropolitan area. It's a non-profit support group for Southeast Asian women, providing information and guidance as they adjust to American life, language and society. ASHA has grown to 50 members in the Baltimore-Washington region.
"The goal is to help women in all types of issues," said Maqsood, 38. "If you're getting harassed at the job or having problems at home, and you're feeling alone and have nobody, ASHA is there for you. You don't seem like you're alone."
Maqsood, who lives in Essex, felt she had nowhere to turn in the troubled days when the marriage her parents arranged for her broke up. She came to Maryland in 1980 to start a new life with her husband, but the relationship failed eight years later, in part, because the clash between Indian tradition and American beliefs had become antagonistic. Some relatives believed her son's disabilities -- he is deaf and mildly retarded -- were a bad omen for the family, she said.
Taking her son, she left her husband -- which is considered taboo in India, she said. At one time, she stayed at a homeless shelter. She also went to a family crisis center for help, but she didn't feel comfortable about it because she had a hard time relating to the counselors there -- the cultural differences were so great.
Maqsood said it's easier to talk to others in her situation -- women who've been in or are in arranged marriages, those from cultures who understand what it's like to adjust to America, a strange, new place.
"We try to counsel," said Maqsood. "We try to show how to cope with anger."
Southeastern Asian immigrants are hampered by language and cultural differences, making it hard for them to work up courage to come forward and talk about their dilemmas, said Ranu Basu, a founding member of the association.
"Some of us felt the need to have a group aimed at helping Southeastern women," said Basu. "There are women facing marital problems, loneliness, lack of contact, lack of resources and immigration."
ASHA holds monthly meetings at members' homes, and this past weekend conducted a workshop for 70 people with speakers from House of Ruth and other women's agencies. The group is hoping to start a hot line, open a shelter, print a resource directory, raise funds and recruit lawyers and psychologists to volunteer help. Members include social workers, a scientist, a psychologist, a businesswoman and other professionals; they're mostly from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the Asian subcontinent countries.
Many of the women ASHA helps are in this country through arranged marriages, Basu said. Unlike American wives, they may have spent time with their mate only on a few occasions before the wedding ceremony. Some met their husband for the first time on their wedding day.
"In a typical situation, the man has been here in the country for a number of years and has gone back to the country to get married," said Basu, a Washington lawyer.
"When the wife comes here, she has to meet everybody through her husband. Her husband is the only contact between her and the outside world. Her friends are her husband's friends." Some come to America without speaking English and totally depend on their husband for financial support as well as social life.
That was the case with Maqsood, who married at age 25. When she and her husband split up, she said, there were days when she cried and cried, when she didn't know where to turn, being of different culture and language.
"I didn't know what I was going to do," she said. "How was I going to pay the bills? What was I going to do?"
The house she's living in now was foreclosed on and auctioned off at the end of the marriage, and she had to borrow money to buy it back. But she and her 8-year-old son have found support. Her parents are temporarily staying with her to help. She is in the process of divorcing. Her most recent job, a government job in the chemistry field, disappeared with cutbacks, so she's looking for work, she said.
And now she finds herself consoling others in the Asian women's support group, helping them find resources when they need help. Not all the members are having marital problems; some come for companionship and others join for cultural comfort. Others who come for help in domestic disputes are stranded in America with no job, no money and no employable skills, Maqsood said.
"These are women who face a whole range of problems by virtue of being separated from their families and isolated from their friends," Basu said. "She's isolated with nobody to turn to. That makes the problem even worse."
For information about membership, write to ASHA, 1911 Sue Creek Drive, Baltimore, Md. 21221 or call (410) 391-4213.