I AM STELLA

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 A story of resilience in the face of domestic abuse and HIV stigma
Stella is an African woman who immigrated to Canada early this year as an asylum seeker. The 48-year-old woman landed in Calgary on March 23, 2017, coming from Uganda. Soon after, Stella found a community of support through HIV Community Link. Here, she got involved with Drumbeat, our program supporting people from African Communities, and with the HIV Support Services team.
Stella was born and raised in Uganda, and in her early years lived a relatively average life. She got married young and happily raised two daughters. On November 29, 2000, her life changed significantly. She recounts vivid memories of how she learned of her HIV diagnosis on that day: “I went to the hospital not suspecting I’d leave with an HIV diagnosis. I had had a cough for 6 months. They called me the next day saying the doctor had to see me. There was a 15-minute walk from my home to the hospital, but it took me an hour to get there. He said: ‘I have bad news.’ That was all I heard from what the doctor told me that day.” well-spoken Stella says other family members with similar symptoms had died before her diagnosis. They were also married and their partners didn’t want to reveal the cause, but Stella believes they died of AIDS-related illnesses.

After finding out she was HIV positive, she went home and refused to accept it. “I was in denial; I didn’t know anything about HIV and I had all these questions about how my husband and children would take it,” says Stella. After four months, she realized she needed to deal with it. The hardest thing for her was telling her husband. “He was furious; he started to call me names and turned against me. He blamed my family and blamed me,” she remembers. Stella’s husband left her and moved to the family farm. “I had to keep quiet because of the stigma and because my husband had warned me not to tell anybody. I still have this question: who is responsible? Up to today, I haven’t had a conversation about HIV with my husband,” Stella says.

And there she was. Alone. With no money for medication or help to look after her children, her health rapidly got worse. Seeing her desperation, her sister offered to help, and supported Stella to access treatment for her HIV.

With access to medical treatment, Stella regained her strength and went back to her job in hospitality. After some time of feeling strong and healthy she stopped taking the treatment, thinking she was strong enough and didn’t need the medication anymore. But she soon found herself in the hospital again, this time diagnosed with cancer. Once again, her family came together to support her. Her brother-in-law, an influential government leader in Uganda, convinced her husband to come back home and avoid family shame. Stella remembers that moment with mixed feelings. “I was week, sad; I was planning my funeral really. I went through radiation and all. But the family supported me; cancer was better news than HIV for most of the people around me. There was a lot of stigma surrounding HIV.” Asked if she remembers how stigma feels like, Stella talks about the incredible pain she felt when her husband abandoned her sick, with an HIV diagnosis she didn’t know how to cope with. “I’m back from that pain, I’m on treatment now, I am back to my normal weight, I’m smiling; I’m Stella,” she adds.

As the years passed, Stella recognized the importance of her HIV treatment in maintaining her health, and she began to thrive. She became a support person for other people living with HIV in her community. “I decided to give back to my community, especially to the women. Maybe somebody out there is like me; has a husband who is completely in denial and they are fighting it all alone,” she explains, adding that helping others was the therapy that had helped her to keep going.  For the next 15 year, Stella offered support to women in her community; she helped in any way she could, from lending a compassionate ear to driving them to the hospital. There were many women who couldn’t afford treatment or didn’t know anything about HIV.

Then, last November, Stella’s life turned upside down. She made the shocking discovery that her husband had another wife, whom he had hidden from her. Stella recounts how after confronting her husband about this second wife she endured months of physical abuse and threats. “My journey is a bit sad,” says Stella. “I left my home behind, after I found out my husband had another wife. Within a month, things changed dramatically. We fought. He chased me out of my house. I couldn’t see my children. He was trying to get rid of me because we were sharing some property.” Her husband started beating her constantly. One night, close to New Year’s, the abuse escalated and she decided she had to run. “I lost my front tooth that night. My sister came and took me to the hospital. He found me there too, and threatened me not to tell anybody about the beatings. My sister convinced me to leave, she was afraid I was going to die.”

My sister helped me escape. I ran through Kenya and came here,” the well-spoken woman continues.

Stella spoke of the support she received from the women’s organizations that she had worked with. They helped her to come to Canada, leaving behind her two daughters who are enrolled in university in Uganda. Once here, she built another network of support in which HIV Community Link plays an important role. “Since I came to HIV Community Link, my life has changed. I’ve gone through counselling, I have food, information, I come to trainings and I feel supported,” she explains. Stella says she wants to continue giving back and help others in her situation, so when the opportunity came about to be a Peer Mentor for the HIV Community Link Peer Support program, she decided to get involved. “Sharing my experience has helped me to keep going. Here in Canada, I feel accepted. I can reject the HIV stigma because I am stronger. I am Stella.”

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