Aruna Vallabhaneni

Aruna Vallabhaneni, 41, fled India eight years ago. (Tribune photo by Heather Stone)

Aruna Vallabhaneni was nervously pacing the waiting room of a Chicago immigration court when she noticed him--a little brown cherub in a gray jogging suit. Her face lit up.

"Can I borrow your son?" Aruna asked the boy's mother. "I just need something to hold."

The mother nodded, and Aruna hugged the toddler. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," she says. "I miss my children so much."

Aruna, who was awaiting a hearing on her asylum petition, had fled India in March 1997 to escape an abusive husband, leaving her son, Himavanth, and daughter, Shree, behind. Since then she has been trying to obtain legal residency in the U.S. She is like uncounted women around the world who risk everything to escape domestic abuse.

Seeking asylum in the U.S. on the basis of spousal abuse or gender-based persecution is difficult at best. The U.S. Justice Department won't clarify who is eligible, so judges' rulings are inconsistent, according to the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, in San Francisco.

"A lot of [the cases] are being put on hold .. .. . because decision-makers are reluctant to issue rulings in the absence of clear authority," says Karen Musalo, director of the center. "Attorneys are obligated to seek other means" of obtaining legal residency.

Still, women such as Aruna continue to seek refuge here.

If Aruna, 42, exhausts all of her legal options, she will eventually have to leave the U.S. She wonders now whether her decision to come to the U.S. will have been in vain.

Aruna was born into a wealthy, Orthodox Hindu family in Hyderabad, a predominantly Muslim city in southern India. At 17 she married Koteswara Rao in an arranged marriage.

"I was like any girl when she gets married," she says. "You think he's going to take care of you."

Aruna soon learned her husband had a gambling problem, and he took his frustrations out on her, she says.

According to a court brief supporting her asylum petition, Aruna was subjected to repeated sexual abuse and beatings. One beating caused abdominal bleeding, which required a hysterectomy to stop. She also suffered bruised ribs and a broken nose, which permanently damaged her sense of smell.

After 14 years of abuse, Aruna called police in 1997 and had her husband arrested. But her father, embarrassed by the arrest, bailed her husband out and withdrew the complaint.

"My mother and father threatened to kill themselves if I called the police again," Aruna says.

Aruna's father wouldn't permit her to divorce her husband. Witnessing the abuse, Aruna's daughter begged her mother to leave her father. Shree was 6 at the time.

"She'd see me crying every day," Aruna says. "She said, `Mommy, go somewhere. Far away from here.' "

Aruna found a way out while working as a restaurant hostess in a Hyderabad hotel. A businessman who had befriended her helped her obtain a visitor's visa to New York.

She persuaded her husband to let her take a two-week "shopping trip" to New York--but not with the children, then 12 and 10. She left them in her parents' care.

New York frightened Aruna. She called the businessman, and he put her in contact with a Skokie man he knew. After two days in New York, Aruna left for Chicago. Within a week she was hired as a hostess at a Devon Avenue restaurant and had rented a studio apartment. "I felt lucky," she says.