Four years after Valentina Djelaj’s father murdered her mother and then turned the gun on himself in the parking lot in Shelby Township, the 22-year-old domestic violence survivor will speak before 500 women at the 2012 Turning Point Spirit of Leadership Luncheon.
Djelaj, the guest speaker, will tell her story about how domestic violence tore her world apart and how she is putting the pieces back together through education and activism at the May 17 fundraiser at MacRay Banquet in Harrison Township.
also will honor four local women who have collectively focused their energy and talents on crucial issues and helped their communities.
The women honored are Alisha Baker, Customer Service Manager, Dupont; Ameldia R. Brown, Director Faith & Community Health Henry Ford Macomb Hospital; Debbie Komar, Features Editor, The Macomb Daily; and Lorraine Schultz, CEO & Founder, Women’s Automotive Association International (WAAI).
And at the luncheon, Djelaj will deliver a personal message.
On March 19, 2008, just nine days after a Macomb County Circuit Court judge denied Maria Djelaj’s personal protection order against her husband of 21-years, Djerdj Djelaj, 47, the couple was found in the church parking lot. Maria had been fatally shot twice and Djerdj had suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound but was still breathing. He died the next day at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Clinton Township.
Valentina, who was 18 years old at the time, said she had to make a decision then and there about her future.
“I wasn’t sure how to grieve because it was unprecedented for me,” said Valentina, the second born of the couple's four children. “I was going to sit in the corner and cry but I said to myself, 'I am too upset about this now, and I’m going to do something.' I was further empowered. 'I will do research and devote my career about this and prove you.'”
And that’s what she did. Valentia graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in social work and is working on her master’s degree in the field from Wayne State University. She is also a full-time volunteer at Turning Point, which provides programs and resources that enable victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence to regain control of their lives.
Recognizing and Changing the Patterns of Abuse
Valentina said that her mother, who had been physically and emotionally abused for more than two decades, had often resigned herself to the fact that her life had to be this way, but she wanted more for her children.
“I want to make sure I never look into someone’s eyes and see that they feel they don’t deserve the fairness in life and to be happy,” she said. “A lot of victims feel that way. I don’t want them to be alone.”
The murder-suicide occurred several months after Maria made the decision to leave her husband, which is usually the most crucial time period for domestic violence survivors, according to Valentina.
“When she left my dad, I never saw her more happy and motivated,” said Valentina. “That’s definitely something I want to help other victims feel, that they don’t have to stay and have a less than happy life, and can have a fair and happy life just like anyone else should.”
Valentina also said she wants to ensure the victims feel they can seek help, even when the justice system has failed to protect them.
The tragedy struck days after Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Anthony Viviano denied Maria’s PPO against her husband, which was months after a judge acquitted Djerdj of domestic violence charges.
Valentina Djelaj recalled a haunting conversation she had with her mother before her murder.
“Is he going to have to kill me for people to know the truth?” Valentina Djelaj said her mother would say. “And, I would say, ‘No, that’s not going to happen,’ but in the pit in my stomach, I knew that was the truth. I thought when—not if—that day happens people will finally believe her.”
Valentina said she had witnessed many physical fights between her mother and father, including the time her father hit her mother so hard in the face that it paralyzed her facial muscles and caused temporary Bell’s palsy.
The thing that irks Valentina to this day is that culturally, many people believe the victims of domestic violence may have done something to provoke the abuser.
“More people, than just people from my culture, said it was my mom’s fault and blamed the victim. You just want to divert the attention to someone else,” she said.
Djelaj Makes it Mission to Fight Against Cultural Norms and Educate World about Abuse
Growing up in an Albanian-American family, Valentina, said arranged marriages, such as her mother’s at age 16, and physical abuse were a part of the culture.
“Domestic violence in Montenegro is written in,” she said. “It’s not very frowned upon and that passed over.”
Valentina said her father often reminded the children and his wife that they were his “property” and would remain his, until the female children were married, and then they would become their husband’s property.
“I’m not saying our culture is the only one experiencing that. But at the same time, there is a prevalent rate (of abuse). If we, as a small community, stop it and be a leader, we can spread that to other cultures. We can start here and keep moving towards different cultures,” she said.
In a culture where keeping to yourself and not airing your family’s secrets is valued, Valentina said her activism has been met with hostility.
“People were disappointed. ‘You’re hurting the family. You’re talking bad,’” people told her. “In my opinion, my family had already been dishonored so lets make it better.”
However, the resilient young woman said the positive outcomes from awareness outweigh the negative.
“I just can’t stay quiet about this. I can’t and I won’t. To me this is much more important than pleasing other people.”
Valentina said education is the antidote to ending the cycle of domestic violence, and getting through to young people is her number one priority.
“For us, it’s just spreading education. That’s our cure. Spreading awareness and educating others about the cycle of where the unhealthy relationships end, and a cycle of where positive behaviors begin.”