Vimala's restaurateur calls community to speak out about violence against women
On the door of Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe on West Franklin Street is a sign: “Food is a human right, and no one will be turned away.”
Vimala Rajendran, 54, has spent the last 20-or-so years of her life cooking — for friends and family, for herself, for the community.
Rajendran’s love of food has seen her through bad times — a violent marriage — and good times — the opening of her restaurant. For Rajendran, food has become more than just a way to satiate hunger; it is a way to heal.
“(Food) also makes the person feel good on various levels, especially a whole body experience of healing,” she said.
Among the warmly colored walls of her restaurant, Rajendran is a cook, an activist and an active member of the community.
When she’s not making the samosas she spent so many years perfecting, she chairs the board of a community television center and regularly hosts events for causes she is passionate about.
She has master’s degrees in political science and educational media technology and diplomas in both early childhood education and information technology.
And she is survivor of domestic violence.
Rajendran, who is originally from India, said she grew up in a home that was safe for women and girls.
So when violence began to quietly inch into her marriage, she struggled to face her situation.
“Even though I was very aware that abuse and control was creeping up in my relationship, every day I thought I had gone too far into the commitment to just withdraw and run,” she said.
“I thought if I stayed I would make a difference and change him, but it never happened.”
For 16 years — through the birth of her three children, through a move to the United States and eventually to Chapel Hill — Rajendran stayed with her husband.
Then, one day, Rajendran had enough. Armed with the support of her Chapel Hill community, she left.
“It came to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “During the 16 years of a difficult and abusive relationship, an activist was brewing.”
Today marks the start of Sexual Assault Awareness Month — and though Rajendran was not a victim of sexual assault in her marriage, she has a message for all victims of violence against women.
“If an individual feels violated in any way — sexually, emotionally, physically — it is not their fault,” she said.
“They have a right to be heard and believed. And keeping silent about it on any level actually harms the whole community.”
UNC junior Andrea Pino, co-chairwoman of UNC’s Project Dinah, which aims to end sexual and interpersonal violence, said she hopes the community will come together this month for discussions about sexual assault.
“The initial response (to sexual assault) is often silence. With conversation, survivors are given a forum to speak out,” Pino said.
“In light of everything, we hope … that this month can be a great month for conversation and a great month for helping each other.”
In January, Pino — along with two other students, one former student and a former UNC administrator — filed a complaint with the Department of Education about UNC’s handling of sexual assault cases.
The complaint accuses UNC of underreporting sexual assault cases to the federal government and mistreating victims through the University’s grievance procedure.
Pino said she and other survivors have received significant community support as more information has come to light about the University’s role in sexual assault cases.
“I’ve never seen any community come together so strongly since this happened,” Pino said. “Its been incredible to have such a strong community. Not every survivor has these resources.”
Alyson Culin, development and marketing director for the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, said the center usually sees more clients when sexual assault is a topic of discussion.
“When we do sexual assault awareness, our name is out there. Anytime sexual assault is big in the media we tend to get more people,” she said.
Culin said she hopes the community will use this month and the current level of awareness surrounding sexual assault as a way to spark constructive conversations.
“I think people are very aware of the issue right now and are looking for ways to get involved,” she said. “We’re excited that people are having conversations.”
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