A survivor’s triumph
Nela Kalpic helps survivors of domestic violence
The late novelist Harry Crews used the following line as an epigram for a memoir of his harrowing childhood in rural Georgia: “Survival is triumph enough.”
Nela Kalpic has every right to lay claim to that phrase, from her tough upbringing in Serbia to an early marriage to a dashing man who turned violent behind closed doors.
Kalpic, 36, did survive, but since landing in Madison with her three sons in May 2015, she has done much more than that. In short order, with a winning mix of drive and charm, Kalpic has become a high-profile advocate for ending domestic violence and aiding survivors.
She was selected for the 2016-2017 Wisconsin Women’s Network’s Policy Institute leadership training program and in 2017 received the governor’s Courage Award. Kalpic is currently director of development for the statewide coalition End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin.
Born in Belgrade in 1982 to physician parents, Kalpic learned English from watching the American television program “Full House” before walking to school. She remembers a childhood of “lots of love but lots of disappointment.”
Her parents divorced. Meanwhile, the Yugoslavia federation of republics was in turmoil. Kalpic’s mother ran a medical clinic. When it was looted, Kalpic recalls, “we were basically on the street.” Her mom began a relationship with a man who insisted Kalpic, then 17, leave the house.
Two years later, Kalpic met a man online. He was in Egypt and eventually extended an invitation for her to visit. When Kalpic did, she found the man less enchanting in person. She stayed a few days and met another man to whom she was attracted. When she returned to Serbia, he came to visit. They began dating long distance.
“I was smitten,” she says.
There were warning signs. He was possessive, jealous without cause. “I should have seen it,” Kalpic says. “But I liked it at the time. I felt someone cared.”
She got pregnant, then reached out to her mother, who called the man’s family in Egypt. Her mother thought they had a right to know.
“Radio silence for a week,” Kalpic recalls. Then, a text message: “The wedding is scheduled.”
From there, Kalpic says, “Everything was a blur. It felt like I was just playing along.”
The wedding was in Egypt in 2003. Kalpic and her husband soon moved with their son to Kuwait, where her husband’s father found him a job. There was not yet violence, but Kalpic needed to ask her husband’s permission before doing everyday things. In hindsight, she saw her self esteem dissolving akin to the fable of the boiled frog – a slow disintegration.
One evening in 2006, her husband took exception to something she said and ordered her into the bedroom, where he threw her on the bed and wielded his belt.
“That was the first time he got physical with me,” she says. “I don’t remember the actual pain, but I remember how he looked at me. It was like he enjoyed it.”
She thought of leaving, but saw no path forward. “I didn’t know how to stand up for myself.”
They eventually moved back to Egypt and had two more sons. The beatings continued, she says. Occasionally he would apologize afterward and blame her. “Why do you make me do this?” he would ask.
A revolution in Egypt in 2011 made it dangerous for her husband, a Coptic Christian, to remain in the country. “I saw that as my opportunity to get out of the Middle East,” Kalpic says.
She convinced her husband – making it seem like his idea – to relocate to the United States, first stop North Carolina. Her husband dropped Kalpic and the kids there – ”I was going to get things set up.” Instead she went to court. In January 2015, she was granted custody of her children and her husband got visitation rights. But a year later, according to court records, she took out a restraining order against him.
Her mother sent funds. Kalpic got a driver’s license and drove her kids to Madison, where she had some Serbian friends she’d met online, most of whom were connected to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Kalpic is now divorced with custody of her sons. Soon after arriving in Madison, a friend put her in touch with a member of state Sen. Jennifer Shilling’s staff. Kalpic first secured an internship, then limited-term employment, with Shilling.
“She’s warm, courageous and inspiring,” Shilling says of Kalpic. The senator recalls seeing Kalpic’s confidence grow as she tackled constituent relations and legislative issues related to domestic violence. “She takes advantage of every opportunity,” Shilling says.
That includes a meeting with Gov. Scott Walker resulting in Kalpic receiving the Courage Award, which honors survivors who help other victims of domestic abuse. Kalpic worked with Domestic Abuse Intervention Services prior to her current role with End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin.
“Nela Kalpic is a courageous woman who has overcome domestic violence and become an advocate for others,” Walker said in a statement. “She is an inspiration for our state and that’s one of the reasons we awarded her.”
Shilling was in the Assembly chamber in October 2017 when Kalpic received the award from Walker. Kalpic was wearing the bright clothes and red lipstick her husband forbade.
“It wasn’t just symbolic,” Shilling says. “She was free.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, Doug Moe’s Madison, on madisonmagazine.com.
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