A Surrey Woman of Courage : Katheren Szabo

Women who Named the Unnamed
Celebrate the (here and) Now

Katheren Szabo

Katheren Szabo: The Heart of Newton
By Zoë J. Dagneault

Katheren Szabo is a social innovator, grassroots organizer and advocate for those who have survived systemic social, physical and sexual abuse. She is the founder of Cedar Bark Poets and co-facilitator of Friends of the Grove. Katheren is a graduate of SFU’s Envision Financial Community Leaders Igniting Change program.

Katheren was born into a family of incest. Her harrowing young life included moving fifty times before the age of ten, and being sex trafficked by her mother. Amid this emotional abuse and torture, Katheren found solace in books. To cope with her overflowing emotions, Katheren read a book a day for her entire young life. She also took to writing poetry. Katheren learned that encoding her deepest secrets was the safest way to document her experiences and feelings, while evading the teasing and ridicule of her family. She has ‘six feet of poetry journals’ stacked in her apartment. Katheren recounts memories as a little girl, being sent to men’s houses where she was raped and molested, given money to bring to her mother, then walking home. Her family made fun of her and chastised her for her uncontrollable crying.

A little extra kindness from a couple of teachers, and a strong kinship with an arts teacher, drew Katheren into the creative realm just enough to help her survive. She left school in Grade Seven, never to return. Katheren suffered continuous sexual and emotional abuse in her youth, finally leaving home at the age of sixteen. The road did not become any easier; predatory men sought her out and she fell prey to several violent and heartbreaking relationships. Katheren had four children before she could get her bearings. She had no familial or government support when she received the medical diagnosis of three misshapen vertebrae which made it impossible to lift and carry her children. She had adapted by leaning and dragging her children when they were babies, along the sides of walls to move them from place to place. In 1991, disabled at thirty years of age, with four children under the age of six, she asked the Ministry of Child and Family Development for help and applied for a disability designation.

On advice from a counselor she was encouraged to document her physical disability and abuse history. Katheren filed a police report disclosing the years of molestation and abuse at the hands of her father and men in their community. Her father promptly had a heart attack and died. Katheren tried to bring charges against eight men who had repeatedly sexually assaulted her when she was between the ages of three and ten, one of whom was an RCMP Officer in Ladysmith, B.C. Katheren accurately named, gave descriptions of, and provided addresses of the pedophiles, yet was told that there was not enough evidence to press charges. Years later, she requested to have the files sent to her; the envelope arrived open in the mail. The RCMP had sent the file, unsealed.

Katheren’s disability and abuse records were used against her, and her four children were taken away. She was given one hour a month with two of her children at a time. Her children’s foster home was in Mission, and Katheren was living in Duncan at that time. Their family visits were scheduled for 9am. Having no additional resources, she would arrive the night before and sleep in parks and under trees to see her children in the morning. She suffered repeated attacks during this period. Katheren fought tirelessly to regain custody of her children.

With the loss of custody of her children and her aggressive physical pain, Katheren turned to drugs to cope. Katheren lived in the addictive cycle of self-medicating heavily for seven years. She still attended monthly meetings with her children. She never stopped loving and missing them deeply through this time. This period of her life remains a painful and sorrowful time for her to recount. She has been free from hard drugs for eighteen years.

Katheren’s move from East Vancouver to Surrey’s low-income housing left her isolated and immobile in her complex for ten years. The years of trauma and violence had caught up with her. Isolating felt like the only safe way to exist. A woman in her neighbourhood, who reminded Katheren of herself, was murdered. Something in Katheren recognized that she wanted to do something about it, to engage with the outside world again. She found out that she qualified for a mobility scooter and decided to hold a vigil for the murdered woman. She committed herself to hold vigil for sixty days. Katheren continued this sixty day Community Safety Vigil for the next five years.

In this time she met friends and neighbours and began to forge community connections and creative networks. She met two other like-minded citizens whose goals were to raise hope and create a safe and healthy sense of community. Over the next several years she organized annual Christmas parties, Nat’l Poetry Parties, numerous block parties and an Open Doors for Peace Party. Katheren also organized a Sierra Leone-style forgiveness party, Fambul Tok in 2017. Katheren and her cooperators have grown the Friends of the Grove based on The Better Block Model; transforming the community space from one of disconnection and danger, into a place of connection, art, music, food, friendship and families. Christmas, 2019, will mark their sixth annual community holiday event.

Katheren creates whimsical creatures, such as lady bugs and beetles, that magically appear around the community. Many families with children thank her and admit to having small families of her enchanting critters in their homes and gardens. Katheren uses public grants to fund her community engagements and creative projects. When there is no funding available, she finds a way to make ends meet. Regardless of the challenges, she brings people together and is a lifeline for many who have little positive community connection or hope.

Katheren is regularly asked to speak at community engagements across North America. She received a standing ovation at the Tamarack Institute’s- Neighbourhoods: The Heart of Community event in Montreal, Quebec, 2016. She spoke at the 38th Annual Research and Treatment Conference sponsored by the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers in Atlanta, Georgia, 2018. She was keynote speaker at the 2nd Annual Sierra Leone Community of B.C. Celebration. Recently Katheren spoke at Surrey’s Social Innovation Summit, speaking on leadership and sharing her change maker’s journey thus far. This year she received an Award for Recognition for her exemplary service in supporting community development by The Sierra Leone Community of B.C. Today Katheren is endearingly known as The Heart of Newton.

Katheren Zsabo has triumphed where the most resilient human might understandably collapse.

Zoë Dagneault is a settler-citizen-poet residing on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Skxwú7mesh and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Zoë is curating a collection of poems, prose and creative non-fiction that explores motherhood, childhood, and feminism within our social-spiritual structure. She lives with her family at the base of a large mountain.

Women Who Named the Unnamed
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Saturday, September 28, 2019
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