April 12: South Asian domestic abuse victims finally open up
Last updated 12-24-08 at 2:22 p.m.
A drawing of Barbara Anne Smith, a victim of domestic violence, hangs at a YWCA women’s shelter. The artist, Neelu Bhuman, was inspired by a portrait of Smith taken by celebrity photographer Annie Leibowitz.
Photos provided by D-22
By Caroline Li
Northwest Asian Weekly
Editor’s note: We chose this story about how victims in the South Asian community are speaking out against domestic abuse because it is an issue that has touched all of us. This story shows the bravery of survivors and the generosity of an organization committed to helping them move on and feel safe.
On any given day, it would be impossible to pick someone who has dealt with domestic violence out of a crowd. People who face abuse come in all appearances, income levels, ages and ethnicities. The same is true for their abusers. Since different survivors and abusers can’t fit in the same box, and for some communities there may be an added layer of cultural complexities, it’s no surprise that Chaya exists, said Sabina Ansari, fundraising coordinator at Chaya.
Chaya is not a shelter but a different type of organization that is striving to end domestic violence in the local South Asian community. For the safety of clients and Chaya staff, the location of the Chaya office is kept confidential. Advocates avoid taking the same traffic route to and from client meetings.
These and many other measures are often taken to protect clients who still reside with their abusive partner. Safety plans vary from client to client, but the objective is the same — find the best and safest way to end the violence, whether or not that means leaving their abusers.
Sometimes this can take weeks, even months — an immigrant facing abuse faces more complications than the average American. For the South Asian community, the different types of action needed are partly due to the often unwieldy and ever-changing immigration system. When victims rely on their abuser’s immigration status, the situation can get particularly complex.
On March 29, at the Central Cinema in the Central District, some of these anonymous domestic abuse victims chose to speak out, revealing themselves to friends, family and strangers at Community Speaks, a creative community forum for South Asian survivors of abuse. They shared their stories of abuse and survival through various forms of expression such as movement, visual art, spoken word and poetry.
Tears rolled down a participant’s face as she read the lines from her poem, which described her experience of being sexually abused when she was a child. “It is difficult being a wildflower when there is chaos everywhere,” she recited.
Attending a forum like this challenges the common misconception that all victims of domestic violence are vulnerable or uneducated. At Chaya, clients range from those with little formal education to those who hold doctorates, but they all present with cultural issues that mainstream institutions may not address.
“Though mainstream organizations are becoming better in addressing issues unique to immigrant and refugee survivors of violence, it is still a different experience to reach out to members of your own community,” said Natasha Merchant, a community advocate at Chaya. “When a survivor of violence, often limited in her community contacts and isolated, decides to reach out for support, the option of community members may feel close to home. It becomes less necessary for a survivor to explain family structures that exist or the immigration issues impacting her options as a survivor when she is speaking to someone who can relate.”
One South Asian woman, who chose to remain anonymous, still lives in fear that her ex-husband will find her and try to kill her. She recounted that he had tried before, but her then 5-year-old son was able to call the police in time. When he got out of jail, he searched for his ex-wife so he could hurt her again. She contacted Chaya for support. “I’m alive today because of Chaya,” she told the crowd. (end)
Caroline Li can be reached at email@example.com.