Chinese, Indian, Korean, Pakistani, Filipino, Japanese, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and more! Since 1982, The New York Asian Women’s Center (NYAWC) has been coming to the aid of women from all these diverse cultures as they grapple with one common and, sadly, universal problem: domestic abuse and violence. In the process, NYAWC has built a capacity to work in well over a dozen different Asian languages and dialects. And, it has developed insights into meeting the particular needs of domestic abuse victims living in what are often New York’s most tightly-knit, and occasionally insular and isolated, immigrant communities.
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Today, NYAWC receives more than 3,000 calls for help annually at its 24-7 multilingual hotline (888-888-7702). It provides intensive counseling, advocacy and assistance for 600 women and their children every year. And, it offers emergency shelter every night for up to 40 women and children in imminent risk of family violence at two residential programs located in Brooklyn and Queens. Over the last several years, NYAWC has expanded its programming to meet evolving new needs of the women and communities it serves – while also taking on the broader and more fundamental issue of societal attitudes towards domestic abuse itself.
“NYAWC was founded in 1982 by a small, grassroots group of women from the Asian American community who recognized that Asian immigrant DV victims had nowhere to turn,” says Larry Lee who has headed the agency as Executive Director since 2007. NYAWC volunteers launched the first ever hotline for Asian domestic violence victims in 1984 and began taking DV victims and their children into their own homes in 1985, effectively creating the first organized shelter program for battered Asian women on the East Coast. Volunteers continued to carry the load, even after the agency hired its first employee in 1987.
NYAWC initially grew out the New York City’s Chinese community, but quickly established its Pan-Asian focus. “The third employee they hired was Korean,” says Lee.
The community that NYAWC serves is both very large and extremely diverse. “Asians represent 12.6 percent of the population in New York City,” says Lee. “That is over 1 million people, far bigger than the population of San Francisco.”
Yet, this significant slice of the City’s population actually represents a broad range of nationality and ethnic groups. “Asians often live in small geographic pockets,” says Lee. That is something which poses substantial challenges to the traditional model of domestic violence services which relies on helping victims escape their abuser and begin a new life, typically in a new location or neighborhood. “If you live in Elmhurst, I have to put you in a shelter that is more than three miles away, with no subway connections between you and your abuser. I have to pull your kids out from school and relocate them. Then after you have been in a shelter for four-and-one-half months at most, I have to uproot you again.”
For the largest sub-populations, this may be less of a challenge. “It is easier for a Chinese family. There are communities in Manhattan, Sunset Park and Bensonhurst. You can move from Manhattan to Flushing – where you will still be able to get a job speaking only Chinese -- and it is a different world.”
For the smaller Asian communities, the task is much more difficult. Sometimes these nationality groups may be concentrated in only one or two neighborhoods. “Everybody knows each other,” says Lee. “It is harder to find a confidential place for you.”
Harder, that is, unless a woman and her child are prepared to break all ties to their cultural community and move to a new borough where she knows no one and no one speaks what is often likely to be her only language. It is not a choice that all Asian DV victims are willing or able to make.
Many of the challenges that domestic violence victims face in trying to build a new life for themselves are not limited by ethnic group or national background. Women often are forced to flee from their abusers with little if anything in the way of financial resources. They typically must find new housing and employment while “on the run” and with children to care for. A natural reluctance to file charges against a husband/partner and seek a restraining order can complicate efforts to qualify for benefits and services or obtain the return of personal property. Victims can find themselves cut off from family and friends who unfairly blame them for breaking up a household.
However, all these issues are intensified for many of the women who come to NYAWC for help. Language challenges for victims who speak only Korean, Bengali or Urdu -- and no English -- can make finding work particularly difficult. Documentation and legal status is always a complicating factor when providing domestic violence services in immigrant communities. And the loss of ties to their larger community can be particularly difficult for women from many Asian cultures.
“Asians are very community-focused,” says Lee. “It is important to have a sense that you are part of a family, a kinship group, a community.” Cultural attitudes which tend to be more accepting of domestic abuse, viewing it as a private family matter and not something that should be made public, can reinforce community tendencies to blame victims for the problem. As a result, women can feel shunned for the crime of seeking safety for their children and themselves. “Women who leave can feel that they have lost their place in life,” says Lee. “Our challenge is to find a way to restore that sense of belonging.”
Project Speak Out
NYAWC attempts to address these issues in a variety of ways. Particularly exciting, however, is Project Speak Out, a new partnership with three other local Asian American service providers to increase awareness of and change public attitudes towards domestic violence in New York’s Asian communities.
Together with its partners – Garden of Hope, Korean American Family Service Center and Sakhi for South Asian Women – NYAWC is recruiting volunteers from local Asian communities to speak out publicly on the issue of domestic violence, testifying to the fact that this is a problem that does exist and one that is not just a private family matter but a danger to the community as a whole.
“I have always felt passionately about women’s rights and women’s issues,” says Maheen Nusrat who was born in Pakistan and now lives in Jersey City. “Domestic violence is such a personal and taboo subject in the Pakistani community. We have to get the community to talk about the issue.” As a volunteer with Project Speak Out partner agency Sahki for South Asian Women, Nusrat has approached local business owners within the New York City Pakistani community about putting up flyers informing customers about the domestic violence issue and programs women can access if they need help.
Similarly, Darrel Sukhdeo has been approaching local businesses within the Indo-Caribbean community based in Richmond Hill. “There is a real need for this information to get out,” says Sukhdeo, who describes himself as a community activist who has volunteered with many local organizations in recent years. In addition to posting flyers, Project Speak Out asks businesses to declare themselves as “safe havens” for women seeking help.
Both Sukhdeo and Nusrat believe that it is important for religious leaders within New York’s Asian communities to take up the issue of domestic violence. NYAWC makes this a regular part of its own outreach.
“We recently spoke at a Thai Temple during a Sunday service,” says NYAWC’s Fran Gau, Assistant Director of Client Services. Together with an intern who speaks Thai, Gau begins her presentation with a discussion of issues confronting Asian immigrants in general and then gradually brings up the subject of domestic violence – using examples of anonymous cases that NYAWC has had from within the Thai community itself. “They were reserved, but very attentive,” she says. Afterwards, people from the congregation came up to talk further and get more information.
“We are sending a message that violence against our mothers, sisters and daughters will not be tolerated,” said Lee. “We are encouraging our many Asian communities to lend their voice to often silent victims and, by speaking out, members of our communities will reinforce Asian traditions of non-violence and respect for and protection of all family members.”
Project Speak Out is made possible through a $200,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and $150,000 in matching grants from local funding partners, including the Asian American Federation, the Grace and Mercy Foundation, Korean American Community Foundation, the Ong Family Foundation and the Tiger Baron Foundation.
A Lifeline for Asian DV Victims
NYAWC began as the first domestic violence hotline specifically serving Asian women and today that hotline is still the way many clients first reach out for help. “We operate the hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Larry Lee. Carefully trained volunteers provide coverage during the course of the business day, after which the hotline is re-routed to NYAWC’s shelter programs which are staffed on a 24-hour basis. NYAWC’s multi-lingual capabilities are critical for the hotline as well as all its other services. In most cases a volunteer or staff member fluent in the client’s native language is readily available. If not, a follow-up phone call is scheduled.
“We get calls from women with a range of questions. Are they safe? What are they going to do? Where can they go? What can they do with their children?”
Some calls are from women who just want information about the types of services that may be available; others are ready to seek help right away. “We always try to help them plan for their safety,” says Lee.
Whenever possible, NYAWC will arrange for women to begin working with one of its domestic violence counselors. “I assign cases to staff based on language and the borough,” says Fran Gau, Assistant Director of Client Services. “For example, we have a South Asian counselor in our Elmhurst Community Office. If a woman only speaks Bengali, I would assign the case to her.” Location is also a factor. “If a woman lives is Manhattan with the abuser but works in Queens it may be safer for her to come here to the Elmhurst office. On the other hand, our South Asian Counselor could go to the Manhattan Office to meet with the woman if that is safer.”
Because so many of the women speak only their native language – languages which often are not spoken or understood at government offices – NYAWC counselors must escort and translate for them. “It is impossible for them to get services they need otherwise,” says Larry Lee. As a result, he believes that NYAWC spends significantly more time than other DV agencies advocating on behalf of individual clients for public assistance, legal services, housing and child care. “You can spend five hours just waiting to see someone,” he says.
In most cases, the goal is to help women find ways to leave an abusive relationship. For some, the first step is moving in with friends or relatives. For others, it may be a stay in one of NYAWC’s two emergency shelters.
NYAWC has been providing emergency housing for DV victims since 1985 when volunteers began to take women and children into their own homes. In 1988, it began offering “safe apartments” for women leaving an abuse relationship. The agency opened its first 24-hour per day shelter in 2001.
Today, NYAWC operates two shelters – in Brooklyn and Queens – each of which has a capacity to serve 20 women and children. Rose House opened in 2004. Peace House, a converted nursing home, opened in 2009 – replacing a smaller facility that NYAWC had operated since 2002.
In addition to offering personal safety, each of NYAWC’s residential programs offers on-site childcare for women who are working, looking for jobs or attending school. There are 24/7 staff who are trained in domestic violence issues and speak a variety of Asian languages. A Vocational Program assesses a client’s skills, experience and education and helps them create a career plan for obtaining education and/or finding employment. Case managers assist women in accessing public assistance, permanent housing and other benefits.
Harmony & Belonging
To address the particular feelings of loss and shame that many Asian domestic violence victims feel, NYAWC is developing a model of practice that focuses on helping women find “harmony” and “belonging”. “These are Asian concepts, things that Asians strongly believe in,” Lee explains.
“We want women to develop a sense of harmony – both within themselves and with the larger community. We want them to regain their trust and find hope that their lives can be better,” he says. “And, for women who suddenly feel cut off from their cultural communities, we want them to regain a sense of belonging. We want them to feel like they are part of a larger group of women – women who share their experiences -- to which they belong.”
Much of these efforts play out in the way NYAWC runs its residential programs. “We try to make this a house, not a shelter,” says Alena Victor, Shelter Operations Manager. “This is a very nurturing environment. We try to stay away from rigid rules and we ask for input from the women.”
NYAWC encourages women at all of its programs to bond with each other. “Clients are finding women here and in other programs who share her story,” says Victor. “They are women from different cultural backgrounds and from all walks of life, but it is that story that connects them and builds a bond between them.” NYAWC believes that this new experience of “belonging” can help Asian DV victims find their place in a larger world. “We are finding that women in the shelter are thinking outside the bounds of their cultural community. Finding a support network where they may not have originally expected to is making them stronger and more assertive.”
The agency also works with the children of victims – children who have been traumatized by experiencing family violence – using a variety of therapeutic techniques including digital art therapy.
By law, domestic violence victims and their children can stay in shelters for 90 days, with the possibility of one 45-day extension. Many DV advocates argue that 135 days is not long enough to help women create an entirely new life for themselves. “For the first two months, they are in a state of emotional crisis,” says Victor. “It’s really only in the third month that they are really emotionally ready to work on their next steps. It’s not a lot of time.”
Employment and housing are the biggest obstacles. “Given the way the housing market is in New York City, a lot of women are not going to have their financial needs covered by the time they reach the 135 day mark,” says Victor. Domestic violence victims do receive priority for New York City Housing Authority apartments. However, even with priority, the waiting period for placement can last several years. As a result, some women are forced to go back to their own homes – and their abusers.
In response to the limited time frame which emergency shelter stays provide, NYAWC launched its own Transitional Housing program for DV victims in 2011. With a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department for Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women, it now provides up to two years of apartment rental subsidies for 12 women and families who have been victims of abuse. The declining subsidies begin at 75% for the first six months, drop to 50% for the next six months and them remain at 25% for year two.
“This program gives women more time to rebuild their lives and become financially stable,” says Victor.
In recent years, NYAWC has moved to expand its physical presence in the communities it serves. “We are a citywide agency, but it is hard to make people come to Manhattan in order to get help,” says Lee.
In 2010, it opened a Community Office in Elmhurst, Queens. “It is a very diverse community, a lot of South Asians, Chinese and Koreans,” says Fran Gau. “We have a Site Manager, two Chinese Counselors and one South Asian Counselor.” The location also serves as a base for Project Speak Out and the agency’s work with victims of human trafficking. In January 2012, the agency opened another Community Office in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
NYAWC has also launched a number of initiatives which go beyond the traditional bounds of domestic abuse.
For several years, it has played a significant role in serving victims of human trafficking. (See: sidebar Project Free: Ending Modern-Day Slavery.)
Last September, NYAWC received a $450,000, three year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women to develop a culturally competent sexual assault demonstration initiative focusing on the specific needs of Asian Americans.
“Sexual assault in the Asian American community is far more pervasive than might be assumed,” says Lee. “A recent report indicates that 19% of Asian women compared to 11% non-Asian women are sexually abused in America’s colleges. A pernicious Western sexual stereotype of Asian women leads to Asian women being exploited on 60% of violent pornography websites. This grant will enable NYAWC to start to address the many forms of sexual assault of Asian women and to develop effective preventive, outreach and treatment models.”
For more information, visit www.nyawc.org.