New Queens Shelter For Battered Asian Women Meets Growing Need

abuse

(Art from Google Images search; edited by Susie Poppick)

BY SUSIE POPPICK

Linda communicates in rough, hesitant English, often supplementing her limited vocabulary with gestures. When she explains how her ex-husband abused her, she grips her neck, miming choking.

It is hard to use English to speak about her past, Linda says, because she does not always understand or trust the people trying to help her. But at the new emergency shelter for battered women where she has been living for the past several weeks, she has finally had the chance to open up.

“The counselor, they speak Chinese,” she says. “The counselor tell me when your husband hit [you], you need to call the 911, call police … She tell me I will be safe.”

Linda is one of approximately 20 women living at the newly opened Peace House, the first domestic violence shelter in Queens designed specifically to support Asian women. Like the city’s one other shelter for Asian abuse victims, a sister site located in Brooklyn, Peace House guarantees its clients cultural and language support. Staff speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. They also understand the cultural pressures Asian women face to keep silent about family disharmony, and never to question the ways of the man of the house. The need for such havens is more pressing than ever, as the number of Asian immigrants in New York City, especially Chinese migrants, reaches new heights.

Though Peace House admits clients of all races and nationalities, even those who are not Asians, about half are Chinese immigrants, the majority of whom speak English poorly, said residential manager Diana Turner. Staff members stock the kitchen with rice but not meat, because many of the shelter’s South Asian clients are vegetarian. A sign explaining how to use the stove safely is taped to the fridge and includes translations in Chinese and Urdu. Similarly translated signs prompt women to clean up after themselves on the building’s residential floors.

For 36-year-old Linda, who speaks Cantonese, Mandarin and the Fujianese dialect, the shelter’s native-language support has been the most helpful feature of Peace House. She has received psychological counseling in Chinese at least once a week, and her six-year-old daughter has had weekly sessions with a bilingual child psychologist.

“They help me and I understand,” Linda says.

In Chinese, the shelter staff has reasoned with Linda, who lacks a college degree, about why she should take steps to develop her education. They convinced her to sign up for General Educational Development and English as a Second Language classes, and physically accompanied her to meetings with legal or welfare representatives, serving as translators.

Peace House offers more Asian language support than the 49 other domestic violence shelters in New York City, said Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for the city’s Human Resources Administration, which manages city shelters. While other organizations run hotlines in Asian languages, only the Peace House and its Brooklyn twin — established about seven years ago, also by the New York Asian Women’s Center — offer guaranteed in-house language support, said the center’s executive director, Larry Lee.

“Many of our women don’t know how to navigate the social services systems,” said Lee. “Many don’t even know how to navigate the subway system because they don’t have such a thing in Fujian … They have got to be able to talk to somebody.”

For the 300,000 Chinese immigrants in New York City — a population that has more than doubled since 1980 — such support is crucial. More than 75 percent of the city’s Chinese immigrants speak English “less than very well,” which is more than three times the rate for typical foreign-born New Yorkers, according to recent census data.

Because of steady demand from Asian abuse victims, Lee said, his agency opened the $2 million Peace House in Queens to supplement to the group’s shelter in Brooklyn, which also supports 20 residents. The Peace House replaces a much smaller two-family townhouse, containing only five rooms, which Lee’s organization had been renting until the new shelter opened.

The agency chose a site in Queens because city rules require that abused women be placed at shelters located a minimum distance of approximately five miles from their batterer, though factors such as the distance from connecting subway lines are also considered. Queens is ideal because it is sprawling, Lee said, so women from both inside and outside the borough can be placed at Peace House.

Like all other clients at Peace House, Linda met the geographic requirements of the shelter’s screening process. She went to Peace House this past summer from her uncle’s home in the Bronx, where her uncle physically and verbally abused her and eventually kicked her out.

With no job and no green card, she says, she had nowhere to turn.

“I live in basement so he want me pay money,” Linda says, fighting back tears. “I no have so he throw me out … I was so scared.”

Linda says that she had originally moved in with her uncle to escape her ex-husband, who had also abused her throughout their six-year relationship. A naturalized U.S. citizen originally from China, he threatened to take away their daughter, Linda says, telling her she would be unable to fight back because she was in the United States illegally.

As an undocumented immigrant, Linda is among those most afraid of reporting abuse to authorities, national and regional surveys show. According to a report by the Family Violence Prevention Fund, “abusers often use their partners’ immigration status as a tool of control,” while taking advantage of their limited knowledge of the U.S. legal system.

But studies of domestic violence also show that fewer Asians report incidents of domestic abuse than other ethnic groups. In a 2005 survey, the Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence found that the proportion of Asian women who reported having ever experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner was 10 percent, compared to 27 percent for white respondents, 21 percent for Hispanic respondents, 29 percent for black respondents, 43 percent for multiracial respondents, 39 percent for American Indian/Alaskan Native respondents, and 30 percent for all other races.

Many experts attribute such discrepancies to underreporting — citing language barriers and cultural taboos — and statistically unreliable comparisons given that Asians often comprise a smaller sample size than other groups.

In surveys that ask respondents if they’ve ever been abused, Asian women are unlikely to reveal domestic violence to strangers, said University of Michigan Professor Mieko Yoshihama, an expert in social work involving immigrants and violence against women.

“In all Asian cultures, there is a stigma against talking about private issues in public, and women fear being labeled as someone who broke up her family,” Yoshihama said. “There is a strong expectation that a woman should be willing to sacrifice herself for her family.”

Linda says she has felt that pressure and inequality.

“My city in Fujian, woman only take care of children, so nothing talking … Every family, only man talking,” Linda says. “Man is number one, woman number two … So different, like, American. American woman is freedom. Everybody same same.”

During her stay at Peace House, Linda says she has begun to feel more independent and less afraid. She has been improving her technology skills using the shelter’s computers, which have operating systems that run in Chinese. And after applying with the help of Peace House translators, Linda is hoping to be approved for a green card by the end of December.

By that time, her four-month limit at the Peace House will have expired, and Linda will need to find a new home.

But Linda has found new confidence at the shelter, where the staff has encouraged her to become self sufficient — the kind of Chinese woman who does not need a man to survive.

Self-sufficiency and education are values Linda hopes to pass down to her daughter, Vicky. Quiet and solemn as her mother speaks, Vicky grins and hops out of her chair upon hearing her name, happy to chirp out the numbers one through 10 in English on request.

After she is done, her mother embraces her proudly, and together, they count to 10 again, this time in Mandarin.

See Graphic: Domestic Violence in U.S. Asian Households

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