On Saturday, May 6, Bradley Hall at Raleigh's Highland United Methodist Church resembled the Tower of Babel. Southeast Asian and African immigrant and refugee women saluted the more than 100 assembled there in a flurry of languages: English, French, Arabic, Amharic, Vietnamese and others.
Yet unlike the biblical tower, the messages at the Southeast Asian and African Women's Day conference were clear. Raised in vastly different countries, the women were gathered to talk about common issues: immigration and domestic violence.
It's a particularly important topic. The FBI reports that in 1995 and '96, 10 percent of women killed in domestic disputes were Asian, though Asians comprise roughly 3 percent of the U.S. population. While no comparable figures exist for African immigrants, co-organizer Kristie Bailey said that the conference, sponsored by UNC-Greensboro's social work department and its Family Violence Prevention in Refugee/Immigrant Communities program, targeted these groups because "there seems to be less awareness of domestic violence in them." The victims of maltreatment--and the perpetrators--may not even define physical violence, sexual assault or verbal attacks as abuse.
Bailey's co-organizer, Ethiopian immigrant Tenagne Gebre Selassie, said in her welcome address that although domestic violence plagues American citizens, it has added significance in immigrant communities.
"Once immigrants get here, they are faced with unemployment, role change with spouses or children ... being unfamiliar with social services. These barriers almost always increase the violence in refugee and immigrant communities."
The stresses of immigration--including poor language ability, separation from family and social networks as well as uncertain futures--can make women more vulnerable. One woman who acquired citizenship through marriage asked how she was to escape an abusive relationship when her husband had confiscated her green card and identification. Another woman's spouse threatened to stop sending money to relatives back home if she "disobeyed" him.
Kenyan immigrant Flora Maranga has been in the United States for almost two years. Though Maranga lives outside of Raleigh, she said the way domestic violence is handled in her homeland still informs her perceptions of the issue. That's a common problem, she said, and it keeps women from taking action.
"As immigrants," Maranga noted, "we don't know the laws of this country, so [the men] are using the laws from back home against us." There is little legal recourse for a battered woman in Kenya--there are no shelters, and women's organizations, weakened by the government, are unable to lobby or offer protection. Maranga said that often leaves the woman no choice but to depend on family, who may just say, "I know what you're going through, but you have to go back."
In many cultures, like that of the Hmong people from Laos, conflict is ideally resolved in the family, but Hmong Ly, a lab technician from Raleigh, said that "a Hmong woman isn't just going to get up and leave her husband" if things don't go well. Among Sudanese immigrants in Greensboro, a four-person council mediates most disputes, but domestic ones are more often solved by family. Or else, according to Omer Omer, one of a contingent of men at the conference, "a wife will go to a friend of her husband if there's trouble, and the husband will know it's serious."
Service providers and law enforcement are rarely called by immigrant communities. But when they are, these groups have to walk a tight line between respecting communities' internal efforts to solve problems, and protecting families from violence. Local family-violence prevention agencies are doubling their efforts to overcome immigrants' reluctance to seek help. For instance, Raleigh's Interact, which helped with the conference planning, has hired two full-time Spanish-speaking counselors to serve the burgeoning Hispanic population. Interact also regularly serves Asian, African, and Middle Eastern women.
Because of the conference, women across the state now have the phone numbers of social-service groups, as well as strategies for battling abuse. Hmong Ly, who brought her mother and sisters to the conference, recognizes that for many women, getting to the event was half the battle--especially when their menfolk might find its premise "ridiculous." But watching her usually quiet mother, who had never attended a conference before, actively participate in discussions, Ly refused to dwell on the barriers. Instead, she let out a loud "Go, Mom!"