Since surveillance camera footage of NFL player Ray Rice viciously punching out cold his fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer and then casually dragging her body out of the elevator made the rounds, domestic abuse has been a hot topic of conversation. Sadly, it has also served to highlight how little people understand the dynamics of abusive relationships.
"If she can't be bothered to walk away, why should I care?" is the comment most often made, frequently followed by, “There are no victims, only volunteers.”
But asking why a woman doesn’t just walk away isn’t only victim blaming, it’s also ultimately a failure to understand domestic violence for what it is: a long and complex pattern of physical, emotional and psychological abuse that chips away at a person's self-esteem and self-worth.
And while domestic violence easily cuts across racial, ethnic, economic, educational and religious lines, there are specific social, cultural and financial factors within minority communities (e.g., immigration laws, language barriers, social isolation, lack of financial resources and information) that make acknowledging abuse, decrying it and ultimately seeking help much more difficult.
Shield of Athena
According to City of Montreal statistics, a whopping 44 per cent of residents living in the Villeray-Saint-Michel-Park-Extension borough were born in a country other than Canada. Most of that immigrant population consists of South Asians (from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), as well as Latin Americans and Haitians. A dwindling population of Greeks remains. A quarter of the borough’s population emigrated in the last decade, and close to 50 per cent speak neither French nor English as a first language. That number skyrockets to 78 per cent in Park Extension, a densely populated neighbourhood with a population five times the Montreal average.
It’s in this neighbourhood that the Shield of Athena has chosen to set up shop. A Montreal-based non-profit organization for victims of family violence, it has been offering emergency shelter and professional services to women and their children since 1991.
Originally founded to provide the Greek community with support, intervention and prevention services, its community-based approach has stood the test of time. Over the course of 23 years, the Shield has expanded to offer programs in 17 languages that are culturally and linguistically adapted to meet the needs of Montreal's major ethno-cultural communities.
“Close to 60 per cent of our clients are referred to us by the existing Quebec network of health and social services, who often don’t have a clue what to do with them because these women speak neither of Canada’s official languages and haven’t integrated into society,” explains Melpa Kamateros, co-founder and executive director of Shield of Athena.
Kamateros’ soft-spoken demeanour may mimic the calm, unaffected exterior of a stern school principal, but it belies the quiet strength and determination of a tireless crusader, who has spent two decades fighting for those who are powerless.
“The principal reason these women don’t walk away is fear,” says Kamateros. “Fear of the unknown. Fear of society. Fear of being chastised for not being a good woman, a good wife, a good mother. Fear of breaking up the family. Fear of financial destitution. Fear of being socially ostracized from their communities.”
The degree of isolation is the most noticeable difference observed in people experiencing abuse who come from ethno-cultural communities.
“The vulnerability is magnified when the victim can’t speak the language and can’t access any information,” Kamateros adds.
The trump card abusers often use against their victims is the threat of deportation. Many immigrant women are reluctant to leave even the most abusive of partners for fear of being forced out of the country. Even if the threat is unfounded (which it often is), these women are isolated and have little access to independent outside information, leaving them with no way of judging the substance of the threat. Many of them are new citizens or landed immigrants and do not want to jeopardize their standing and their family’s standing by drawing attention to themselves.
“For those who want to walk away, their immigration status can be what impedes them the most,” explains Genevieve Messier, a social worker at the Park Extension local community service centre. Of the total number of women accommodated at the Shield of Athena’s shelter last year, 44 per cent were not Canadian citizens.
“If you don't have citizenship, walking away means exposing yourself to being deported, potentially without your children. That risk is obviously higher if the aggressor has a safe status and was the one who sponsored you.”
During the first two years of an immigrant sponsorship involving a couple, the person that has been sponsored can be sent back to their country if the relationship breaks down. According to Canadian laws, if conjugal violence can be proven (which is not always easy to do), the person will be allowed to stay. Predictably, many abused women do not know this.
The domestic abuse cases encountered in ethno-cultural communities often paint a picture of immigrant women living in utter dependency and immigrant men who have found themselves so emasculated and unable to cope with discrimination in the new society that they often lash out at those closest to them.
“The migration process can create a lot of stress for a family,” explains Messier. “We often hear women telling us that there was never violence in their home countries, but since they came here, their husband feels diminished, he can't find work (or good work), can't provide for his family, etc. This goes hand in hand with sexist structures in society. If men didn't feel that they should be heads of household, breadwinners and so on, perhaps they wouldn't feel so diminished.”
Domestic violence can never be separated from the cultural and social context in which it takes place. The incidents encountered by social workers and police officers often clearly speak to the sheer helplessness of people experiencing violence. When perception is reality, these women are often unable to see a way out.
“She was badly burnt all over her arms, and there was a gaping hole where her ear used to be,” says Betty Petropoulos, a social worker who has been with the Shield of Athena for 18 years.
She is describing Laila, an Afghan woman and mother of two in her 30s. Laila was in a violent marriage, had never been allowed to work or learn to speak English or French, and was completely dependent on her husband — a man who was pathologically jealous and often told her he would make sure no one else would ever want her.
One day he sent her to the gas station with a plastic container to fill up with gas. When she returned home, he poured the gas over her and set her on fire. She told the police officers she accidentally did it to herself, so they would not press charges.
“Even with all this damage I could still see what a beautiful woman she once was. I gave her the literature, I patiently repeated over and over what we could do for her, but I never heard from her again. I still wonder what happened to her.”
Petropoulos also shares the story of Katia, a mother of three in her 50s of Romanian descent, who spoke neither French nor English. After years of abuse, she finally mustered up the courage to leave. The day the divorce was finalized her husband showed up at the courthouse and asked her to join him in the cab to discuss matters one last time. She agreed out of a desire not to cause a scene in public, but quickly sensed something was not right.
When she ran, he pulled out a gun and shot her in the back. He then flipped her over and shot her again. Miraculously, she survived, but while she was recovering, a plea bargain was reached between the defence lawyer and the prosecutor, allowing him to plead guilty to attempt to cause severe bodily harm. His sentence? A paltry four years in prison. With the help of social workers, Katia was able to flee the country and finally get away from him, but many are not so lucky.
Constable Nasser Khodoyari, a 14-year veteran of the Montreal police force, came to Canada from Iran as a refugee at the age of 15. He has seen more than his share of domestic abuse in his career.
“Just last week I was called to a home where the wall was completely covered in blood, and the woman will have to have reconstructive surgery because of what her husband did to her,” he says with an audible sigh. “I know it’s hard for people who are not caught up in the cycle of abuse to understand — sometimes it’s hard for me to accept —but I understand how fear and manipulation work.”
“These women are in survival mode. They often have no one and don’t know where to turn, so they’re easier to control. I come from a country where there is no welfare, no support for abuse victims. Police are often crooked and can’t be trusted. The same goes for many of the countries these women are from, so they don’t believe you when you tell them that there are laws here in place and that we can protect them. Their natural inclination is to distrust us because of their experiences back home.”