Cover Story: Strangers in a Violent Land

Immigrant women are the new American homeless

Jon Hughes/

The YWCA tries to empower abused women to act as their own advocates, according to Theresa Singleton, director of protection from abuse programs for the YWCA.

Imagine living in another country without your family. You have a child. Your marriage is an abusive nightmare. Communication with the world outside your private hell is nonexistent due to seemingly insurmountable language barriers and a controlling spouse.

The struggle for control over your very person has gone from verbal assaults to physical beat-downs. You've involved the police on many occasions, only to be treated as insignificant because of their own possible prejudices against people who look like you. You suffer in silence until one day you flee from your plight with nothing but a bag and your children, lest you be killed.

This is the story of "Mary," a survivor of homelessness due to domestic violence. Thousands of other immigrant women around the country have endured having their abusers use language and cultural barriers as weapons against them. In the past three years, area shelters for abused women have seen an increase in the number of immigrant women seeking protection, according to Theresa Singleton, YWCA director of protection from abuse programs.

"It's very complicated," she says. "Often women will come to us with very little. They sometimes leave everything."

To better serve women cross-culturally, the Alliance for Abused and Battered Women, a division within the YWCA, has developed safety plans printed in five languages besides English: Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian and Vietnamese. The pamphlet helps women to better understand their rights and provides important contact information.

This program turned out to be a godsend for Mary. Since 1994 the abuse she suffered escalated into full-scale violence. After a beating that resulted in broken ribs, her abuser refused to seek medical attention for her. His remedy: duct tape.

Financial dependence and a lack of English skills made Mary resistant to seeking help. Family members from her traditional Southeast Asian culture disassociated themselves from her because of their beliefs about marriage.

"It was hard for me to open up," she says. "My family would not accept me (leaving my husband) because of my culture. So I had to keep everything peace and quiet. I did not want anyone to know what was going on inside the house."

She suffered in silence with a bag of necessities packed and hidden in a closet.

In spring 2002, after three days of sleeping in a wooded area in Clermont County, she went to the YWCA House of Peace.

"My husband had locked me outside the house," she says. "Before that he would abuse me mental and physical. So finally I had to sleep outside the house for three days in the woods because I don't have no family there. I don't have no access to money or telephone."

Mary walked to her father-in-law's house, where she called the police and reported the incident, only to be met with gross indifference when they arrived.

"I ask police, 'Can I go to the shelter?' " she says. "I told everything that happen to me and they will not take me to the shelter. I ask them, 'Please?' and he said 'Well, you gonna stay right there (father-in-law's house) until the morning and go to court and file paper.' I could not take my son out the house, 'cause my son would not go with me."

Mary finally reached YWCA's House of Peace. Her month-long stay was interrupted when her husband discovered the center's location. She was transferred to the YWCA Battered Women's shelter in Hamilton County, which helped Mary file a civil protection order against her husband and establish custody for her son.

Because the custody order was in Clermont County, twice a week Mary had to take her son to a neutral point for visitation with her husband. YWCA services paid for her transportation.

Other YWCA services have also helped Mary and other immigrant women in the transition to educational programs geared to career development. Let Every Adult Read Now (LEARN) is one example of a program that teaches adult literacy and speech techniques.

Mary recently was a guest speaker at a conference sponsored by the Alliance for Abused and Battered International Women. That's an impressive step, considering two years ago she walked around, head bent in silence.

"I not allowed to have friends, I not allowed to drive," she says. "So when I come to a big city, I was afraid, 'cause there were so many people. I was afraid to walk on the street because I look on the ground all the time. And now I have confidence in myself. I even say, 'Hello' to people. 'How are you doing?' " ©

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