Domestic violence among immigrants, refugees to be major focus for social agencies

Organizations say men behind the violence need special help and support along with victims

Original Article:  CBC News  |  Dan McGarvey  |  May 14, 2018  |

Front-line domestic violence workers in Calgary's newcomer and refugee communities say more supports and education for men and improved cultural sensitivity are needed to better to respond to what they say can often be a hidden problem.

Education and awareness are improving but communities and organizations say they need to work closer together.

"Families that come here have huge language barriers and cultural barriers," said Rekha Gadhia, manager of family services at Calgary Immigrant Women's Association and co-chair of the ethno-culturally diverse communities committee with the Calgary Domestic Violence Collective.

The collective is comprised of more than 70 different groups and says culturally diverse communities in Calgary will be a major focus of its work from 2018 through 2020.

Trauma adds to challenges

"Lots of newcomers come from refugee camps so there's a lot of trauma that they come with, so that multiplies the challenges around domestic violence," said Gadhia.

Newcomers face a list of major life changes including adjusting to a new family dynamic where men are often no longer the sole providers. Many have to face being unqualified for jobs, while struggling to learn English and facing major financial pressures.

"Back home men were responsible for finances, the wives were staying home but now the burden has to be borne by both men and women," Gadhia said.

"The role reversal issue is the grassroot issue for a lot of family conflict, parenting problems and domestic violence in immigrant families, because the whole family dynamic has changed," she added.

"For males, it's a huge blow for self-esteem, self-confidence and for their masculinity."

The stresses of adjusting and creating a new life in a new and strange country can push families and relationships to boiling point.

"They're working survival jobs, they're working different shifts and they may not even see each other many times," Gadhia said.

There are also stresses when it comes to parenting, with children quickly adapting to life in Canada, often abandoning traditional values and norms.

"Kids are integrating so fast, four to five times faster than parents," said Gadhia, who says children and teens can become victims of violence too.

"Simple things like making eye contact with some parents is considered not a very respectful thing, and kids are being taught the opposite here. Watching kids move away from the culture they've been used to can be a really scary thing for parents and that adds to their already vulnerable situation," said Gadhia.

Help seen as taboo

The Calgary Immigrant Women's Association's family violence program has been running for 30 years, providing language support, cultural sensitivity support and free childcare — another vital resource for women in need.

Gadhia says when people come to her for help she takes a holistic approach, looking at the needs of the family and the root causes that need to be addressed.

But reaching out for help is considered taboo in many cultures, so many immigrant women suffer in silence behind closed doors.

"Counselling involves a big stigma in the majority of immigrant families, it's associated with having a mental issue and the fear of being seen by the community," said Gadhia.

Perpetrators need help too

She says education is key to overcoming the stigma associated with seeking help, as well as improving supports for the men, which are severely lacking.

"Support is not available for immigrant men, and families usually have low or zero income, so that is a big barrier. Also men — we have found from our research — do not tend to access these services regardless," Gadhia said.

"Also, a lot of families come from places where they don't have trust in the system and the police are a not a very trusted source for them," she added.

​Culturally sensitive policing 

Many domestic violence cases don't make it as far as police intervention but Calgary police say they are aware of the need for cultural sensitivity when they do. They say they are working with multiple organizations that specialize in working with diverse communities, many based in Calgary's northeast.

There are no figures specific to the northeast or to different ethnic groups but Calgary police say they responded to 18,528 domestic violence calls across the city in 2017, highlighting the scope of the problem city-wide.

"We have to understand that people have a different experience, regardless of whether you're born and raised here or emigrated from a different country where police aren't necessarily the most friendly people in the world," said David Jones, acting sergeant of the force's domestic conflict response unit.

"We're partnered with YW Calgary, we're currently working on educating the community and working with families closely to make sure they can access support services within the community," said Jones.

Anyone experiencing abuse or violence in a relationship can reach out for help:

  • The Connect Family and Sexual Abuse Network can be reached at 403-237-5888 or toll free at 1-877-237-5888
  • The 24-Hour Family Violence Helpline is available at 403-234-7233, or you can call 211.
  • In Calgary, the Distress Centre is available 24-hours a day at 403-266-4357.
  • If you are in immediate danger, dial 911.