Immigrants and refugees often face additional barriers escaping domestic violence

Language and isolation are just two factors that can add to the challenges

Original Article:  CBC News  |  Sarah Green and Jelmer Derksen  |  May 6, 2018  |

In partnership with Mount Royal University's Bachelor of Communication-Journalism program and the Calgary Journal, CBC Calgary is publishing a series profiling some of the immigrants and refugees who moved here and how they're helping shape our city.

Leaving an abusive relationship can be a big challenge. For immigrants and refugees, there are often additional obstacles, including cultural stigma, language and immigration status.

"Domestic violence knows no bounds culturally. In essence, it's about power and control over another human being," says Jan Reimer, the executive director at Alberta Council of Women's Shelters

Alberta has among the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. According to a 2017 report, the Calgary Police Service logged 3,709 domestic violence incidents in 2016, up by 12.8 per cent from the previous year.

Nowhere to go

Gursharon Toor knows first-hand what it feels like to be trapped in a relationship. She was abused for four years during her marriage here in Calgary.

"It was not so much physical abuse, it was so much about power, manipulation, mental abuse and emotional control," said Toor.

Toor was married in 1992 and soon recognized her relationship was detrimental to both her and her children. Despite this, she stayed for more than four years.

Throughout her marriage, Toor never stopped standing up her herself and for her two young daughters. She says her husband found this unacceptable.

"There was a lot panic and insecurity," Toor said. "He [had to deal] with a confident woman who would not let him dominate, and that was a threat for him. It was a huge thing for him to lose that power and control."

At first, Toor stayed with her ex-husband in order to keep her family together. However, everything changed in January 1997 when she says he physically assaulted her for the first time.

"We were in the car with my kids and both of them were screaming while he hit me," she said.

"He took me back home ... I walked out, went to a gas station and called my uncle. He picked me up, I called the police, I got my girls, I got my stuff and I was out."

Toor was left with nothing. She had no money, no education and English was her second language. The only support Toor had was her family. Everyone else she knew turned their back on her, so she turned to Canadian service agencies.

"Everybody was so supportive, from shelter support to outreach workers. Professionals went out of their way to help me," she said.

Challenges to getting out

Though Toor's story had a positive outcome, her experience is an example of the additional challenges newcomers often face when trying to escape abuse.

Priya Kharat is a social work counsellor at the University of Calgary and says untangling and rebuilding lives often takes time.

"It's not a one step process of, 'Here are the resources, now why don't you deal with the violence in your life?'" she said. "Age, dependency, financial resources, education, isolation and the threat to your family back home are fears as well.

Still, for many immigrants, the largest obstacle they face is the language barrier.

Anne Sureshkumar, a registered social worker at Calgary Counselling Services, says it can prevent immigrants from fleeing violence.

"In a situation when domestic violence happens, there's very little chance that the victim has the confidence to seek help," she said. "And even if the victim does, there are high chances that the abuser can minimize it because they have the language skills."


Another problem newcomers face is the mistaken belief they could lose their immigration status.

"Often, if the victim has precarious status, they think that by reaching out for help, they could then be deported or their children could be taken from them," said Joanne Baker, the executive director of the BC Society of Transition Houses.

On top of these factors, a lack of knowledge of Canadian law can be a challenge for immigrants trying to seek help.

Rupinder Hehar, program manager for Punjabi Community Health and Services, says many new Canadians don't know what will happen when they call the police.

"There's a lot of misinformation about the Canadian system in general," Hehar said.

Changing attitudes

For all these reasons, Albertans of all kinds are often silent about domestic abuse, but Reimer believes things are changing.

"We are seeing conversations that we might not have seen a decade ago. People are coming out and telling their story," she said.

Vic Lantion, the  program coordinator for the Ethno Cultural Council of Calgary says education and discussion are the best way forward.

"Some ethnocultural communities don't even have a definition of what domestic violence is," he said. "So in other words, if you cannot name it, you cannot tame it."

For people looking for help, Hehar says that in Calgary alone there are more than 15 organizations whose doors are open to anyone experiencing abuse.

Organizations such as the Centre for Newcomers and Calgary Immigrant Women's Association offer support services that can help newcomers overcome any additional obstacles.

For Toor, seeking help was the first step in regaining her freedom. Looking back on her experience, she offers her best piece of advice to anyone who is suffering in an abusive situation.

"These things only escalate. Stop it where it starts," she said.

"There is a point in your dignity and humanity where you're not even treated like a human or a second citizen. Your home should be the one safest place. If you're not safe, you need to think about it."