One Syrian refugee a week reports being a victim of domestic abuse, agency says

Some of the women say they were victims of abuse while in Syria, others say the problems begin upon arriving to Canada.

By STEPHANIE LEVITZ The Canadian Press
Thu., May 19, 2016

OTTAWA—The Syrian man showed up at the Arab Community Centre of Toronto after 10 days in jail.

He told refugee settlement workers he’d come home to find his wife and two children missing. He thought she’d just taken them to school and so waited until the end of the day.

But when they didn’t return, he went to the police, where he was promptly arrested: his wife had accused him of abuse.

Centre staff say they don’t know what’s happened to her. Rumour has it she’s fled to Vancouver.

But on average, at least one Syrian woman a week is disclosing to them they are a victim of domestic violence.

“This is not something that is prevalent within this particular group, it is prevalent within all refugee and newcomer populations,” Huda Bukhari, the centre’s executive director, said Wednesday in an interview.

“But because this particular group has come in all at once, then we see a lot more.”

Close to $1 billion in federal funds has been set aside for the Syrian refugee program, although a breakdown of how it’s being spent hasn’t been released. Most is being put toward settlement services, including providing for additional staff for the increased caseloads.

But helping families deal with and prevent abuse requires a specialized approach, Bukhari said Wednesday as she appealed to a House of Commons committee for funds targeted directly at the issue.

The need for more help has been a recurring theme at both the Commons and Senate committees now studying the effect of the Liberal government’s resettlement of 25,000 Syrian refugees in a matter of three months.

The surge of arrivals created problems right away — finding enough permanent housing.

That’s largely been dealt with and now organizations are focusing on the next steps that include language classes and jobs, but also the reality of helping a population still suffering both the trauma of the civil war they’ve fled and that of now living in an entirely different country.

That “trauma of migration” can be a trigger for violence, but there are other factors.

Among them, women asserting themselves more forcefully upon arriving in a country where they feel freer to do so, said Zena Al Hamdan, a program manager at the Arab Community Centre.

“It creates a backlash on the male partners. They become more aggressive and more defensive and they want to assert dominance more because of the perception that the West, that society will support the female,” she said.

When she arrived in Canada in 2011 from Syria, Hayat Zaid she wasn’t sure how she’d be received.

Then 14, she was scared of being bullied in school but also unsure how much freedom she’d actually have to pursue her own interests.

“When I came, I was really shy because I was a hijabi and I couldn’t do certain things like swimming or other things in my religion I’m not allowed to,” she told the Commons committee Wednesday.

“But my family was really supportive, and the Boys and Girls Club was really supportive too, and I overcame my shyness and I did what I loved.”

Now 18, Zaid has received a scholarship to study early childhood education at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has spent more than 800 hours volunteering with the Boys and Girls club in the hope others can benefit.

“It’s a really free place when you can overcome your shyness.”