Three local Arab Americans are opening up about their previous marriages that were plagued by domestic violence for more than a decade. Despite enduring physical and verbal abuse for so long, they’re confident, empowered and determined to launch successful careers through college.
“Even if you are abused have dreams, and that dream will one day come true…Please step up as soon as you feel like something is wrong. If you are abused, don’t be abused anymore,” said Kendall, one of the former victims.
The women’s stories have many similarities. They all turned to the Safety Oasis for Victims of Crime Program at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. The program’s domestic violence division offers free and confidential services such as monthly support groups, counseling, psychiatric services, case management, legal services, food vouchers among other resources.
Program supervisor and therapist, Mona Makki says she’s worked with Arab American victims of domestic violence who have been stabbed, shot or raped by their abusers while their children watched.
The program has seen a rise in the number of domestic violence cases involving Arab Americans. “We know there is an increase, and yet we still know that it’s a silent issue because many people are scared to talk about it,” Makki said.
The program also provides services to victims of child abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, rape, hate crimes, robbery, assault and other crimes. The program is funded through the Victims of Crime Act, Crime Victim Services Commission and Michigan Department of Community Health.
Kendall experienced ongoing physical abuse during her marriage. It ranged from slapping, being pushed into objects and having things thrown at her.
In an attempt to isolate her, Kendall’s husband never got her a car, although she said he had the money to purchase more than one.
Kendall says she literally can’t remember ever going shopping or to the grocery store alone during the entire marriage. “If he could control the way I breathe he would have,” she said.
Kendall’s home began to resemble a prison. “The house you live in becomes your jail. It’s like I committed a crime and this guy is punishing me, and that home is my jail, and the kids are just friends with me in that jail,” she said.
In addition to being physical, domestic violence comes in other forms including, sexual, verbal, emotional, economic or spiritual abuse. In terms of financial abuse a spouse could try controlling all the financial assets in the marriage. Religious abuse is considered telling your partner where and what they can worship. Prohibiting your partner from going to school or driving is also domestic violence.
Kendall’s lifelong dream was to become a physician, but her former husband wouldn’t let her pursue it. She describes him as the jealous type. Today she’s taking classes at a university to earn her bachelor’s degree, while working and caring for her children in order to pursue her long life dream.
“I’m going to be a gynecologist. That’s my dream… I don’t care what anyone says. I don’t care what happens. This is what’s going to happen,” Kendall said. She believes domestic violence is a serious issue in the Arab community.
Kendall, including other survivors of domestic violence thought they would never be able to survive on their own. “He wanted to see me hungry with nothing to wear, and living by the stop sign. I proved to him I was strong enough to handle myself,” she said.
Jeannie, another survivor who is now in law school, said she had to hide the bruises she received from the harsh beatings. “He used to beat me until I was black and blue,” she said crying.
Cattie, also a survivor was physically abused almost everyday during her marriage. Her husband would say she was stupid and dumb. Her children witnessed the abuse and now are in counseling as well.
Cattie described one incident in which her husband started pulling her hair outside their home, then the violence escalated in the house to the point where she didn’t know whether or not she was conscious. She says staying in the relationship could have resulted in a fatal situation. “Dead, why not?”
Cattie attended college during the marriage, but her former husband made her quit, and she wasn’t allowed to get a job. “I’m really proud of myself right now and my life is way better,” Cattie said. She plans on going into accounting.
In many cases, the abusers may have a mental disability that’s never been diagnosed, are insecure, have low self esteem, abusive childhood or anger issues that haven’t been resolved.
Domestic violence can happen to anyone regardless of their socio-economic and educational status. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” Makki said. She says people with medical or law degrees, social workers and teachers have all turned to the program for help.
One common trend Makki has seen among Arab women is the lack of knowledge about their legal rights and basic information about what domestic violence is.
Are Arab men experiencing domestic violence?
Arab men who are being abused by their wives have also turned to the program for support, and many appear to be confused and helpless according to Makki.
As men they cope with a great deal of shame culturally, because they’re expected to be in control of their home, and the issue of men being victims is very hidden. “There is a lack of support for them in the community, because of the stigma,” Makki said.
Never leave without having a safety plan in advance
The women interviewed all had safe and well thought-out plans before they left their marriages, and warn others to do the same. It’s important for the victim and children to have a safe place to stay. In many cases the abusers have tried keeping important documents including birth certificates, medical and legal documents, school documents, DHS documents and insurance cards to prevent victims from moving on. Also have a Personal Protection Order in place for safety. Cattie’s husband threatened to kill her when she left.
You are not alone, other Arab American men and women have similar experiences
Kendall said at one point she believed there was no one who could relate to her situation.
But when she joined the domestic violence support group at ACCESS she shared her story with women who went through similar situations. “I can take a woman aside and explain to her that you are not alone. If you think you are alone, you have God, and there are lots of women like you. We are sending the message to empower women, to believe they’re not the only ones,” Kendall said. Since, she’s been giving back to the program with her ongoing volunteer efforts as an active member of the ACCESS Arab American Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Makki said for many women realizing the effects domestic violence has on children is a wake-up call. She says many children may experience trouble with the legal system, problems at school, relationship problems and may develop mental health problems such as with depression and anxiety. “It does not mean the child has to be abused, just witnessing the abuse, can be very traumatic,” Makki said.
Kendall wouldn’t get back together with her husband because she says it wasn’t good for her children to be in an abusive home. “I didn’t even want to communicate with my kids because I was depressed,” Kendall said. Jeannie grew up in a violent home and says there is no way she was going to let the same happen to her children.
Victims still face great challenges when leaving violent relationships
“I haven’t come across a survivor that regrets leaving but they do face many challenges and barriers.” Makki said. Jeannie depended on student loans to support her children. She has fewer resources than she did when she was married to a man making over $100,000 a year, but still says it was worth leaving because safety comes first. For some victims it could take months or years to get their lives back to together.
Accepting domestic violence because you think it’s normal
Jeannie thought the abuse was normal because she grew up in a violent home and her father was abusive. “I always thought, well as long as he’s not as bad as my dad.”
Support is one of the key factors victims need to move on
“Just by knowing someone else cares, and that support services are available to them it becomes easier for them to be able to move on in their lives.” Makki said. “Counseling and support services can make all the difference in the world. When they go to get help they realize that they’re strong and start to believe in themselves again.”
Waiting for a violent man to change
Cattie says frequently after her husband physically abused her he would apologize, tell her he loved her and start crying. She stayed in the relationship for years because she believed he would change. At one point he did change, but that only lasted four months. “I thought if I changed him he would be different,” Cattie said. Jeannie waited years too, believing her husband would put his hands down for good. “It’s not going to change. Get a plan and leave,” Jeannie said.
Victims face pressure from the community not to divorce their husbands
In many ethnic communities divorce is often looked down on with shame. Women are expected to be patient, and not speak out in order to keep their families together. They may start to believe they’re the problem or the ones to be blamed.
Makki says in the Arab Community there are many misperceptions when it comes to domestic violence. There is lack of support and understanding associated with domestic violence. “Don’t listen to anyone who’s criticizing you. They talk and don’t understand what you’re going through,” Cattie said. Kendall says Islam prohibits a man from physically abusing a woman, and that the religion allows divorce if there is a valid reason, and physical abuse is sufficient enough of a reason. “Being divorced is not something to be ashamed of. I’m happy to be divorced because I lived a horrible life, and a divorce was a way out from my jail.”
How you can make a difference
Attend the 6th Annual Domestic Violence Gala on January 20, 2012 at 6:00 PM at Byblos Banquet Center located 7258 Chase, Dearborn MI 48126.
Donations can be made to the ACCESS Domestic Violence Fund. Money will be used to assist suvivors and their families.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
The following agencies are only a few of the many places victims of domestic violence in southeast Michigan can turn to for help:
ACCESS Safety Oasis for Victims of Crime Program
6450 Maple Street, Dearborn, MI 48126
Arab American and Chaldean Council
Crisis support line: 248.334.1274
HAVEN offers shelter to victims of domestic violence, and other support
Common Ground Crisis Resource Center