Urban Legend: Culture Clas

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Soon after the planes hit the World Trade Center towers last September, the domestic violence hotline at the New York Asian Women’s Center started ringing off the hook. Within weeks, complaints of abuse against Chinese women had shot up 50 percent.

“Chinatown was so devastated. Tension was much higher,” says Tuhina De O’Connor, executive director of the women’s center. Meanwhile, calls from Muslims dropped because of fear of persecution, she said, so the center upped outreach among South Asians.

Now, De O’Connor faces the biggest challenge of her short career at the women’s center: how to increase the beds at her shelter while the city is mired in its deepest fiscal crisis since the 1970s. At press time, the center was hoping to open a new facility to boost beds from 37 to 46. But women will continue to sit on the waitlist. “A lot of our women don’t want to go to the other shelters…. No one there knows their language, and they feel embarrassed.”

The last few years have been a crash course on both Asian cultures and domestic violence for De O’Connor, a first-generation American daughter of Bengalis from India.

“Being Asian is so many different things,” she says. Those differences are clear in her shelter. Her staff members speak about 20 of the 55 Asian languages spoken in New York, a number she is working on improving.

But for all their differences, there is one strong commonality among all her clients: Leaving a husband is taboo. Many Asian women believe their husbands have the right to beat them, says De O’Connor. So her caseworkers and volunteers spend up to 12 hours a day with a client, filling out paperwork for immigration applications, public assistance and housing. In some cases, they work with police to remove a husband from the apartment.

They also teach the general public as well as doctors and police about the intricacies of domestic violence in Asian cultures.

But the space crunch limits the work they can do. “We’ve been hesitant to do more outreach to the smaller communities. It’s really hard to go out there and say, ‘If you need help, we can provide it to you.’ We just can’t say that.”