Immigration

'I do not know that I am being abused': Isolated in the suburbs, migrant women lack the support they need

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Home visitation programs help isolated women and victims of family violence come back from the depths of despair. Marty Smiley meets isolated migrant women surviving in the suburbs.

Content warning: this story contains descriptions of domestic violence and abuse, suicidal ideation, and trauma.

Elna first met her husband in 2003, when he visited her native Philippines on a holiday. Even back then, she says, he was angry.

"He's always calling me all bad words," she told The Feed. "I thought these bad words is just normal for a white guy to call me."

"You're stupid. You're a moron. You don't have the brain, you don't have anything. Elna, you are poor. You are a piece of shit."

According to Elna, this treatment continued for years. After 15 years of marriage, her husband asked her to move to Australia with him. She said yes.

Elna told The Feed she initially believed her husband's aggressive behaviour was normal for a white man.
Elna told The Feed she initially believed her husband's aggressive behaviour was normal for a white man.
The Feed

It was only later, after a physical incident, that Elna went to the police, and discovered that the type of treatment she was enduring was considered abuse. While domestic violence is most often associated with physical abuse, it can also take the form of verbal and emotional abuse, financial abuse or controlling behaviour.

Elna was able to obtain an intervention order, but much of the damage had already been done.

"I feel down. I look at myself, I'm useless, I'm not worth it," Elna told The Feed.

"Sometimes I will tell myself, is it alright to die for one week? Just to die for one week, so I could not remember what happened to me. What I've been through until now."

I want to die for one week so I can rest.

Elna is not alone. The 2016 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence found that women from diverse backgrounds were at a greater risk of experiencing family violence.

And although considerable progress has been made since the royal commission, some groups believe more attention needs to be focused on migrant-specific services. Social isolation, fear of deportation and language barriers are key issues frontline services have identified as hurdles.

Wellsprings For Women is a social support group in Dandenong, Victoria that runs a home visitation program for women who've become isolated by their circumstances.

Besides home visits, Wellsprings also helps clients to fill out forms, and assists with applications for emergency housing, Centrelink and immigration concerns.

Ayesha Awan is a support worker at Wellsprings
Ayesha Awan is a support worker at Wellsprings.
The Feed

The organisation is seeing more and more women in recovery referred to their program instead of specialised family violence agencies.

"The needs of these women are not being assessed properly. Their needs are quite complex," Ayesha Awan, a support worker at Wellsprings, told The Feed.

She said that support services "need to have a bit more patience with more tolerance, so that they can stay with these women until they start to recover."

"They don't even reach that stage where they could even start to recover. They get left behind by the services."

Nusraat, 53, is a participant in a Wellsprings home visitation program. She was displaced from her home in July after her husband died, and now lives in a garage in Dandenong with no running water or gas.

"It has affected my dignity, mental health and everything," she told The Feed.

If someone doesn't have money, doesn't know anyone and can't speak the language, do you really think that's easy?

Language barriers in particular can be enormously isolating for migrant women facing trauma. Maria Dimopoulos is the Chair of Harmony Alliance, an organisation that acts as a voice for migrant women, and she told The Feed access to interpreter services needs to be a priority.

"I think we need more leadership around more marginalised communities" she told The Feed.

"From a cultural, religious perspective, even being able to disclose what's going on in your own language, let alone being able to communicate that in English, is an extraordinary obstacle."

"We need to dedicate resources -- proper resourcing -- into the provision of interpreter services. We need to ensure culturally responsive service systems."

Until those resources are available more broadly, organisations like Wellsprings fill the gap.

Home visits go beyond simple check-ins. Ayesha often arrives with food or supplies for the women she supports, and once women have reached a certain stage of their recovery, Wellsprings offers them group activities and classes in English, computer skills, cooking and more.

For migrant women isolated by trauma, services like this become a lifeline.

"When the support worker visits me, I'm very happy," Elna said. "There's someone I can tell how I feel today, how I feel yesterday, how I feel last night."

"Every time I'm down, my support worker will tell me there is hope. So, step by step, I'm trying my best."

If you or someone you know is impacted by domestic or family violence call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. 

Find out more about Wellsprings for Women at wellspringsforwomen.com.

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