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September 4, 1999


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Helping The Helpless: A Tale of Two Organisations

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Shanthi Shankarkumar in Chicago

A father of two young children is charged with child abuse, when his kids are found sweltering in a car left in the hot sun. The father worked in a near by fast food restaurant. His wife also worked, and the neighbor who usually baby-sat for them had to go out of town. So he had brought them along, thinking he could keep a watchful eye on them as he worked. The driver of a car parked next to his saw the children looking very uncomfortable in the car and called 911.

Later, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Service removed the kids from the home. The father, a new immigrant from India to this country, denied any intention to harm his children. In desperation, he contacted the Hamdard Center for Health and Human Services in Wooddale, Illinois.

In another incident, the wife of a diplomat in a South Asian country fled the country and took refuge in America with two of her four children. Her husband had broken her arm in a yet another fit of physical abuse. She approached Apna Ghar, an organization that works with South Asian victims of domestic violence.

In the first case, Hamdard stepped in and convinced the authorities that the man really meant no harm to his children. They also made him send for his mother from India, so that she could take care of the children who were eventually given back to the family.

The diplomat's wife stayed in the shelter, eventually got a divorce, brought over the other two children and started a new life with Apna Ghar's help.

Hamdard, founded in 1993, provides assistance to both South Asian and Middle Eastern families in the areas of mental health, domestic violence, marital problems, child abuse, medical problems and legal and school-related problems.

Apna Ghar, founded in 1989, deals only with domestic violence in South Asian families. Over the years they have helped more than 2,900 women. Both centers run shelters for women that are in great demand.

Hamdard was started by clinical psychologists Mohammad and Farzana Hamid to fill a growing need for services that would essentially cater to South Asian women. It started out as a two-room office. Today, its facilities and services have expanded and its annual $ 150,000 budget comes from private donations and state and county grants.

"We are growing at a much higher rate than anticipated," said Farzana Hamid, executive director, Hamdard. The agency's caseload is about 800 annually; three times the volume of the first year. Their crisis hotline averages 700 calls per month.

"About 25 per cent of cases we come across are intergenerational conflicts," says Hamid. With two generation and three generation families now staying together, extended family problems like the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law problems, have come to plague immigrant families here."

In India and Pakistan the extended family usually defuses family problems but here the older generation does not have the same kind of authority and is reduced to being powerless observers, says Hamid. The divorce rate is also steadily on the rise in South Asian families. "The percentage of cohesive, happy marriages is very low," says Hamid. She blames dual jobs, shifting of the balance of power and cultural pressures for breaking up marriages.

Seventy-five per cent of the families who came to them for help last year continue to seek help for family dysfunction, marital disharmony and interpersonal difficulties.

Ayesha Khan (name changed), a Pakistani woman with five children came to Hamdard to escape an abusive husband. Hamdard worked with her, but with her limited skills and education there was no way she could live on her own and support five children. So Hamdard got her an order of protection, sent her back and counseled the husband too. "We still have fights, but there is no physical abuse," said a relieved Ayesha Khan.

Organizations like Hamdard and Apna Ghar are very important because mainstream organizations do not understand the cultural and socioeconomic problems peculiar to the South Asian region. Latha (name changed) sought the help of a mainstream organization to deal with the constant quarrels she had with her mother-in-law. Their solution: Get rid of the mother-in-law, you don't have to live with her. She understood this was not the solution she was looking for and approached Hamdard.

Take the instance of the father of two young daughters who was charged with sexual abuse, when his children revealed in school that he washed their private parts after they used the washroom. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services promptly removed the kids from the home. The father approached Hamdard for help and they convinced the authorities that the washing was religiously mandated for personal hygiene.

Abuse cuts across all professional and educational levels, according to K Sujatha, executive director, Apna Ghar.

"It is a misconception that educated men and women and professionals are not in abusive relationships. It is even more difficult for a professional woman to come out in the open with her problems. We have had women who are lawyers, doctors and engineers come to us for help," says Sujatha.

She cites the case of an engineer studying for his Ph D who abused his wife. The wife left with her young child and came to Apna Ghar, who helped her find a job and apartment of her own. But the in-laws put pressure on her to return and she did eventually. "She is okay, not very happy, but doing all right," says Sujatha

Lots of families are caught between two cultural planes. A woman's dual roles of home-maker and wage earner put pressures on her, add to it the demands of a traditional South Asian husband and you have a marital time bomb ticking in that house. When the woman rebels, all hell breaks loose.

Unlike American women who are abused either by a husband or a boyfriend, Indian women face abuse not only from a husband but also from other women like the mother-in-law and sister-in-law.

When Mumtaz Akhter (name changed) joined her new husband in the US she was treated not as the new bhabhi, but as a maid who had to take care of all the housework. Her husband, brother-in-law, his wife and kids would never take her along on their social outings and neither was she introduced to any of their friends who visited their house.

When the husband blatantly also took on a girlfriend, Akhter walked out and turned to Hamdard for help. "She came to us in a bad state -- suicidal, guilty and feeling worthless. She got a lot of psychological help," says Hamid. According to her, over the last 5, 6 years there has been a mushrooming of abuse compounded by the extended family.

Surveys have shown that an American woman goes back to her abusive husband as many as five times before she leaves him. A small study of professional Indian women in America has shown it takes her 7.5 times before she walks out.

"There is no provocation in the world for one person to strike another. Nobody asks to be in a violent situation," says Sujatha

The Hamdard Center for Health and Mental Services
355, North Woodale Road
Phone: 630-860-2199

Apna Ghar, Inc
4753 North Broadway
Suite 518
Chicago, IL-60640

Phone: 773-334-0173
Fax: 773-334-0963

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