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'New attitude:' More immigrant women questioning culturally tolerated domestic violence

Monday October 26, 2015

By Lindsay Tice 

Fatuma Hussein of United Somali Women of Maine.

LEWISTON — Last fall, Laudrinha Kubeloso was 32, four months pregnant and quietly planning to talk with someone about her boyfriend beating her up. 

Her appointment was for Friday.

She didn't make it.

That Tuesday, Kubeloso, an immigrant from Angola, was run down from behind while walking home from her afternoon English language class.

Police charged her boyfriend with her murder, arresting Evaristo Deus, also from Angola, the next day on a New York flight to Haiti minutes before the plane was scheduled to take off. He haspleaded not guilty and is expected to stand trial next spring.

Although by many accounts Kubeloso had long been abused by Deus, she hadn't sought help and had only reluctantly agreed to meet to talk about it with someone from the United Somali Women of Maine, a Lewiston-based advocacy organization for all immigrants in the state. She didn't believe her situation could change.

"Her friends talked to her. They would say, 'Call the police.' And then she would say, 'Then what? And then they leave and then what?'" said Jeanne Mugisha, an advocate at United Somali Women of Maine.

Kubeloso wasn't the only immigrant woman in Maine who felt that way, advocates say. Although many didn't like it, they tolerated domestic violence. They came from countries where women were commonly controlled, or from cultures in which men ruled their homes, or from small communities where women were told that outsiders absolutely should not get involved in private family affairs.

And, besides, no one died from a controlling husband or abusive boyfriend. At least no immigrant had in Maine in recent memory.

Until, police say, Kubeloso.

"It shook our community," said Fatuma Hussein, head of United Somali Women of Maine. "I think we couldn't believe someone decided to take someone else's life, not to mention she was pregnant. Two lives, essentially, because he felt like she did not, or they did not, deserve to live."

One year later, some things have changed. More immigrant women are reaching out to United Somali Women of Maine. More immigrant men are listening to the message that violence is wrong. And organizations are increasing efforts to reach out to abused immigrants and refugees.

But advocates say domestic violence remains a very real problem among new Mainers.

"We still have a long way to go," Hussein said. "I would like to see a community free of domestic violence and sexual violence. And then we can say, 'OK, we've done our work.'"

'Domestic violence has no color'

Experts are quick to point out that domestic violence isn't limited to immigrants, or to women. It's been a significant problem throughout Maine for a long time, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender or citizenship status.

"Domestic violence was accepted," said Jane Morrison, who for five years led central Maine's domestic violence agency, Safe Voices, until her recent retirement. "In Maine years ago there was no law against domestic violence. I know a sheriff who told me years ago they would get a call and they were told, 'Don't hurry out, by the time you get there they would have made up and she would have baked him a pie. That was in Maine. That was in this country."

Although there's been improvement, it's still a problem.

Last year, according to state crime numbers, nearly half of all assaults — 5,076 of them — occurred between household or family members. Although more than half of the domestic assaults in 2014 involved a man hurting a woman, nearly 17 percent involved a woman hurting a man. Others involved a parent assaulting a child or a child assaulting a parent.

Of the 22 murders in Maine last year, 13 (59 percent) were the result of domestic conflicts.

"Domestic violence isn't a topic that even people who were born and raised in America want to talk about," said Jen LaChance Sibley, outreach services director for Family Crisis Services, a domestic violence agency in Portland.

But as difficult as it can be for native Mainers to seek help — they're often embarrassed, feel stigmatized or isolated, are afraid of leaving or don't know where to go — experts say it's even worse for people who are new to the country. 

They aren't comfortable speaking English. They come from communities where domestic violence is accepted. Friends and family pressure them to keep quiet, and shame or ostracize them if they seek outside help. 

Because the government in their home country was not to be trusted, they're wary of the U.S. government and agencies they believe are part of it, including domestic violence groups.

Visas can be tied to a spouse, so they're afraid they'll be deported if they leave the marriage.

They likely have little money and may not have a job because they're caring for young children or are classified as asylum-seekers and aren't allowed to work under the law.  

They believe threats and violence are just something they have to deal with.

"I think we minimize the safety issue, particularly in our community," Hussein said. "We're like, 'Oh, what will he do to me? Nothing.' Guns? That's not a reality for us. Killing? That's not a reality for us. How ironic that is. We come from a place where we slash and kill ourselves every day, and our lives are not worth anything. That's why we're in this country, because (we've been) displaced as a result of war. So it's very ironic for us to not value the safety issue."

And even when they seek help, there are problems. Immigrant communities are so small that confidentiality can be nonexistent. There have been instances in which a hired interpreter turned out to be a family member of the abuser. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 3.7 percent of Mainers were immigrants in 2014, a little over half of whom had become naturalized citizens. That's up from 3 percent in 2005.

Experts say immigrants can be difficult to count by census. Hussein, the head of United Somali Women of Maine, believes there are 6,500 to 7,000 immigrants in Lewiston-Auburn alone.

"We don't see as many immigrant women as you would think that we would based on the demographic," said Tina Schneider, who provides law students to represent people seeking protection from abuse orders in Lewiston as part of the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic in Portland.

There is little tracking of domestic violence among immigrants in Maine. Advocates say abuse within immigrant families is likely higher than any official count would show.

"Domestic violence has no color," Hussein said. "It has no culture. It has no religion. It has nothing. It happens in every community. I think the difference between our communities and the larger community is our numbers are under reported, and therefore we don't know the prevalence of domestic violence in our community because (people feel) it is a community issue, it's a family issue and it must stay within the family."

Alexandra Winter, an Oxford County assistant district attorney who has handled cases in Androscoggin and Franklin counties, saw that firsthand last year in a Lewiston-Auburn-area case involving a Somali woman abused by her husband.

"She faced a lot of backlash and aggression from the community at large for even making this allegation and sticking through to report," Winter said. "In speaking with her, she told me a few times that she was feeling pressured by his family, and her family even, to not follow through on the report, not follow through on the prosecution. And she did, until the very end, and I think that was fairly unusual for someone in her position."

What made her do it?

"She said that she was just done," Winter said.

Wake-up call

It's unclear whether Kubeloso had reached that point.

She didn't contact United Somali Women of Maine; someone familiar with her situation asked the group to get in touch with her. Hussein had to persuade Kubeloso to meet that Friday.

"Even the appointment was a big deal for her, because even in that moment she did not believe nothing was happening to her," Hussein said.

Kubeloso had sought asylum in the U.S. seven months before. She spent her time in Lewiston taking adult education classes and volunteering at Hope House, where it was her job to greet people, many of them new to the country.

News of her death rocked the immigrant community.

Two days later, 75 people crowded onto the Lewiston street corner where she was killed. The memorial included prayers and songs in English, Somali, Portuguese and Kubeloso's native French.

"I think that was a wake-up call for us," Hussein said. "People question to this day, 'Why didn't I do something?' ... The people who knew. After we got into the investigation, then (we learned) there was a long history of abuse, that people did not come forward."

A number of groups had already been trying to help immigrants with domestic violence. Courts and various organizations offered interpreters. Safe Voices had pamphlets in different languages, helped immigrants fill out protection from abuse orders and offered interpreter services on its 24-hour hotline. The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland put a priority on helping domestic violence victims with visas so they could stay in the country without being tied to an abusive spouse.

"Once we find out about them, they sort of jump the line of not having to go through a normal intake process because we want to make sure we don't lose them," said Executive Director Susan Roche. "We know that one phone call may be the only opportunity left to communicate with somebody."

United Somali Women of Maine advocated for victims, accompanied them to court and partnered with other domestic violence groups, among other things. 

After Kubeloso's death, it didn't seem like enough.

United Somali Women of Maine started working more on bystander education so, next time, friends and family members could do more than urge a reluctant victim to go to the police. It is working on a one-stop hotline that will connect immigrants to resources, services and advocates in their own language over the phone. The group is surveying hundreds of immigrants to find out the best way to promote domestic violence prevention. The group will use those results to implement what Hussein calls "a very brave public awareness campaign."

One of the biggest changes isn't what United Somali Women of Maine is doing. It's what the group is seeing.

"I think what has changed for us is this new attitude, the idea that we can take this message anywhere and have people listen," Hussein said. "Before, maybe people would close the doors on us."

And they aren't just listening. They're reaching out.

Since Kubeloso's death, United Somali Women of Maine has seen "a flow of more people" coming for help with domestic violence. Some are looking for advice for someone else. Some are seeking help for themselves.

"Now," Mugisha said, "they're paying attention."

Women aren't the only ones paying attention.

About a month ago, Hussein spoke at a Maine church filled with African parishioners. Standing at the podium, she looked out at a sea of male faces and internally cringed at the message she was about to deliver.

The response was unexpected.

"After I spoke, I had a bunch of men shaking my hand and saying, 'Thank you. We need to talk about this. This is a problem for us,'" Hussein said.

A sense of urgency

But Hussein and others are still concerned. Even if more immigrants are looking at domestic violence differently and seeking help, the problem has not changed overnight.

Throughout Maine, advocates are pushing forward with their own projects geared toward the immigrant community. The Violence Intervention Partnership in Cumberland County, for example, recently received a $438,000 federal grant that will, in part, pay to train domestic violence advocates and victim support personnel who deal with immigrants, do assessments to gauge how much danger a victim may be in at home and hire a part-time sexual assault advocate for the Latino community.

"I think one of the things working with the refugee and immigrant communities that we learned is that it's important to go where they are. They don't come to your office," said Faye Luppi, project director for the Violence Intervention Partnership.

United Somali Women of Maine is involved in many of the efforts statewide in addition to its own program. Hussein feels a sense of urgency.

"My fear is this first generation, if they don't stand up against gender-based violence, then children, particularly boys, will have been groomed to be the next abusers," she said.

A year after Kubeloso's death, Hussein still thinks about her. And she thinks about the next woman who will be in that situation.

"I think the takeaway piece is there is help out there," she said. "It doesn't have to end this way."

For help with domestic violence

* The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233

* Maine's statewide domestic violence hotline, 1-866-834-HELP (1-866-834-4357)

* Maine's statewide sexual violence hotline, 1-800-871-7741

* Safe Voices hotline, 1-800-559-2927 (Safe Voices serves Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties)

* Family Crisis Services hotline, 1-800-537-6066 (Family Crisis Services serves Cumberland County)

* Family Violence Project helpline, 1-877-890-7788 (Family Violence Project serves Kennebec and Somerset counties)

* Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, 1-800-497-8505 (for victims who need legal help with U.S. visas)

* United Somali Women of Maine, 753-0061 or [email protected] (serving all immigrants statewide)

Or visit on the Web:

Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, mcedv.org

Safe Voices, safevoices.org

Family Crisis Services, familycrisis.org

Family Violence Project, familyviolenceproject.org



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