By Natalie C. Holly and Soraya E. Denis
Melissa Bernier never imagined that she would be a victim of domestic violence, until she found herself in an abusive relationship. As is the case for many victims, her abuse began verbally and gradually escalated to physical assaults.
“I was in denial,” Bernier, who is a staff writer and contributor for Haitian Times, said. “From the outside looking in, my situation was a textbook domestic violence relationship, but from the inside looking out, I didn’t know what domestic violence looked like.
“I didn’t know if it was just me, if what I was going through were real issues, or if they were a lot bigger than what I thought they were.”
There are challenges in reaching victims, particularly those who are the most marginalized. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office developed a 311 hotline where non-English speaking victims can call in and ask immediately for an interpreter.
“I have a problem with that,” Ninaj Raoul, founder of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees (HWHR), said. “Just because a person speaks your language, doesn’t mean they always have the cultural competency that is needed.”
Raoul described an incident where a victim had finally decided to leave her abuser and came ready with all her belongings and children in tow. When she called the domestic violence hotline, the interpreter who answered the phone was a man, which, at that particular moment, was very scary for the victim.
“You’re giving all this information – your name, phone number, address, etc., to a man you don’t know and who may be your abuser’s relative or friend,” she said. “It can be scary and intimidating.”
Raoul, who founded the Brooklyn-based advocacy group worked with women victims of violence in Haiti immediately following the earthquake by connecting them to lawyers and counseling. Due to a successful track record, HWHR has been able to help connect NY-based victims of domestic violence to similar services. Raoul’s ongoing work also involves training initiatives for women interpreters, which includes cultural sensitivity.
There was a time when two or three precincts in East Flatbush were receiving several calls from Haitian households dealing with issues of domestic violence, she said. One of the things we were doing, was going into the precincts to talk to the victims directly. Since then, a number of large domestic violence organizations in NY have placed a “Haitian desk” with Kreyol speakers to address Haitian victims seeking help.
Many times, the victims in Raoul’s cases were educated women in their 30s, who finished school in Haiti and were courted by men in the Diaspora with U.S. citizenship.
“Often a man who is already a U.S. citizen courts a woman from Haiti and promises to marry her with the intention of following through with her immigration paperwork,” Raoul said. “When she arrives, the relationship turns violent and her immigration status is at stake, as he no longer follows through.
“When you don’t speak the language you are going to be more vulnerable to violence no matter where you come from,” she said. “Immigrant women in particular are at risk.”