Hidden pain 

The woman we'll call Asrar was just 17 when her estranged husband and his brother forced their way into her Dearborn apartment earlier this year. With his two young children in the room, the man raped Asrar while his brother allegedly pinned her arms down and covered her mouth.

Despite the shocking nature of the crime, along with the claim that her first pregnancy resulted from a rape by the same man before they were married, Asrar, after initially cooperating with authorities, recanted her story and sought to have charges against her husband and brother-in-law dismissed.

In that regard, she failed. Asrar's husband, 23-year-old Farej Alhayadir of Detroit, was convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in September. He is scheduled for sentencing Nov. 17. His brother, Raad Alhayadir, 27, awaits trial on charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and assault and battery. He has pleaded not guilty.

Although the specific circumstances of Asrar's story may be unusual, the case of this Iraqi-American woman represents a problem that receives scant attention: an unrecorded number of domestic violence cases involving immigrant women in the United States.

Many cases are complicated by language and cultural barriers, the victim's distrust and unfamiliarity with American police and medical personnel, and fear of immigration problems, say counselors and law enforcement experts. Among some cultures, a tradition of male domination and female subservience and women's reluctance to report or admit the attack because of the stigma associated with it also exacerbate the problem.

"It's never a black-and-white issue" says Andrea Harris, a counselor at HAVEN, an Oakland County agency that assists victims of domestic violence. "It's not as easy as, 'Well, she should just leave.' There are a lot of considerations that come into play as far as economics, the gender roles, the expectations."

Domestic violence is, of course, an issue throughout the United States. The National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in four women nationally will suffer domestic violence in her lifetime.

But the problem as it relates to immigrant women — both legal and undocumented — is particularly difficult to assess, say experts. Counselors, police and health care workers say many incidents of domestic violence involving immigrants go unreported and the rate is likely higher than in nonimmigrant populations. But they can't tell for certain because the data are often not available. Wayne County, for example, does not keep crime records by ethnic group or immigration status, says Maria Miller, spokeswoman for the Prosecutor's Office.

Some studies elsewhere have explored the increased risk of domestic violence for immigrant women. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported that "foreign-born women were significantly more likely to be killed by their intimate partners than U.S.-born women." The department, which reviewed homicides from 1995-2002, found that 51 percent of victims of intimate partner homicide were foreign-born while 46 percent were U.S.-born. (The status of the remaining 3 percent was unknown.) While domestic violence is present in all ethnic groups, it's a particularly stigmatized and complex topic in metro Detroit's large Arab-American population, says Joanna Ladki, domestic violence prevention coordinator for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn.

"I want to spread the message that we have a problem," Ladki says. "There are so many ugly stories."

ACCESS is beginning to keep some records. In 2005, about 250 women sought and received counseling there. And Ladki is currently analyzing a survey that assesses attitudes toward domestic violence in the Arab-American community and knowledge about laws and services related to the issue. With funding from Blue Cross of Michigan, ACCESS is also attempting to identify risk factors related to domestic violence in the Arab-American community.

In addition, ACCESS and other agencies are printing educational material in Arabic, providing information about cultural issues in health care and social service settings, and working to increase community awareness about domestic violence with programs at schools, mosques, health clinics and other sites.

Cultural expectations that women be subservient and traditions of not discussing "private" matters outside the family complicate domestic violence cases for immigrants like Asrar, says Fatma Muge Gocek, an associate professor in sociology and women's studies at University of Michigan.

"You have two value systems clashing," she says.

The case of Asrar highlights many of the issues associated with the problem.

On the evening of May 27, Asrar was at her Dearborn apartment with her two children, one of whom was 14 months old, the other less than 2 months old. She answered a knock at the downstairs door and, when she opened it slightly to see who was there, her husband and brother-in-law forced their way in, according to police reports and court testimony. The husband pulled her up the stairs by her hair and into her apartment. That's when the assault occurred.

The rape that night was not the first she suffered, Asrar eventually told police. She alleged that Farej Alhayadir had sexually assaulted her about two years ago. As a result of that attack, she became pregnant. With the consent of her parents, she married him.

"I was pregnant," she said, explaining why her parents would allow her to wed a man who raped her. "They didn't have a choice."

Members of Asrar's family, all of whom were born in Iraq, declined to comment when contacted by Metro Times. She, too, refused to talk with us. Her story, though, is found in police and court records.

Asrar's 15-year-old sister, who was in the shower when the May assault began, emerged to see the attack. The two men then left. The sister phoned her father and the police. But Asrar didn't immediately tell the officers or her parents she had been sexually assaulted.

Neither did she tell the male Arab doctor she saw later that evening at Oakwood Hospital, where she went to obtain treatment for the scratches, cuts and bruises she suffered during the assault.

"He's from our culture. He knows this doesn't happen in our culture against your own wife," Asrar testified.

Asrar's reluctance to disclose what happened isn't unusual. Traditional modesty about seeing doctors of the opposite sex and the reluctance to discuss domestic violence within the Arab community can exacerbate the lack of reporting, Ladki says.

"People don't want to say there is violence in the Arab-American community," she says. "They do not want to say they're being abused by their husbands."

It was not until a female American nurse practitioner met with Asrar that she shared her story. The nurse collected physical evidence — using a rape kit and noting the scratches and abrasions — that corroborated Asrar's description of the attack. Mary Rubio, the assistant prosecutor who tried Asrar's husband's case, credits that information with the conviction.

As part of their investigation, police talked to Asrar again in the days after the attack. At that point she was fully cooperative, providing a multi-page statement about the assault that had just occurred. That's also when she informed police about the alleged rape before she married Alhayadir.

Rubio describes Asrar's case as being more complex and unusual than most domestic violence cases she handles. The victim's young age, the alleged involvement of family members in the assault and the traditional Arabic culture of the victim and suspect were all complicating factors.

"It did come out in the trial that this is shameful, specifically it's shameful to both people, the man and the woman, to be involved in something like this. It brings shame to both families," Rubio says. "That's something that she testified was specific to her culture."

Abe Atallah, an ACCESS counselor, says the police and courts' involvement in what can be considered a private, family matter can be confusing for people who have recently moved to the United States.

"This is a country of laws. In the Middle East, in many ways we have laws but families tend to still be the main resolver of conflict rather than the legal system, even as it comes to domestic violence and divorce issues and so on," Atallah says.

In some domestic violence cases, victims' fears about their noncitizen husbands being deported are well-founded, says Joanne Lin, senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum, a New York-based advocacy group for women. "If he violates a restraining order and if the family court or criminal court makes a conviction, that's a deportable offense," she says.

In some cases, men who have permanent residency or legal status in the United States have wives from their home countries, which can increase some of the risk factors for domestic violence, according to Ladki.

"Because he's controlling, he has a woman here. He doesn't want her to learn English, he doesn't want her to drive. He wants to isolate her," she says. Ladki has seen cases where men threatened to have their wives deported if they reported abuse.

If a woman's immigration status is dependent on her husband or if he is not a permanent U.S. resident, domestic violence involving the couple is even less likely to be reported, Lin says.

But one of the provisions of the federal Violence Against Women Act prevents women from being deported after disclosing abuse if they are married to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

"When God closes a door, he opens a window. This is our window," Ladki says.

When local Arab-American women do decide to seek help or leave their abusive partners, their options are limited if they need language services or prefer help within the community, Ladki says. The ACCESS offices, while providing a comforting Arab-focused environment can also decrease privacy. News and gossip can travel fast in the community, and women "are scared to death to be known for seeking help," Ladki says.

In addition, area shelters have limited, if any, Arabic speakers on staff.

ACCESS is increasing community education programs related to domestic violence as well as counseling for its victims. A men's domestic violence education program is beginning this year too.

Gocek suggests traditional values often associated with Arab culture are compounding the victimization. From Asrar's perspective, Gocek explains, it's possible the husband's imprisonment is worse than living with him. Whatever abuse she suffered, Gocek speculates, she doesn't consider it as bad as her current situation as a young, uneducated, single mother living with her shame and guilt related to the rape and the prosecution.

"Of course, how she felt, her violation and all that takes second place when her children are brought into it and the social pressure is brought into it," she says. "As long as she's surrounded and has to live within that community, surrounded by her family or his family and has the kids, she cannot afford to leave it. If she cannot leave it, how can she find comfort in the American legal system? She cannot."

All of which may help explain why Asrar was telling a different story by the time her husband came to trial in September.

At her husband's trial, Asrar recanted, saying she'd made up the story about the attack at her apartment in May because she was mad at Alhayadir.

Asrar's story changed again last week when she testified at the preliminary examination for her brother-in-law, Raad Alhayadir. Asrar said then she made up the story at her parents' insistence as part of their plan for the couple to divorce.

"My father forced me to come to court," she testified. "I didn't want to come to court and testify against my husband. Nothing really happened. ... [My parents] don't like my husband or his family."

Asrar and her two children now are living with her husband's family, and she says she is totally dependent on them for support. She drove Raad Alhayadir to court for his hearing last week.

Rubio says it's not unusual for victims to change their testimony between the time they report an attack and the trial, and it's sometimes difficult for victims — especially women from other countries with different legal systems — to understand why charges aren't dropped.

"Once it's reported, it's the state versus him. It's not her versus him," Rubio says.

It is the goal of Ladki and others to keep things from ever getting to that point. Through programs such as those being offered by ACCESS, the acceptance of domestic violence can be reduced and following that, its prevalence.

"It is the responsibility of the whole community," she says. "It takes time."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or ssvoboda@metrotimes.com

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