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Domestic Violence in the Refugee Community

By:  Mary-Margaret Sweeney, Training Services Manager, Domestic Violence Network

Imagine boarding a plane carrying everything you own in the world. Imagine carrying it all, waiting in line to board, after having said goodbye to family and friends who you may never see again. Imagine knowing that when that plane lands you will be asked to start a new life in a culture and language that is unfamiliar to you. This year, approximately 60,000 people will have this experience in the United States when they enter as refugees.

June 20th is World Refugee Day, and in keeping with that theme, this month’s Advocates Group training explored domestic violence in the refugee community. Chelsea Davey, MSW, LCSW, serves as Mental Health Coordinator at Exodus Refugee Immigration, the largest refugee resettlement program in Indianapolis. On Tuesday, June 6th, she shared her expertise with our advocates.

“Domestic violence can look the same across cultures,” Davey told the group. “But there are key cultural differences we need to be aware of.” Some of the differences explored were the language barriers and need for increased interpretation services in our city, confusion of legal rights in the United States regarding domestic violence and divorce, and the sometimes insular refugee communities.


A husband and wife arrive as refugees in Indianapolis. Only the husband speaks English, and he is also abusive. The husband accompanies his wife everywhere, saying he needs to interpret for her, so the wife is rarely alone to ask for help. While he knows that she has legal refugee status in the US regardless of her relationship to him, he leads her to believe that if she leaves him, she will be deported.

A victim of domestic violence decides after years of abuse that it is time to leave the relationship. However, their partner is well liked in their ethnic community, providing help to newly arrived refugees, helping others learn to drive, and even serves as a leader in their church. The victim knows that if they disclose the abuse, they may lose the only community they have in the US.

A neighbor living in the apartment under a refugee family calls the police when they hear a violent fight taking place. When the police arrive and offer shelter to the victim, the victim asks if there is someone at the shelter who speaks their language. The police say they do not think so, so the victim decides that the environment they know, though violent, is better than the unknown, and decides to stay.

Many who attended the training are encountering refugees in their work, as more refugees arrive in our city. According to Exodus Refugee, the largest refugee groups in our city are Burmese (consisting of several ethnic and religious groups), Congolese, and Syrians. Exodus also serves a large number of Iraqi and Afghan SIVs, or “Special Immigrant Visas” who are granted refuge in the U.S. due to their service to US troops, for which they are now being persecuted. With the variety of people coming to our country in need of service, how can service providers work to serve each individual? “I don’t like the term ‘cultural competency’ anymore,” said Davey. “I don’t think you can really be competent in someone else’s culture. You can be aware though.” Davey also spoke about not being fluent in any of the languages her clients speak, because “Which one would I pick to learn?” Her advice to all service providers aiding refugees was the demand funding for professional interpreters, and to also ask the interpreters to help you with translating cultural norms.

If you’re working with a refugee client and are unsure of how to best serve them, our city has several resources.

Exodus Refugee Immigration

Immigrant Welcome Center

Catholic Charities-Indianapolis

Migros Aid Indy

Follow Exodus Refugee on Facebook for more information and updates as we approach #WordRefugeeDay

Written by Mary-Margaret Sweeney, DVN’s Training Services Manager