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Helping Asian Women Live Life Free of Abuse

By BinYun Zheng for AIA |  March 2008

As a doctor, when Wendy sees bruises and cuts on her patients’ bodies, she sympathizes with them in a way that very few others can. She knows their pain both physical and emotional.

As a victim of spousal abuse herself, Wendy understands the importance of referring them to domestic violence organizations. The fear and shame she sees in their eyes are familiar to her. Like her patients, she's also tried to hide the bruises from an abusive husband.

Wendy is one of the hundreds of battered women who have sought help from the New Work Asian Women's Center (NYAWC) and having done so, have been able to start a new life. Founded in 1982, NYAWC was the first domestic violence organization on the East Coast to serve Asian communities. Some of the services provided by the center include a 24-hour emergency shelter and hotline that offers information on domestic violence in twelve Asian languages and dialects.

Wendy now lives in her own apartment with her son who receives counseling from the center.


Twenty-five years ago, the center began as a modest domestic violence helpline run by a group of community-concerned volunteers. With a telephone, a file cabinet and a borrowed office, the volunteers hoped to empower and provide support to battered women in New York City’s Chinatown. As awareness spread throughout the community, more operating hours and languages were added. NYAWC became the first organization to provide assistance to Asian Americans in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Hindi, etc.

To their surprise, women responded in high numbers to the helpline. Angela Lee, the center's Assistant Executive Director recalls, " We received calls from women asking why the helpline came in so late. [They said] the hotline should have been established a long time ago.”

Lee became involved with the center as a volunteer in 1989 and later became the center’s third full-time hired staff. Now, she serves as the center’s community outreach spokesperson, speaking to news media and community groups. She has trained police, officers, judges and members of the District Attorney’s office on how to work with Asian clients.


While women responded positively to the helpline, responses from other members of the community were less encouraging. Since its formation, NYAWC has encountered oppositions from officials in law enforcement, the legal system and public health centers, and social workers refusing to assist its clients.

The center’s greatest challenges came from the city's Asian community. Skeptical, they refused to accept domestic violence as a problem in their community. Several community leaders accused the center of breaking up families and disclosing the community's "dirty laundry." Lee comments the leaders went as far to say “Chinese women should obey their husbands and shouldn't complain.”

Lee reports that on several occasions, dead animal carcasses were found left in the center's shelter home's entrance. Lee believes the carcasses were left by residents accusing the center's clients of lowering property value and causing danger to their neighborhood. Despite harassments of the sort,  NYAWC continued its effort to assist battered women. 

NYAWC and Its Women

Of the women who have received support from NYAWC, the majority are Asian immigrants from different regions of the world including China, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Canada, etc. Most of them have limited resources and are qualified for Public Assistance, although many come from middle and upper middle classes as well.

The challenges these women face are unique because are newly arrived immigrants to the United States with limited English language skills. This, as well as other cultural issues, might make them reluctant to approach mainstream providers for help.


Helen Wu, the center's Outreach Coordinator and former Senior Chinese Counselor / Advocate (photo on left), shares details of one such woman she has worked with at NYAWC. A singled mother of two children, the woman had known few English words having been isolated in the garment factories, grocery stores and fast-food restaurants she worked in.  After the father of her children left her, she met and married another man who later abused.

Her husband did not become violent until few months into their marriage. The abuse began as he accused her of marrying him for his status and threatened her with deportation. He then began to scream profanities at her and rape her in front of her children. When he was not satisfied with the dinner she had cooked for him, he would throw dishes onto the floor and then force her to eat off from the floor.

Her husband also abused her children and restricted her movements outside the home. He beat her children with hangers and electrical cords and isolated her from her friends and relatives. Going so far as to threaten her employer, causing her to lose her job at a restaurant.

The abuse would not have been noticed had the teacher of her older child, a first-grader then, discovered the large bruises on his arms. The teacher contacted his mother and referred them to NYAWC.

Wu counseled the woman and convinced her to move to the center's emergency shelter. There, the woman received job training, took ESL classes, and was able to obtain public housing and public assistance. She also received free legal services for immigration and divorce. Her children received counseling and childcare from the center as well.

“Our ultimate goal is to enable [our clients] to become self-sufficient. We have strong ties to legal organizations and other non-profits, so [they can] obtain all types of necessary services with our guidance.” says Wu.

While pleased to help this woman live a new life, Wu expresses her regret that not all of the center’s clients can be helped. The center has had clients who attended the counseling sessions, refused to move to its shelters and stopped contacting the center because they were so psychologically damaged and so fearful of their abusers, says Wu.

Service and Programs
NYAWC owes its success to its staff, volunteers and other legal and nonprofit organizations within the community.

In addition to the emergency shelter and hotline, the center provides translation services and ESL classes to its clients and a children’s program called “Our Space” providing support to their children. The center also provides training sessions to police officers, government agencies, school and hospital personnel, and other social work organizations.

Now in its 26th year, NYAWC continues to empower and provide Asian women with the necessary skills and services to live a life without violence.

The 24-hour hotline is 1-888-888-7702 or visit NYAWC online at http://www.nyawc.org.


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