'People are dying': Intra-family violence a silent problem in Calgary's newcomer communities

People working closely with newcomer families say more needs to be done to tackle violence happening every day behind closed doors in immigrant households across the city.

Domestic violence isn't just about husband and wife confrontations

In this 2017 file photo, a woman who has experienced domestic violence looks out the window of a shelter. People who work closely with newcomer families say more needs to be done to support those experiencing intra-family violence. (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

People working closely with newcomer families say more needs to be done to tackle violence happening every day behind closed doors in immigrant households across the city.

While traditional spousal domestic violence is talked about more frequently these days among immigrants and the organizations that serve them, violence between clashing generations of families living in the same households is still a taboo subject.

"It's a big problem and nobody's talking about it," said Saima Jamal, co-founder of the Calgary Immigrant Support Society.

"Sometimes I feel the non-spousal domestic violence cases, between parents and kids, brothers and sisters, they are even bigger than violence between partners."

Jamal said in the last few months she's come across more non-spousal domestic violence cases than husband and wife cases.

But it's a hugely sensitive issue among immigrant families to whom reputation and standing in the community is paramount.

"It's something that's barely ever talked about in ethnic communities but it's in almost every ethnic community," said Jamal.

Saima Jamal, co-founder of the Calgary Immigrant Support Society, says intra-family violence is often not as discussed as spousal violence, but it's also a major problem. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Violence among family members in the home can happen in any family but for newcomer families, as well as more established first and second generation families, there are often different pressures and factors at play. 

Confrontations between parents and kids, grandparents and kids and between siblings can happen for many reasons: everything from kids lightning-fast adoption of Canadian culture to their new tastes in western music and fashion, performance and expectations at school, along with expectations around the family's religious practices and the languages kids speak at home.

Some newcomers aren't prepared for how quickly their kids adapt and change after arriving in a new and very different country. Some of the changes can be too much for some parents who were often brought up with different values in a very different society, and that can lead to confrontations and divides in the family.

"In a lot of ethnic cultures parents expect so much respect from their children because that's how it was back home and they find it very difficult for children to revolt against them," said Jamal.

Sometimes that resistance doesn't sit well with conservative, traditional parents who can sometimes resort to violence to exert authority at home.

"It's almost like a power struggle, who is the alpha male?" said Jamal, talking about the relationship between fathers and sons who become teens and then young adults, still living at home before marriage, often in large families.

"It's so accepted, physical fighting with kids, brothers and sisters fighting, the police getting called to the home regularly. It's not acceptable," said Jamal.

There are so many intense issues I've seen in the last few months it makes me wonder why aren't we talking about these issues more openly in our community?- Saima Jamal, Calgary Immigrant Support Society

Problems at home can lead some kids to drugs and the lure of gang life. That path from violence at home to violence on the streets is something Jamal said is all too prevalent in the city's northeast, where many newcomers settle.

In one case Jamal worked with a newcomer family where past sexual abuse at the hands of relatives was an issue for one man throughout his childhood. Still living with his parents at home, it was a topic they just didn't want to hear or address for fear of being judged by others, damaging family ties and bringing the family into disrepute.

"They loved their child but wanted to keep their family intact," said Jamal. "They would rather forgive the family members than take the child's side and that caused huge strife in the family."

In other cases divorce among newcomer families can lead to violence with conflict and tension becoming commonplace, often leading to violent confrontations and emotions that are never addressed boiling over.

"The child can be starving for love and ends up lashing out at the people around him," said Jamal. "That can have devastating longer term consequences."

"There are so many intense issues I've seen in the last few months it makes me wonder why aren't we talking about these issues more openly in our community?" Jamal said.

"People are realizing that it is causing deaths in the family. People are dying because of this issue," said Jamal, who added in some cases kids give up fighting and look for other ways out, including suicide.

Jamal adds there are a wealth of resources and workshops directed at the topic of spousal domestic violence but the issue of intra-family violence among family members doesn't get as much attention. 

Religious leaders have tried to raise the issue in places of worship but often aren't trained in counselling and still can't break the silence. Jamal said it's not enough.

Culturally sensitive sources of help needed

"There need to be more affordable and culturally sensitive places to seek help and I don't see any right now for immigrant communities," Jamal said, adding more tools and education are needed.

Jamal says a lot of people from ethnic communities don't traditionally access helplines and other ways to start talking about their problems at home. 

The unique family dynamic among newcomers and how to address violence at home is something that should be explored, according to the CEO of one of Calgary's leading immigrant settlement organizations.

"Some parents are working two jobs, some parents often fly home for different reasons and what we've recently found is grandparents coming into the mix who've been sponsored to take care of the children," said Hyder Hassan, CEO of Immigrant Services Calgary.

Hassan said the cultural stigma around mental health and family violence in newcomer communities is a huge barrier.

Hyder Hassan with Immigrant Services Calgary says the cultural stigma around mental health in some newcomer communities can be a barrier to people receiving help. (Hyder Hassan)

There are also issues for families like overcoming language barriers, housing and employment issues, inexperience with new laws and customs, discrimination, unfamiliarity with geography, schooling and even climate, all adding to the pressure and initial frustration within some families.

"We try to help clients through many barriers by providing counselling in first languages: Punjabi, Spanish and Arabic. We also use certified interpretation services for other languages," said Hassan, adding that help is available through other agencies like his.

"It's one of our top priorities. Everything we do in our organization is geared toward increasing a sense of belonging," Hassan said.

As well as family counselling, Hassan said they offer workshops on cultural awareness, parenting in a different culture, Canada's legal system and how the domestic conflict unit works.

But Jamal said the biggest challenge newcomer organizations face is getting families to break the silence and seek those supports before situations turn bad. 


Dan McGarvey


Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist focused on filing stories remotely for CBC Calgary’s web, radio, TV and social media platforms, using only an iPhone and mobile tech. His work is used by mobile journalism (mojo) trainers and educators around the world. Dan is largely focused on sharing stories from under-reported communities and groups in Calgary and southern Alberta. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at