New Brunswick

New group supports immigrant women vulnerable to domestic violence

The New Brunswick Immigrant Women's Association was formed to help women experiencing domestic violence. It's also designed to help women trying to fit into Canadian culture.

The New Brunswick Immigrant Women's Association also supports women struggling to adjust in Canada

From left to right: Layla Rahmeh of Syria, Nigam Khanal of Nepal, Jael Duarte of Colombia and Natasha Akhtar of Pakistan. These are some of the women who started the New Brunswick Immigrant Women's Association, a group aimed to help other immigrant women living in Canada. (Elizabeth Fraser/CBC)

In her home country of Pakistan, Natasha Akhtar found domestic violence to be a lot more visible than in Canada.

"I would see women everyday burned. Deliberately set on fire by their husbands and their families," said the former medical student.

"I saw it everyday and everyday I saw them not pressing charges."

She remembers arguing with families daily to prevent them from sending these abused women back home to their husbands.

"They would say, 'She's better off dead than she is divorced.'"

But in Canada, domestic violence can be a lot more concealed among immigrant women.

So she wanted to help and remind them this type of behaviour is not acceptable.

Akhtar is part of the New Brunswick Immigrant Women's Association.

Project 'a godsend'

The group was formed a year ago out of an advisory committee put together by the New Brunswick Multicultural Council to help prevent violence against immigrant women in the province.

"This project was really like a godsend," she said.

I was feeling that I was not getting my chance. Not getting a proper opportunity. But I had to live and survive.- Layla   Rahmeh

Akhtar said it's important for immigrant women to support one another. But that doesn't always happen, she said.

"There's almost a one-upmanship that happens between women from these backgrounds," she said.

"It's not, 'Let me support you because you're in a bad spot.'

"It's, 'Listen, I went through worse.'" 

Violence different for immigrant women

Ginette Gautreau, assistant director at the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, said domestic violence can be different for immigrant women.

They can be threats to take children back to their home country, threats of deportation, withholding essential paperwork. It can be preventing a woman from taking language classes, accessing employment or integrating within the community.

Immigrant women are particularly vulnerable to violence because of language barriers, social isolation, a lack of access to information or employment.

The immigration process alone can be difficult for women. It can cause stress, culture shock and a huge change in family dynamics.

But there has been little research to determine the rates of violence among immigrant women, Gautreau said.

Women helping women

The New Brunswick Immigrant Women's Association is made up of seven women from around the world, including places like India, Jamaica, Nepal, Colombia. 

They try to meet every month, by crowding inside an old brick law firm in downtown Fredericton.

The women also try to educate others through workshops on various topics that would affect immigrant women.

Although it has no official status, like a registered non-profit, the group wants to create a safe space for women to discuss different challenges they face.

For Akhtar, it was the feeling of isolation.

She moved to Canada with her husband 15 years ago. She stayed at home and raised her two daughters. When her kids were old enough to go to school, she planned to return to work. 

But she never did.

"I did not have any interaction outside the house except for going to the grocery store or the doctor's office," she said.

"It's like you're in this box."

If she could do anything different, Akhtar would have never decided to be a stay-at-home mom — especially in a different country. 

"I had no personal identity. I was just his wife and that was it," she said.

"That is very, very, very destructive to you, especially if you're from already a marginalized community."

Far from home

Although the group is designed to help other immigrant women, it's also become a place to connect and share their stories.

Layla Rahmeh is another woman who joined the group. She misses everything about her old life in Damascus, Syria's capital city.

She came to visit Canada in the summer of 2012. She couldn't go back because the airport had been bombed and there weren't any flights going in and out of the country.

War forced Layla Rahmeh to immigrate to New Brunswick in 2012. She says she's been forced to prove herself ever since and wants to help other immigrant women struggling to fit into Canadian culture. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

"I got stuck, seriously stuck here," she said. "I stayed and I couldn't get back to my home."   

The war continued, so she started the difficult task of beginning a new life in New Brunswick.

Rahmeh is safe, she's found a job and has made friends along the way.

But the process of establishing a new life for herself and for her daughter was strenuous.

In Syria, she worked in high managerial positions with 25 years experience. When she came to New Brunswick, she worked at a mall selling cosmetics.

Fighting to survive 

Whether it be at work or in social conversations, Rahmeh spent years trying to prove herself. 

"Every time you have to prove that you are equal," she said. "Every time you have to prove that you deserve a chance. That there's nothing different between someone who was born and raised outside of Canada, or someone who was born and raised in Canada."

 At school, her daughter was even looked at differently by other students. 

"She said, 'I would rather be dead than living here.'" 

Throughout those seven years, sometimes Rahmeh would try to ignore the struggles they'd been through. Other times, she would catch herself dreaming of returning to their old life.

Nonetheless, she's here. And she's here to make a difference for others. 

"I was feeling that I was not getting my chance. Not getting a proper opportunity," she said.

"But I had to live and survive."