Syrian refugee women coming forward with domestic violence allegations, group says

Every week, one Syrian woman comes forward to say she’s a victim of domestic abuse, a Toronto non-profit group says.

Activists say for many refugee women, it can be nearly 'impossible' to leave abusive situations

Settlement counsellor Lubna Shaban has worked with several Syrian refugee women who have told her they've experienced domestic violence. (CBC)

Every week, one Syrian woman comes forward to say she's a victim of domestic abuse, a Toronto non-profit group says.

More than 25,000 refugees from Syria have fled the civil war in that country and settled in Canada, with many arriving during the winter months. Now, representatives from the Arab Community Centre of Toronto say many are speaking up to say they are living in abusive relationships.

Lubna Shaban, a settlement counsellor at the centre, said many of the women are scared to come forward, especially because their language skills are limited and they're unsure of the potential repercussions — including a concern that they may be deported.

"Many try to stay silent, as in many cultures," Shaban told CBC News.

"Even in Canadian society many stay in abusive relationships before deciding to disclose."

Shaban and others working at the centre hope the federal government, which has set aside nearly $1 billion in funding to help settle the refugees, will allow some of that money to be spent on social issues like helping families deal with and prevent abuse.

In some cases, Shaban said, the main issue is education as the men need to learn that they don't control every aspect of their wife's life, such as when they're allowed to leave the house.

The issue of domestic violence isn't limited to Syrians. In Canada, one in five women experience some form of abuse in their intimate relationship, figures from the Battered Women's Support Services group show.

Zena Al Hamdan, a manager at the Arab Community Centre of Toronto, said she believes many women are coming forward now that they're not in "survival mode" anymore and finally feel safe enough to get help.

Al Hamdan said often, women say the violence begins when their partner gets upset.

"That's a signal for the counsellor to ask questions," Al Hamdan said.

Al Hamdan said she believes the stress of settling in a new country — and associated issues like finding work and a place to live — could be triggering some of the spousal violence. In many cases, she said, the family's power dynamic is also upended by the move to a new country.

The violence that results, however, "is not a Syrian refugee problem … it's a worldwide problem."

The centre offers several options to the women, from helping them leave the relationship to providing mediation, but Al Hamdan said the final choice is always left up to the woman.

'It can make you feel a lot of shame'

Zahra Dhanani, a lawyer and activist, said this problem can be compounded when women are dependent on the men in their lives to get information.

"They don't know the legal realities," Dhanani said, adding many are also unaware of the social supports available in Canada.

Dhanani, who has worked in the anti-violence against women field for years, said while it's hard for any woman to exit an abusive relationship, it's extremely difficult for refugees.

"It's almost impossible," she said, listing the many risks Syrian woman face — from partners who threaten deportation if they divorce to contemplating living in a brand new country without money.

"With those kinds of odds it's not likely you're going to leave … it can make you feel a lot of shame," Dhanani said.