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Friday May 24, 2024
Social Service
Trying To Mend The Broken Dreams
Vol: 1 Num: 3    Summer 2006
Apna Ghar, the first domestic violence shelter for South Asian women in the Midwest USA, has been trying to mend the broken dreams of women and children victims of domestic violence by ably providing comprehensive multi-cultural and multi-lingual social services and shelter to them.

In a room behind a thrift shop in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood three women sit at sewing machines, learning the art of needlecraft as they turn cotton, silk and satin into wearable items. Talking quietly with each other and with their teacher, they create bonds and shyness fades. The women have much in common. Each has suffered physical and mental abuse at the hands of someone who should have been her closest friend and companion – her husband.

The women are clients at Apna Ghar, the first domestic violence shelter in the Midwest serving primarily South Asian women and children. Since opening in January 1990, the agency has provided counseling, training and support to more than 5,400 women.

Apna Ghar offers far more than a meal and a bed for the night. The program, “Sewing Empowers Women” (SEW), begun by community volunteers, is one of many offerings designed to teach clients new skills and help them cope with life in America.

“When clients have gone through so much trauma, trying to normalize their lives can be difficult,” says housing coordinator, Tejal Shah. “They’re living at a shelter, trying to go to school and learn English. Sewing is very therapeutic. It keeps their hands and minds busy, gives them a sense of accomplishment and makes them feel good about themselves.”

Women who live with abusers know finding assistance isn’t easy. When one is new to the United States, a novice at the English language and have led a protected life, the difficulties may seem insurmountable.

“We have a reputation in the community for providing culturally-sensitive services to South Asian women,” says program director, Kiran Siddiqui, “because those of us who work here understand the role of a woman or daughter-in-law in Pakistan or the caste system in India. Our clients don’t have to explain their culture to us.”

Getting Started

According to the U.S. Department of Justice report, “Intimate Partners Violence, 1993-2001,” nationwide during 2001 intimate partners perpetrated nearly 600,000 offenses on women, ranging from rape to various forms of assault. During 2000, 1,247 women were killed by a boyfriend or by a current or former spouse.

“Domestic violence is a stigma all over the world and in every possible lifestyle and profession,” says Aparna Sen, Apna Ghar’s executive director. “It cuts across all financial and cultural lines. It’s a myth that it doesn’t happen in the South Asian community.”

In 1987 Kanta Khipple was well aware of the situation. As a therapist at Asian Human Services in Chicago she encountered women whose physical complaints she suspected masked other problems.

“I asked them if their husbands were sympathetic,” Khipple says. “They answered that their husbands didn’t bother about them. I could see the anger and concern behind that. Eventually some began to admit that their husbands hit them or didn’t allow them to work outside their homes.”

In Chicago at that time, six mainstream shelters welcomed women of all backgrounds. However, Khipple’s research showed that South Asian women living in the USA often felt uncomfortable. Helping in the kitchen might mean handling beef, a taboo for Hindus, and lighting incense might be looked on as strange. Most South Asian women left after only a few days at these shelters.

So, with help from friends and associates, Khipple opened Apna Ghar in 1990. The name means “our home.”

“Apna Ghar is breaking the silence among battered Asian women in America,” says Vickii Coffey, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network. “It is helping to provide a network of places of safety, refuge and solace to immigrant battered women who face a double layer of fear – fear of abuse and being hurt, plus the fear of deportation.”

Domestic Violence Takes Many Forms

Domestic violence isn’t always associated with physical abuse, Siddiqui says. Men traumatize their wives by preventing them from getting an education or a job; blocking contact with their families; controlling household finances; and threatening to send them back to their home countries without their children.

“The abuse includes isolating the woman and having complete power over her,” Siddiqui says. “Plus emotional abuse such as constantly asking for more dowry or telling the wife, `My parents forced me to marry you,’ or ‘You’re not pretty enough’.”

Often women stay with abusers, saying to themselves, “Yes, he’s abusing me, but he’s taking care of the children. I’ll just suffer in silence because my children are going to school; have a roof over their heads and food on the table.”

The situation has to be dire for a woman with children to call Apna Ghar, Siddiqui says. Those who do call have exhausted all means of mediation and reconciliation.

“The abuse has probably escalated to the point where it’s a threat to her life,” Siddiqui says. “Or the abuser has transferred his attention to the children, as we know happens 60 percent of the time.”

Women who leave their abusers can move with their children into Apna Ghar’s 12-bed shelter for up to 120 days. From the shelter, clients can move to one of seven transitional housing apartments for a period of 18-to-24 months. Then they move to independent housing. “There’s no time limit on our services,” Siddiqui says, “We see each woman through until she’s received all the services that she wanted or needed on day-one.”

Agency services also are open to non-residents who make up about 70 percent of Apna Ghar’s clients. Originally a majority of clients were South Asians. Today clients from a broad range of backgrounds are helped by staff members who speak many languages, including Russian, Korean, Polish, Persian and Arabic.

Finding Their Way

Apna Ghar also helps women with legal problems such as obtaining orders of protection and divorces, and determining their immigration status. Often women have no idea what their status is. For example, a husband who is a U.S. citizen may petition for his spouse to join him. She arrives and six months later, the abuse begins. Part of that abuse is a refusal to reveal her status. The woman turns to Apna Ghar for help when her visa is about to expire.

Apna Ghar connects women seeking legal help with immigration attorneys and legal aid agencies like Chicago Legal Clinic, Inc., which provide services, as do other lawyers, pro bono. The Freedom of Information Act and the Violence Against Women Act both aid clients in determining their status. Unfortunately, there are situations without legal remedies. Women who cannot be approved as legal residents have the choice of remaining undocumented or returning to their countries.

“If they go back, a lot of issues come up including shame and embarrassment,” says community advocate, Anviksha Kalscheur. “They may be ostracized from their communities because it is seen as their fault. In some cases it can be really bad, and in extreme cases it’s possible that a woman may be killed.”

The Waiting Game

While they await resolution of their status, clients study English, receive counseling and participate in agency programs. For example, the Apna Ghar thrift shop, NeUsed Closet, offers an eight-hour-a-week, eight-week training course. Clients are taught to work a cash register, and maintain and clean the store. They learn merchandising and customer service techniques. A single part-time, six-month sales associate position is available to a client who has completed the coursework.

“Some immigrant clients may never have worked in this country,” Shah says. “This gives them the opportunity to experience the American workforce and see how things are done in America.”

Similarly in the SEW program, clients learn skills that may help them succeed in the workplace. During training they practice on donated items, turning them into dresses, shirts and pants for themselves and their children. As their skills increase, some chose to earn a bit of money creating purses, aprons and pillow covers sold at NeUsed and online. Shops in Chicago’s South Asian neighborhood have hired SEW program graduates to do alterations specific to the South Asian community.


Apna Ghar’s staff and a group of about 100 volunteers continue to work with immigrant women. Today agency founder Khipple – whom staff members respectfully call Kantaji – serves as an alumni board member. She is currently focused on developing South Asian Seniors House of Peace, an independent living facility set to open soon in Evanston, Ill., with housing for 10-to-15 men and women.

“We were the first in the Midwest 16 years ago to provide domestic violence services for South Asian women,” Siddiqui says, “and we will be the first to provide residential services to South Asian seniors who are victims of isolation and abuse.”

Janice Rosenberg is a freelance writer based in Chicago, IL


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