Immigrant, refugee women face ‘complex barriers’ when accessing supports to escape domestic violence

AP Photo/ Pavel Golovkin

Many immigrant and refugee women experience a lack of access to resources and a lack of knowledge on where those resources are located, which are crucial if they’re trying to escape domestic violence.

For that reason, the Immigrant Migrant Women’s Association of Halifax (IMWAH) is stepping up to help.

“Our organization has found itself facing increased demand for services from the immigrant and migrant women in our community,” said María José Yax-Fraser, chair of the capacity building committee at IMWAH.

She said this demand has taken the form of increasing need for support for women who have experienced gender-based violence and for women raising children with “exceptionalities and learning challenges.”

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But when it comes to women experiencing violence, Yax-Fraser said some transition houses, which the organization has been in touch with, “have directly contacted us to to find out if we provide services for specifically immigrant and migrant women.”

That’s because immigrant and refugee “women face very complex barriers when accessing services and supports,” according to Shiva Nourpanah, the provincial co-ordinator at the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia.

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The Transition House Association of Nova Scotia (THANS) is an umbrella association of violence-against-women organizations across the province.

According to the association’s website, it offers a range of services and supports to women and their families experiencing violence, including access to free 24/7 communal shelter and basic necessities, crisis lines and counselling and outreach services.

“We can’t say that immigrant women face more violence. That’s not the case,” said Nourpanah. “And to clarify, women in general, Canadian women, not-Canadian women, all women face barriers when they are trying to leave abusive relationships or are trying to escape situations of violence.

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Nourpanah said the main barrier for immigrant and refugee women is language. But also something as simple as dietary requirements can be a challenge.

“It can be something that, you know, need additional support staff hours and resources in order to be able to serve clients in accordance to their religious requirements or their dietary needs and cultural needs,” she said.

The other thing that can become a barrier to accessing support is immigration status.

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“Many of the women, they may have been led to believe that them being in Canada depends on them staying with their spouse who may have become abusive,” said Nourpanah. “That’s what they’ve been told.”

She said that’s not the case, and there is policy and legislation in place that can help women in those situations, but people are not aware of them because “immigration policies are insanely complicated.”

“There is a need for policy awareness of what’s going on in immigration. What are the rules? How can you help a woman who’s on a temporary visa? or have a deportation order? How do you help them? Who are the proper lawyers for that? This is the kind of (knowledge and expertise) that I think needs to be well developed in Nova Scotia,” Nourpanah said.

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She said there is a “very vibrant immigrant settlement assistance support scene” in Nova Scotia, but more needs to be done.

Nourpanah said the association is planning to offer cultural awareness and diversity training in its shelters, as well as foster connections with other organizations, like IMWAH, that are specialized in immigration-related situations.

“Fostering a kind of fusion of services is going to be a key part of our programming and training activities as we do see a rise in immigration in Nova Scotia and Halifax, so, sadly, we will see more and more of those scenarios (of immigrant and refugee women fleeing domestic violence) happening,” said Nourpanah.

“There needs to be like workshops and exchanges and training on how to best deal with them.”

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Currently, she said the shelters do have clients who identify as first-generation immigrants, asylum seekers or women on visa, but not in high numbers.

“Nova Scotia compared to other more populous provinces is still fairly homogeneous. And we don’t have the kind of diversity you see in Ontario or B.C., but we do see kind of a steady trickle of immigrant and refugee women showing up or seeking out services, for sure,” Nourpanah said.

IMWAH’s Yax-Fraser said the group will be launching two “women support groups” to provide financial, well-being and resource navigation supports for immigrant migrant women living in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

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According to the chair, Group 1 is for women experiencing domestic or intimate partner violence and Group 2 for women raising children with exceptionalities and learning challenges.

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“Social connection makes a big difference for immigrant and migrant women,” said Yax-Fraser.

“Particularly if you’re learning the language right, doing it face to face is important. But we also realize that people are at different stages in their integration into the community, so that’s an additional issue for them when it comes to the lack the support and access to resources.”

When it comes to Group 1, Yax-Fraser said the group is basically designed to support women financially because these women might be facing the risk of homelessness.

The two groups are being supported by two funders, the Canadian Red Cross and Employment and Social Development Canada.

“Women will be provided with, for instance, grocery gift cards, so we have funding to provide to secure their access to food so that women don’t face food insecurity,” Yax-Fraser said.

Part of the support group for women experiencing domestic violence is also the providing of therapy sessions to manage their emotional needs.

“We will have wellness stations, educational sessions, and particularly we will have an all-inclusive education forum,” she said.

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In the meantime, the association hasn’t decided if these sessions or support groups will be conducted virtually or in-person, where groups will be asked to follow strict COVID-19 health guidelines.

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Yax-Fraser said the program has space for 20 women, but could potentially include 40 women and their family if the need arises.

“We only have a limited amount of time before the program goes up to the end of March. We hope that we can develop another program, and we are in the process of looking for other resources,” she said.

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