Abuse in the Land of Promise

Esther Park, executive director of the Korean Community Service Center of Greater Washington, said she wants to work toward establishing an Asian shelter in Fairfax County where women can be assisted in a linguistically and culturally comfortable setting.
Esther Park, executive director of the Korean Community Service Center of Greater Washington, said she wants to work toward establishing an Asian shelter in Fairfax County where women can be assisted in a linguistically and culturally comfortable setting. (Photos By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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Thursday, October 6, 2005

The beatings started the day they returned from their honeymoon.

He choked her until his hands made purple impressions on her throat, she said. He punched and kicked her, and slammed her head against the car door, sometimes smiling all the while. Once, she said, he flew into a rage and ravaged their apartment, pulling her clothes out of the closet and smearing them with soybean paste from the refrigerator.

She told herself: This is my life. I must tolerate it.

"Even his mom and dad were aware of the abuse," the 30-year-old Korean immigrant said through an interpreter, the rims of her wide eyes red with tears. "They said, 'Endure it, endure it, you need to just swallow it. You don't know what goes on in the United States. You don't know anything.' "

With help from the Korean Community Service Center of Greater Washington, a social services organization based in Annandale that has taken a lead role in the region in assisting Korean women suffering from domestic violence, she was able to divorce her husband, get a job as a waitress and move into her own apartment. She is learning English and hopes to go to college.

The experiences of the Fairfax County woman, who asked that her name and hometown be withheld so her ex-husband can't find her, are in many ways typical of the estimated 1 million to 4 million women in the United States who fall victim to domestic violence every year.

In other ways, though, the Fairfax woman exemplifies some of the particular difficulties faced by immigrant women, domestic violence experts say.

Because she came to this country on a fiancee visa, her immigrant status was dependent on her husband's. She didn't speak English and was thousands of miles from her friends and family, furthering the isolation typically experienced by victims. And she was completely unfamiliar with her new country, not knowing how to ask for help or to even open her own checking account.

In addition, women from Korea and elsewhere also struggle with cultural norms that favor male dominance and consider domestic violence a taboo topic, said Esther Park, executive director of the Korean Community Service Center.

"We are not raised to express any distress at home or in family matters," Park said. "When violence occurs, women simply do not say anything. They think, if I do better, then some day he will not hit me again."

Last year, more than 1,600 people in Fairfax County were arrested on charges of domestic assault, a broad classification that includes violence against spouses, children and other relatives. Fairfax County police did not have specific numbers for partner abuse.

While research shows that domestic violence is prevalent in all communities regardless of race and class, some studies show startling conditions within the Korean American community.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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