Helplines offer a refuge for migrants, domestic violence victims

Helping migrant women escape domestic violence takes a special blend of compassion, skill and local knowledge. Qiuyi Tan visited one helpline tackling the problem directly and another that offers a listening ear to Asian New Zealanders.

Sometimes a single call can become an all-night affair.

Shirin Akhter was on duty at the Shakti Crisisline in Auckland when a call came through from a terrified woman. Her abusive husband was under a police safety order due to expire and he was coming back into her bubble the next day. It was 7pm on a chilly evening in August 2020, and Akhter was to spend the next 12 hours on and off the phone with the caller. “She was so, so scared, her voice was shaking.”

Since New Zealand entered lockdown to contain the outbreak of Covid-19 in April, the number of calls to the domestic violence helpline had spiked.

“She called every two, three hours, the whole night,” said Akhter, the helpline worker, explaining the importance of being with someone who has no one else to reach out to. “I was on the phone talking with her, 15, 30 minutes each time, telling her why she needs to leave, to give herself a chance.”

Taking that chance would also turn the caller’s life upside down.

That call for help in August was one of many that played out across New Zealand and around the world in 2020, when pandemic restrictions forced women to stay home with their abusers, turning the telephone into a lifeline. Details that could reveal the caller’s identity have to be suppressed for her safety, but she was a migrant and a minority in New Zealand.

A migrant herself, 39-year-old Shirin Akhter left Bangladesh two-and-a-half years ago, fed up with having to defend her way of life. “It’s very rare in my society for a woman to not be married by 30,” she said.

I met her on a warm Monday afternoon at the Shakti Crisisline office, set in a nondescript house on a quiet leafy road in Auckland. I had requested the address a week earlier, but it was only texted to me a few hours before my visit.

Shakti was set up in 1995 as a support group for women of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern descent, at the heart of which is a 24-hour domestic violence intervention service. From helpline to shelter, counselling, legal support and life-skills training, the services are designed to help victims of abuse get back on their feet.

The room is a cosy clutter of desks, computers and telephones. Three staff were on that day, all women. One of them is Simran Lamba, who speaks four languages: Hindi, English, Punjabi and Spanish. She has a smile that lights up a room.

The discreet office is also a drop-in and counselling centre for women living with abuse. The exact locations of Shakti’s safe houses for women who do leave their abusers, on the other hand, are secret.

If the abusive husband finds out, he’ll come for his wife.

A practising Vietnamese monk, a one-time Korean businessman, and a former Chinese policeman are at the Asian Family Services office in Grafton on a Wednesday morning. They are qualified counsellors manning the multi-lingual Asian Helpline, a mental health service for Asians in New Zealand set up in 1998.

“Most of us trained as counsellors in New Zealand because this work doesn’t really exist where we came from,” said Alex Wang, the ex-policeman.

Born and raised in Beijing, the 34-year-old helpline project lead is driven by the need for culturally competent support services for New Zealand’s Chinese and Asian communities. “If we don’t do it, no one else will, or can,” he said.

He dials the helpline on his speaker phone. “Welcome to Asian Family Services. For English, please press zero,” says a woman’s voice, before another repeats the same message in Mandarin, another in Korean, and Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Hindi.

Language is a significant barrier between ethnic minorities and mainstream support services, so it’s important to use the callers’ first language from the get-go, Wang says.

A big part of Shakti’s work is helping women understand why they have to leave, as was the case with the August lockdown caller. “She was afraid of bringing her young child to a new environment,” Akhter said, describing how leaving an abusive partner also means leaving family, community, and for migrant women far from home, their only known support network.

“She was thinking about the 10 years of life she’s had with her abuser, having to leave her belongings and the home she has built.”

Akhter was on the phone with the caller when she took that chance, nearly 12 hours after the first call for help. “At 6am, she said okay, take me out,” Akhter recalled. When Shakti’s crisis pick-up team went round and brought the woman and her child to safety, it was early in the morning. Akhter’s work, which had started the day before, was done.

The open-plan office of the Asian Helpline is brightly lit, but the problems coming through the phone lines are dark family secrets. Media have been here before but this is the first time a journalist is allowed to listen in.

The helpline receives about 200 calls a month. Calls doubled in the post-lockdown months of July and November 2020, hitting just over 400. Anecdotally, counsellors are seeing more people calling in with suicidal thoughts, but the numbers haven’t been crunched yet.

Fear of ostracisation by their tight-knit communities is top of mind for callers so privacy is everything, says counsellor Imsoo Kim, who attends to the helpline’s Korean callers. “I always try to relieve their anxiety at the start.”

People who are ethnically Asian primarily seek help from close friends and family, according to a recent survey suggesting that counselling and external support is seen as a last resort.

Only 29 per cent of respondents said they would seek help from their GP, compared with the national figure of 69 per cent. More troubling is the 14 per cent who say they don’t seek help at all.

A call comes through. An elderly woman asks for copies of the Asian Family Services calendar, a colourful two-sided A4 with lunar calendar dates and traditional Asian festivals printed on top of the usual New Zealand public and school holidays. “How many copies would you like? And what’s your address?” Wang enunciated in Mandarin. The caller was hard of hearing and said everything at least twice to make sure Wang heard her right.

She is one of their regulars who calls every couple of days. “I think she just wants someone to talk to,” said Wang, “but she probably has other mental health issues.”

For the women who call the Shakti crisis line, slapping, hitting, and kicking can be so generalised that physical violence is tolerated, even accepted, says Akhter. “Until it gets life-threatening, women don’t usually come out to seek help.”

The Shakti team is challenging this mindset in their daily work, which often means clashing worldviews on the two ends of the line as they try to convince callers that violence is never okay, and not their fault.

Asked if Shakti gets backlash for their work, Akhter went quiet for a moment. Yes, they are on the receiving end of criticism from patriarchal institutions accusing them of breaking up families and marriages, she says.

Ethnic helplines tread a fine line between Kiwi and Asian cultures on a wide spectrum of beliefs and values, connecting some of the most vulnerable migrant women to mainstream support services that they may otherwise never know about, but that can help change theirs and their children’s lives forever.

“We’re not against marriage,” Akhter said calmly. “We’re in favour of the right marriage.”

Back at the Asian Helpline, Wang talks me through the webchat messages that have come through that morning on his computer screen, most of them Chinese and English, some Japanese and Korean.

A depressed mother has just found out her husband is cheating on her. A counsellor called to follow up, but she couldn’t talk on the phone because family members are always around. Text messages sent to her went unanswered.

A young undergraduate who has lost his job is fearful his landlord, whom he lives with, will find out about his unemployment and mental health issues. He still leaves the house every morning pretending to go to work.

Another mother is bewildered to learn that her child is self-harming.

A one-line message simply reads: “Hopeless.”

Hopeless can mean any number of things. Anyone who sends a message on the webchat has to leave a phone number and email address, so counsellors can call back to find out more and determine their risk levels. They don’t always get through.

Like the Asian Helpline, Shakti has seen calls spike since the pandemic – up 25 per cent in last April and May. Averaging 500 calls a month pre-pandemic, they are a mere pixel in the big picture of family violence in the country.

Police investigated 133,033 incidents of family harm in 2018, or about one every four minutes. Statistics like these once prompted a foreign government official to ask Farida Sultana why domestic violence was “so bad” in New Zealand.

Call numbers are high because the system works, the Shakti founder shot back.

“Here there’s no pressure on women to go back to their abusers,” she said, explaining how some countries have family service centres dotted “everywhere, on every corner”, but counsellors send women back to their abusive husbands.

Women call, police respond. We’re not perfect, but it works.

Ethnic helplines serve communities whose problems may sound familiar but are often incomprehensible to people on the outside, say helpline workers.

Take exam stress, the immense pressure experienced by younger generations of Asian New Zealanders to succeed academically and professionally. It’s not something Kiwis automatically understand, but we get it because we’ve lived through the same thing, Wang says. “This is what ‘cultural competence’ means.”

Or dowry abuse, present in more than half of Shakti’s case files. Akhter has seen South Asian migrant brides and their families pressured, often for years, to pay a never-ending dowry to their husbands and in-laws, often working in concert. It can involve money for a car or a house, under the pretext of providing a better life for the bride in New Zealand. If the request is denied or the answer is deemed unsatisfactory, daily abuse occurs.

“People here ask, how can dowry abuse happen if you do not give it?” said Akhter. “How can forced marriage happen if you choose not to marry, him?”

On the other hand, their clients often don’t understand counselling either, how it works and why they need it. “The mindset is, I don’t need it because I’m fine,” she said.

“Many of our callers are migrants who do not know the New Zealand health system, and when referred to see a counsellor they ask, ‘you think I’m sick? You think I have a mental illness?’,” Wang said.

All routine questions for Akhter, Wang and their colleagues.

On the telephone, they are familiar and comforting voices speaking the languages and knowing cultural references of their callers. They have grown up witnessing and learning their problems by heart.


Shakti Crisisline 0800-SHAKTI 24-hours
Asian Helpline 0800 862 342 Call, text or chat Mon-Fri 9am-8pm

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