Newcomers vulnerable to domestic violence, while high-demand cultural services nearing ‘breaking point’

Holed up most days in an apartment, Priya watched as her husband swiftly took control of every aspect of her new life in Canada.

Her cell phone and passwords, all under his thumb. Any money she earned through odd jobs, all funnelled to his family.

It was 2018, and the pair had been together for two years after entering into an arranged marriage in India when Priya was 26.

The abuse began just days after the wedding. If Priya ever questioned her husband or told him, “no,” he’d kick her, she says.

Once, he pushed her across a room, breaking her hand, and didn’t take her for medical treatment for more than a week. Sometimes, he’d break glassware on her body; she still can’t hear the sound of glass shattering without feeling a rush of fear.

Educated and fluent in English, Priya easily passed a language test, and was invited to immigrate to Canada with her husband.

She hoped the move would mark the start of a new chapter. Instead, the abuse continued unabated.

One night, shortly after she was granted permanent residency, Priya says her husband attacked her in a frenzy — hitting her, slapping her, pushing her to the ground, forcing her to crawl onto a mattress on the floor while he kept kicking her.

‘You’re no use to me, so you can go die’

Amid his rage, he claimed he’d only used her to get to Canada, Priya says. And now he wanted her dead.

“You’re no use to me, so you can go die,” she recalls him saying. “And if you can’t die on your own, let me help you.”

Priya isn’t her real name; CBC News has concealed her identity and exact location for safety reasons.

She managed to escape that night, with bruises and a bleeding nose, and now believes she came close to being the 87th intimate partner homicide in Canada in 2018, the year with the latest comprehensive country-wide data.

“I went into a complete state of shock,” she says during an interview with CBC News. “Because I had no means of survival here.”

While domestic violence touches families of all backgrounds, ethnicities and income levels, newcomers are particularly vulnerable, and experts say targeted services need to be in place to link marginalized women with potentially life-saving supports.

Those immigrants, refugees and permanent residents make up a substantial portion of the population in the Greater Toronto Area, and particularly in Peel region, where first Priya settled after coming to Canada.

As of 2016, immigrants make up close to 52 per cent of the region’s population, and more than half of its visible minorities are South Asian — with most recent arrivals to the area coming from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, China and Iraq.

Those newcomers can face language and cultural barriers, lack family support systems, and may be highly dependent on their significant other both financially and emotionally, according to Samra Zafar, a public speaker, author, and advocate who also survived domestic violence in an arranged marriage.

“When you are isolated, and you don’t have community, and you feel a sense of shame and stigma, and your family is threatening to abandon you … it is so debilitating,” she says.

16 domestic homicides across GTA in 2019

Peel police say 2019 was a record year for family and intimate partner violence since the force began tracking it four years ago.

Back in 2016, there were no intimate partner homicides. Last year, police say there were seven in Peel.

More broadly across the GTA, there were 16 domestic homicides in 2019, according to a CBC News analysis, and all but one of the victims were women — including nine killed by their husbands.

While it’s not clear how many victims or perpetrators were new to the country, many of the homicides involved minorities, with eight of the victims being of East Asian or South Asian backgrounds.

One of those women, 27-year-old Tharshika Jeganathan, was on her way to building herself a new life after she left her ex-husband, according to people who knew her. Those friends previously told CBC News she came to Canada several years ago from Sri Lanka to be with him.

Her ex-husband, Sasikaran Thanapalasingam, is accused of killing Jeganathan in a brutal machete attack in September 2019. He’s been charged with first-degree murder.

Family lawyer Archana Medhekar, who works with domestic violence survivors in both Toronto and Peel region, says many new immigrants and newcomers to the country face difficulties when trying to get help for domestic violence.

“These women really feel that they don’t belong to this new community,” Medhekar says.

When their partners exert control over their day-to-day lives, cutting them off even more from Canadian support systems, they’re often left particularly vulnerable to violence, she adds.

Simple actions like opening a bank account or hailing a taxi can be nearly impossible, according to Zafar, who arrived in Canada as a teenage bride and was trapped in an abusive marriage for a decade before leaving with her two children during her undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto.

“Newcomers, they have no money, no access to networks, no friends, so where do they go?” she says. “For me, I came here as a kid, I had no friends of my own. The door was open, I could walk out — then what?”

Family lawyer Archana Medhekar, who works with domestic violence survivors in both Toronto and Peel region, says many new immigrants and newcomers to the country face difficulties when trying to get help. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

More support for immigrants needed, experts warn

Both Medhekar and Zafar say there is a demand for more organizations catering to new immigrant women so victims have the resources to escape intimate-partner violence — before it turns deadly.

“So many times women reach out to me saying, ‘My counselor doesn’t really get it when I say my father will die of shame if I leave my marriage,’ because they don’t get the cultural side of it,” Zafar explains.

Indus Community Services, based in Peel region, is among the groups trying to reach out to immigrant women. The non-profit has an intake process in various South Asian languages, including Punjabi and Hindi, where they ask about domestic violence history in relationships.

Gurpreet Malhotra, the organization’s CEO, says if someone is identified as a victim, the team offers culturally-appropriate support groups, services to help people navigate the court system, and English language classes to help them better integrate.

Samra Zafar holds up an old photo of herself as a new mother. She came to Canada as a teenage bride in an abusive arranged marriage, and now supports other women struggling with domestic violence. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

Last year alone, more than 1,400 individuals used those services.

“We’re getting closer and closer to a breaking point where we’re not going to be able to serve,” Malhotra warns.

And he stresses with a rising population — and victim counts showing no signs of slowing — the need is far beyond what many cultural organizations can support.

“We are seeing that turn into horrible headlines where women have been murdered by their partners,” Malhotra says. “And that is something that must stop.”

Gurpreet Malhotra is the CEO of Indus Community Services, a non-profit that assists immigrants, including domestic violence victims. Malhotra worries his organization is nearing a ‘breaking point’ due to high demand. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

‘At least I can breathe air’

In Priya’s case, she’s thankful to be alive, but she continues to face barriers as a newcomer who’s survived a violent marriage.

After she escaped in 2018, she took refuge with acquaintances and hid in a local gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, for days on end. In the meantime, her husband quickly deleted her WhatsApp groups and changed her Gmail password, she says.

Cutting off that access left her without evidence of his verbal abuse, Priya continues, and little means of communication.

Now 30, she’s still reeling from the trauma, and struggled to find work on her own in Canada, despite gaining a master’s degree in India. The job she has now barely covers her rent even with a roommate.

Even so, there’s a newfound taste of freedom.

After getting her first paycheque — one that went into her own bank account and wasn’t sent off to a partner’s family — she went to Union Station in Toronto and bought a bagel for lunch. She ate it in tears, a mix of hunger and awe at finally being able to spend her own money.

“At least I can breathe air,” she says. “I can breathe air without guilt, without headaches, without being assaulted.”


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