Manisha Singh described the first four months of her courtship with her former husband as "a total dreamland." Though thousands of miles separated her from the man she agreed to marry, he dutifully called her house in India several times a week from his home in the U.S.
Her ear would stay affixed to the phone for two or three hours at a time. On the other end, her suitor would spin sweet stories about all the things they would do once she joined him in America. She would be in a new country, away from her family. But they would have a fancy house, she would drive a nice car and they would be happy. He promised.
In May 2001, the man returned to his home country of India to marry his eager bride in a traditional Hindu wedding. Their families watched as he adorned his bride's neck with a mangalsutra, a shimmering gold chain decorated with black beads. As Singh traveled to the U.S., and eventually to Raleigh to start her new life, she wore the symbolic necklace like an American woman would wear a wedding band.
The necklace never came off—not until six months into the marriage, when, in a fury, her new husband snatched it from her neck, scattering the beads across the floor.
He was upset because he had overslept and missed a conference call, Singh recalled. Later, the violence escalated, and he would beat her because the baby was crying or because she had used too much oil in her cooking, Singh alleges.
"It could be any random thing," Singh said. "You never knew when he would come and hurt you."
Initially, Singh would walk around with black eyes, bruised arms and swollen hands. But she never told. She knew that among fellow Indians in the U.S. and back home, any violence she suffered at her husband's hands would be considered her fault. Worse, she didn't want to shame her family or bring them harm, common fears for women like Singh.
Slowly though, the hush surrounding domestic violence among immigrant women, including those from South Asian countries such as India, is starting to lift. Many experts attribute this to the growth of programs tailored toward recent immigrants.
One such program is Immigrants Seeking Safety, founded in August to help two growing populations in Wake County: Latinos and South Asians. The program is managed by InterAct, the county's most prominent organization working against domestic violence.
The need is evident. Wake County's Hispanic and Latino population has more than doubled in the past decade to more than 70,000 people, according to U.S. Census figures. And since 1990, the population of Asian Indians in Wake County has exploded by 642 percent to more than 15,000 people. A large portion of the diaspora lives in Cary, where a 2008 survey found that Hindi was the most commonly spoken foreign language.
The demographics of domestic violence victims in Wake also have shifted, the numbers show. Between 2004 and 2009, the number of Asian clients who used domestic violence programs in Wake County grew by 65 percent, while the number of Hispanic clients grew by 42 percent, according to statistics from the N.C. Council for Women/ Domestic Violence Commission.
During the same time period, the overall number of calls in Wake County increased by 123 percent, according to the same data.
InterAct has always had volunteers and translators who could help with immigrant families that needed it, but there was a better way to serve them, said Ritu Kaur, associate director of community relations for InterAct.
Now, through Immigrants Seeking Safety and new funding, InterAct has hired additional bilingual counselors and even an immigration specialist. Through the program, several service providers are also working more closely to support the needs of immigrant families.
For instance, a mother and domestic violence survivor can receive emergency shelter and counseling through InterAct, and if she's worried her abuser will withdraw his support for her citizenship, Legal Aid of N.C. could help her apply for citizenship as an individual. She can attend parenting classes through SAFEchild, and if she is from a South Asian country, she can attend a support group through a Raleigh organization called KIRAN, which works specifically with South Asian families. Almost every service she might need is offered in the same building, too: the year-old Family Safety and Empowerment Center on Oberlin Road.
In its first six months, Immigrants Seeking Safety projected it would serve 75 Hispanic and South Asian clients but actually helped 1,199 people with services such as shelter and immigration assistance. Of them, 97 were South Asian.
Singh found help through InterAct, Legal Aid of N.C. and KIRAN, which means "ray of light" in Hindi. She said it was a relief talking to an Indian crisis counselor. She knew that when she confided that her husband had ripped off her mangalsutra necklace or stomped her sacred Hindu religious idols, her counselor would fully grasp the indignity of these crushing acts.
"There are so many cultural things—minute things, but important things—that you can talk about," Singh said.
Before the establishment of Immigrants Seeking Safety, staff from KIRAN had been working specifically with families from South Asia, which comprises India, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Since 2008, KIRAN has helped 145 people. The group's staff, which is all South Asian, is equipped to help clients overcome many of the barriers that might prevent them from getting help for domestic violence, said Avani Parekh-Bhatt, co-director of the program.
For example, a South Asian woman who recently emigrated to the U.S. might not know what services exist, or whether they're available in her language. For other South Asian victims, the traditional hierarchy of the family would require a woman to consider others' needs before her own, Parekh-Bhatt said.
"Asian cultures are family-oriented," she said. "Your personal goals and wishes are expected to be subordinated to others in your family," which affects "your right to speak up for yourself."
A 2003 study published in a professional journal showed that of 62 battered women, the 20 South Asian participating women were more likely to seek help from family members than were African-American or Hispanic women. But family members of the South Asian women were significantly more likely to advise the woman to "stay in the marriage" than other groups.
Immigration status, a cultural stigma of divorce or a fear of bringing dishonor to their families keeps many South Asian victims from reporting family violence, Parekh-Bhatt said.
Women who have emigrated from Central and South American countries also fear that turning in the abuser might affect their immigration status, particularly if the abuser is sponsoring the abused woman's citizenship or threatens to get her deported if she reports his crimes.
There aren't many national statistics to contrast the rates at which South Asian women experience domestic violence to the general population in the U.S., in which one in every four women are affected. But one widely cited study of South Asian women in Boston in 2002 found that of 160 women surveyed, nearly 41 percent had been physically or sexually abused by their current partners, and almost 16 percent said they reported or sought medical help for their abuse-related injuries.
At first, Singh didn't seek any outside help.
"I thought, 'Maybe I'm wrong,'" she said. "I kept working on myself, but nothing satisfied him."
Singh said her spouse of four years would abuse her emotionally and physically, control her finances and even forbid her from calling her parents. Singh had few friends in the U.S. She turned to other recently emigrated Indians in her community, but soon the people she confided in started to avoid her.
"In India, society is male-dominated," Singh explained. "They judge the female, saying, 'What is she doing wrong.'"
The violence escalated, even when Singh was pregnant. In 2002, when Singh was close to term, she had to use the restroom while the couple was out. Visibly swollen and black-eyed from an earlier beating, Singh said her husband wouldn't stop anywhere to let her use the bathroom, and instead, he allegedly drove around for two hours while her baby pushed on her full bladder. She alleges her husband also shoved and hit her while she was pregnant, once slamming her head into a toilet when she was just two weeks from delivering. Singh didn't report these incidents to police.
After the abuse, Singh said her husband always became overtly sweet and attentive, a common scenario in abusive relationships.
The breaking point was in 2003, after the couple moved to Raleigh from Colorado with their infant daughter. A week after arriving in their new home, Singh's husband rushed into the bathroom and attacked her.
It was about 6 a.m., Singh recalled. She had stayed up late to watch for news about a hurricane that was supposed to hit Raleigh. She woke up and got in the shower, but moments later, her husband was in the bathroom yelling. The baby was crying, he said. Hadn't she fed the baby?
"My daughter was in his left arm, and he punched me with his right arm," Singh said. Blood poured from her nose, smeared across the bathroom floor and soaked into her bath towel. She called 911. He had broken her nose. Singh's husband was arrested and later court-ordered to attend two domestic violence education programs.
Singh said he also threatened to have his associates harm her family in India if she didn't withdraw her complaint against him. It was after that incident that Singh turned to Ritu Kaur and InterAct and quietly put together a plan to leave her husband.
"I was scared," Singh said. "How am I going to feed my daughter if I leave him?" she remembers fretting. She also worried about her immigration status, which was tied to her husband's.
As Singh formulated plans, so did her husband. Shortly after getting green card status in the U.S., the couple returned to India to see their families. There, Singh said her abuser destroyed her passport and evidence of her green card, essentially abandoning her and their daughter with no proof of her ties to the U.S. Singh said her husband's motive was to strand her in India. If she couldn't return to the U.S., she couldn't pursue criminal charges or civil actions such as child support or alimony.
Thankfully, she said, she had made copies of her immigration papers and left them for safekeeping with a friend in the U.S.—a plan InterAct had helped her devise.
After working with U.S. authorities for six months, Singh was able to regain her immigration status and return to the U.S. It took another six months to prove her daughter was an American citizen and to get a relative to bring her back to the U.S.—without needing the consent of the girl's father or being accused of international kidnapping, which she was risking.
Meanwhile, her husband showed Wake County officials that Singh had moved back to India and didn't intend to follow up on the criminal charges. They were expunged, and Wake County has no record of the crime, but Singh kept all of the court documents.
Once reunited in the U.S., Singh and her daughter, who is now 7, stayed in shelters for almost two years before settling back in Raleigh, where they live today.
"He thought it was a joke, that I was back," Singh said. She now tangles with her former husband frequently on matters like child support and how often he visits his daughter—but now those fights are handled by lawyers, in courtrooms.
With the worst behind her, Singh now tells her story to other South Asian women to show them that they can take on their abusers, live and speak freely.