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A 31-year-old woman was hiding in the laundry room of her El Cajon apartment building. She needed help.

Her husband, 41, lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic and was taking out his anger on her. She called Dilkhwaz Ahmed, who works with refugee victims of domestic violence.

“It’s harder now because he’s at home all the time,” the woman said.

Why this matters

San Diego County has long been home to refugees. Now, with the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, some of those refugees are especially vulnerable to domestic abuse because they are more isolated, they don’t know how the legal system works in the U.S., and they don’t know their rights and options.

The pandemic has taken a toll on women who are sheltering in place with abusive partners.

For some refugees and immigrants, like this woman, the situation is even more fraught. They can be isolated and don’t always speak English well. Many don’t understand the legal system and local resources. And some fear getting help or leaving an abusive partner could jeopardize their ability to stay in the U.S.

“Our refugee and immigrant community is already one of the most vulnerable populations, even in the best of times, because they experience unique challenges,” said Stephanie Baez, a supervising attorney with the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program. “Right now, during this pandemic, those issues are magnified.”

Since San Diego County’s COVID-19 health restrictions took effect in March, the El Cajon nonprofit that Ahmed heads, License to Freedom, has seen an uptick in calls for help. Victims have tended to reach out when their situations are more dire, she added.

Ahmed said that in some cases abusers have used religion and immigration status to isolate and terrorize victims — for example, saying the pandemic is an opportunity to reconcile and that God will punish them if they do not cooperate. Or, she said, they threaten to send their wives back to their countries. Women also get pressured by members of their communities to stay married, she added.

Dilkhwaz Ahmed, executive director of License to Freedom, a nonprofit that helps refugee and immigrant survivors of domestic abuse, speaks to a client from her office in El Cajon, May 7, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The pandemic and the self-isolation that came with it have created a situation where women are stuck in close quarters with their abusers, making it hard for them to step outside, get a break and seek help, local experts said. And if they do get out and make a call, social distancing guidelines have made shelter beds more scarce, and both shelter beds and unofficial channels — a friend’s or relative’s couch — are less available as people keep apart to stay healthy.

El Cajon police and the Sheriff’s Department, which patrols a significant part of East County, both report increases in domestic violence-related incidents during the first two months of the coronavirus shutdowns.

Though the agencies don’t record if the incidents involved refugees, it’s well known that many refugees have settled in East County. More than 24,000 people born in Iraq lived in San Diego County in 2018, and more than half of them lived in El Cajon, according to census data. About 3,400 Syrians live in San Diego County, as well.

‘I need to get out now’

Ahmed estimated her workload has shifted from about 70% domestic violence crisis intervention before the pandemic to 90% now. In March, April and May, she had 15 new cases each month — up from 10 in February.

“We are at court every day filing restraining orders, almost,” Ahmed said.

The reports surfacing are also more extreme, said Claudia Grasso, assistant chief of the Family Protection Division of the District Attorney’s Office.

“Our hotline providers, they’re saying that they’re not necessarily getting an uptick in calls, but the calls that they are getting are more urgent. Basically, ‘I need to get out now’ type of calls,” Grasso said. She wants victims to know that services are still available, even if in some cases they are remote for now.

Ahmed’s office got one such frantic call in April from a woman whose husband had threatened her with his gun. The 42-year-old woman said her husband verbally degraded her and their children when they asked what he did with the family’s stimulus money, issued by the federal government to offset income losses caused by the pandemic.

The man, a security guard, grabbed his gun and threatened his wife and children. The next day, the wife filed a restraining order.

“I’m very scared for my kids and for my life,” she told inewsource.

She was one of eight domestic violence victims inewsource interviewed for this story. Because the women fear for their safety, inewsource agreed to not publish their names.

Help for domestic violence victims

To get help, refugees can contact License to Freedom at (619) 401-2800. Countywide resources are available in this regional guide. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is (800) 799-7233.

Click here for resources in Arabic.

For emergencies, call 911.

Across the country from mid-March to early May, about 5,600 people reached out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline and mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic, or about a tenth of all contacts.

“COVID-19 is being used by abusive partners to further control and abuse,” said Christina So, communications director of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Calls for help didn’t initially increase when the pandemic hit, but that has been changing as stay-home orders begin to loosen. “Survivors have been in close proximity to their abusers, and it may have been less safe to reach out for support,” So said in an email. A “small increase” in calls for help is starting as stay-at-home orders are scaled back, she added.

In El Cajon, police reported domestic abuse-related calls increased 14% in March and April compared to the same period last year, going from 362 to 413.

South Lincoln Avenue at Main Street in El Cajon is shown on June 4, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

For the parts of East County served by the Sheriff’s Department, including Santee, Lemon Grove and Rancho San Diego, domestic violence-related calls and deputy actions increased 4% in March and April compared to the same months in 2019.

Baez, the lawyer, said domestic abusive behavior doesn’t look different across cultures — it is about “control” — but refugee victims might have “cultural or religious beliefs that make it harder to break free from an abusive relationship.” Some households might also be on shakier financial ground but not be entitled to the same benefits as U.S. citizens, adding to tensions, she said. Most crucial: refugees’ isolation.

“The biggest issue is just not knowing how to seek help and not having anywhere to go,” Baez said.

Refugees need to know help is available

Domestic abuse hotlines have English and Spanish speakers but typically not speakers fluent in Arabic, Farsi or Chaldean, said Grasso with the District Attorney’s Office. The hotlines can bring in a third-party translator — but things get lost in translation.

“It’s tough when you’re not bicultural, when you don’t understand the culture and you’re trying to assist that victim. I mean, there is that added layer of difficulty,” Grasso said.

During the pandemic, Ahmed added, it’s even harder for victims of abuse to find temporary housing with a friend or family member, as people have limited in-person contacts to avoid infection.

Shatha Dahash, a domestic violence advocate, speaks to a client from the offices of License to Freedom in El Cajon, May 7, 2020. The nonprofit helps refugee and immigrant survivors of domestic abuse. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Most of Ahmed’s crisis intervention work is done by phone today, in Arabic. Victims open up about their troubles online and get Ahmed’s contact info through the Viber app, which some in San Diego’s refugee communities have been using to stay in touch during the pandemic. Then they call her — or, in one case, a victim’s mother reached out to Ahmed from Iraq on behalf of her daughter in El Cajon.

Once she connects with victims, Ahmed often has to educate them about things like restraining orders and their rights. In one case, she convinced a woman to get a restraining order against her husband despite the woman’s fear of angering him. As she hesitated, he filed one against his wife and took their two children.

The woman, from Syria, told inewsource that her husband has “anger issues” and was violent.

“He doesn’t have patience,” she said. “When the kids ask for something, he will hit. And when he hits, he hits so hard.” She has since met with an attorney.

Ahmed said she alerted county Child Welfare Services about her situation, but the children weren’t removed from the father.

“Please, please help me to see my kids. I want them,” the woman told inewsource.

Asked about the woman’s claim, a county spokeswoman described in a statement how Child Welfare Services responds to reports of child abuse. After a report is made, a screener uses a decision-making tool to determine if the report “meets the threshold for investigation.”

“If there are concerns regarding an investigation, CWS recommends first contacting the (Protective Services Worker) and their supervisor to discuss the situation. If the complaint cannot be resolved at that level, CWS has an Office of the Ombudsman that conducts independent reviews of complaints concerning policies or practices,” she said.

Ahmed did coax another woman to file a restraining order in April. The wife and her husband argued about whether to follow the shelter in place restrictions. He threw food at her — the breakfast she’d cooked for him, his favorite kind of eggs, the wife said. Then he pushed her to the ground, grabbed her by the legs and hit her in the face, she said. She sought treatment from a doctor.

When the sobbing woman made excuses for her husband, saying his mother was the problem, Ahmed told her in a recent phone call: “You don’t want (your child) to grow up seeing you being hit by her dad.”

The woman is pregnant with the couple’s second child, and their first is a year old. She hopes her husband will behave better. She is anxious about her future.

“I try to be fine,” she said.

With stay-at-home orders being eased, domestic violence experts are uncertain about what it might mean for women living in abusive situations.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline expects to see an unprecedented number of calls for help in the coming months.

And whichever way the trends go as society reopens, Grasso said she hopes domestic violence victims get help.

Create a domestic violence safety plan

Claudio Grasso is the assistant chief of the Family Protection Division of the District Attorney’s Office and president of the San Diego Domestic Violence Council, which works to prevent and reduce these crimes. Grasso shared pointers on how to put together a domestic violence safety plan.

  • Identify an area of the house where there are no weapons. If things start getting volatile with your partner, go to that place.
  • If you’re being chased, don’t run to where the children are, to protect them.
  • Have a phone with you at all times.
  • Have a code word with trusted neighbors or friends. If you say this code word, they understand that they are to call the police immediately.
  • Teach your kids to call 911. Have a code word with the children.
  • Have a bag packed with clothes, essentials and cash. Put it in the trunk of your car.
  • Park your car so it’s easy to get in and out. (For example, don’t park so you’d have to back out. That would be more difficult.)
  • Particularly important: Try not to wear scarves or jewelry or anything that can be used to strangle.

Roxana Popescu is an investigative reporter at inewsource. Her reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Ms. Magazine, Travel+Leisure, The Paris Review Daily and Newsweek. Her articles, about immigration, opera,...