On a residential street in Flushing, Grace Yoon works with survivors of domestic violence. While she may be helping them gain their bearings after surviving horrific situations, she said they provide her with inspiration.
Yoon directs the Korean American Family Service Center. She said that due to cultural and language barriers, as well as immigration status issues, Korean women in America often endure abuse without seeking help immediately.
“I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh Korean Americans are suffering so much domestic violence.’ It happens in every community, but we do experience particular barriers,” Yoon said.
Some Korean women wed their husbands through arranged marriages and are abused shortly after their wedding nights. Shame prevents them from liberating themselves from their abusers.
Some of the abused live in the United States without their extended families. “For women like this, just having someone to go with them to court means so much,” Yoon said.
One such woman told her story to the center in 2006:
“In 1953, when I was 20, I was married to a man whose face I’d never seen before. Early on in our marriage, he and his mother reproached me for not bringing a larger dowry. After that he held me responsible for everything bad that happened in the family. I was blamed for the heavy rains that ruined our crops and for my mother in-law’s various illnesses.
“When I told them I could no longer take their blame and abuse, my husband beat me savagely and dragged me out to a well by our house. Saying we were going to die together, he told me to jump in first. I truly felt no will to go on living,” wrote a woman identified as Jung Hwa. Hwa shared her story as part of the KAFSC’s project, “Voices A Collection of Personal Accounts Written by Domestic Violence Survivors and Witnesses.”
Hwa moved to the United States with her husband and continued to endure his abuse, longing to escape. “Then one day last summer, after he punched me in the chest so hard that I could hardly breathe, I finally did it. All I could see was, that if I didn’t go, he would eventually kill me. I called the police and he was arrested and I was taken to the emergency room with serious internal injuries.”
Hwa waited years to liberate herself from her husband’s abuse, but when she did, she turned to the KAFSC.
Founded in 1989 in a church basement, the center provides counseling and paralegal services to women who often do not speak English and are in many cases reliant upon their husband’s immigration status to stay in the country. Through the Violence Against Women Act, the KAFSC helps abused women gain green cards so that they can remain in the United States independent of their abusers.
The organization has even set up housing for survivors of domestic violence using grant money. Currently, four adults and four children are living in the groups’ apartments. The women may stay for up to 18 months so that they have time to rebuild their lives independently. Yoon said the amount of time is far more than what survivors are given at most domestic violence shelters. Additionally, many of the city’s shelters are located far from New York’s Korean American community, making it hard for Koreans to access their friends and support networks. “Being taken out of their cultural environment can often be another trauma,” Yoon said.
Since the center often deals with sensitive issues, its exact address is closely guarded for the safety of Yoons’ 35 staff members and 70 bilingual volunteers.
The volunteers receive crisis training and take turns manning the organization’s 24- hour hotline, fielding questions from the Korean community. However, according to Yoon, most of the calls are not about domestic violence. Some people call for parenting advice or for a variety of other reasons, she said.
Though the organization is expanding, Yoon said the KAFSC could always use more support. According to her, though Asians make up 12 percent of the New York City population, with 67 percent of the city’s Koreans living in Queens, Asian advocacy organizations receive less than one percent of city funding.
The KAFSC has its hands full trying to serve more than 183,000 Koreans in the city. In addition to domestic violence work, the organization works with low-income children through its Hodori (Little Tiger) after school program at JHS 189.
At the program, children work on academic and social skills. Kids who sometimes live in the midst of domestic violence themselves are able to receive one-on-one counseling. But it isn’t all serious; on Fridays the youngsters have fun learning taekwondo or Korean drumming, Yoon said.