Immigrant women often face horrors of cultural, language barriers alone

February 27, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

Felicita Salgado's younger brother was killed in auto accident just three months after the Salvadoran woman, fleeing war in her native land, came illegally to the United States.

He was 26, a former engineering student who had preceded his sister to Maryland. His working-poor parents and siblings had great hopes for him. His death was the kind of loss that tears at the fabric of any family.

Mrs. Salgado was swallowed by grief. Visiting the hospital that morning over six years ago was confusing and harrowing. She knew no English. She was afraid that her illegal status would be discovered. She shipped her brother's body to El Salvador, and she was tempted to follow him home. His death in this strange country -- and her new life here -- seemed so unreal.

"I didn't want to accept reality," said Mrs. Salgado, who now lives in Columbia, works legally as a house cleaner and has two U.S.-born daughters. "Even now, I sometimes think that he is alive in El Salvador. And my mother in El Salvador has the idea that he is here."

How to help immigrant women, like Mrs. Salgado, when crisis strikes? Three dozen social-service providers from around Maryland gathered in Columbia Wednesday to seek answers. The program was sponsored by the state Department of Human Resources.

Help is critically needed, speakers said, because Maryland's immigrant population is growing quickly. Nearly 150,000 immigrants, mostly Latin Americans and Asians, settled in the state during the 1980s alone. As others join their relatives here, continued growth is forecast well into the 21st century.

Facing formidable language and cultural barriers, women immigrants must often cope with crisis alone. They often don't know where or how to find help.

Agencies often don't have bilingual staff who are capable of helping them. Little government aid is earmarked for immigrants, except for political refugees, who make up only about 10 percent of foreign-born newcomers to Maryland.

Mrs. Salgado, 36, never sought aid from any agency until her daughter, Ofelia, was born nearly three years ago. Now, volunteers from the nonprofit Foreign-born Information Referral Network, based in Columbia, help her navigate the health care system.

"When I came to Columbia, I felt very alone," she said. "I only talked with my husband. I was closed up in our apartment. I only went out with him. The language problem was very difficult. Sometimes I felt like my head was going to explode."

Service providers fear they fail to reach thousands of other immigrant women shut off from American society, particularly those who are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault.

"If you talk to Asians, they will ask you, 'What is domestic violence?'" said Sharmi Das of the Indochinese Community Center, which serves Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian families in the Washington area. "If a wife is abused by her husband, she almost never calls 911. She doesn't want to tell anyone. It is very rare that she will seek help. Culturally, it's very different."

Even an Asian-American social worker might need half a dozen visits to gain a battered woman's trust, Ms. Das said. Similarly, she said, efforts to educate Indochinese families about acquired immunodeficiency syndrome will often fail at first.

Stephanie Sites, executive director of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County, said the group has sheltered battered foreign-born women for up to two years while helping arrange for a new permanent resident alien document, or "green card."

"The green card becomes power. An abuser will hide it or keep control of it. The woman is literally helpless. If she leaves that situation, it is always over her head," she said.

With little government help in store for immigrants, advocates say they must convince private donors that foreign-born workers are a plus for the economy and deserve support. "If this population is going to be served, it will be you and people like you who serve them," said Frank Bien of the Maryland Office for New Americans. "Like it or not, these people will be part of your caseload."

Other strategies for helping immigrant women: employ bilingual staff and volunteers; train workers to be sensitive to other cultures; use established members of immigrant communities to reach out to newcomers and, above all, share resources.

"Coalition is the key word we learned today," said Heidi Hsia of Montgomery County's Division of Victim Services.

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