Domestic Violence in the Old and New Worlds

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An Ethiopian-born physician works to prevent domestic violence among refugee and immigrant women in Boston. If you want to help these women escape abusive relationships, she says, you need to understand the old country's ways, as well as the new.


Dr. Meqdes Mesfin moved from Ethiopia to Boston in 1991. She works in public health and coaches new immigrant women from all over Africa in how to prevent AIDS and domestic violence. She's found that appealing to a woman's sense of independence doesn't always translate well.

Dr. MEQDES MESFIN (Cambridge Health Alliance): I first a woman I'll call Segei(ph) several years ago when she was in her early twenties, a married woman from Ethiopia. A neighbor she had coffee with noticed that Segei seemed unhappy and terribly anxious if she couldn't get home before her husband did every night. The neighbor was worried about what else might be going on. She urged Segei to come talk to me.

Segei told me her husband had been kind enough back home in Ethiopia. But as they settled into a new life in this new world, he changed. He started interrupting and snapping at her. He started hitting her if his food wasn't on the table on time. He also insisted that she not get a job even though she felt terribly isolated and had all the right papers to work. Her husband held tightly to those papers and her passport.

Segei felt trapped. I hear that sort of story often in my work. She was a woman, and to Segei in our community that meant that her main role was to keep her family together. The only solution Segei could see was she needed to try a little harder.

In Segei's way of thinking, if she left, where would she go?

If she abandoned her marriage, she'd bring shame to the family. Unthinkable. How would she face her mother-in-law? How would her father and mother in Ethiopia face their family and friends? I sometimes have hard time explaining this to friends from the United States, how it is for a woman like Segei. Here in the U.S., independence and individualism is so prized. But in many cultures, to base any decision on personal needs is foreign.

That's particularly true when you're talking about relationships. One afternoon, Segei found her passport and walked away from her husband and her marriage. After a little time in a shelter, she found an apartment and a roommate. She eventually found work. So what gave Segei the courage to leave?

She told me she finally asked herself, would my father really be proud of the fact that I've subjected myself to such ill treatments. No, she decided. He would not.

NORRIS: Dr. Meqdes Mesfin works with refugee and immigrant women in Boston. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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