Meera and Anjana were exploring the impact of the pandemic on Domestic Violence within South Asian communities for an impact reporting fellowship at USC.
How We Began
We spoke with Narika, a 30-year-old, Fremont-based, advocacy group with 90% of South Asian clients connected to the Bay Area. They reported a threefold increase in Domestic Violence (DV) calls to their Helpline since the pandemic began and documented two to three cases of transnational abandonment a week. Most survivors were H4 dependents of H-1B visa holders employed by Silicon Valley’s tech sector. Victims face domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, or financial exploitation from their husbands and in-laws. Once they are deliberately removed from the US, these disposable women lose legal protections, rights to their homes, finances and even children.
While the success of South Asians in the Silicon Valley tech sector gets a lot of ink, not much is written or known about the spouses of these tech workers who come on dependent visas. We decided to explore this phenomenon – and launched the Desi Dost Project.
Domestic Violence is a Taboo Subject
The patriarchal nature of South Asian culture suffocates open discourse on these taboo topics. DV survivors, mainly women, endure the trauma of domestic violence without support from their family or community. The fact that over 24 DV agencies operate in the U.S. to support South Asian survivors, is a telling reminder that DV taints our community, and that women continue to stay in abusive situations because ‘log kya kahenge’ — what will people say?
Initially, that’s what drove our reporting. What would people say if we asked our community why they don’t step up when our men abandon our women? Would survivors tell us the truth if we asked why they stayed in abusive relationships? We intended to explore the dynamics of domestic violence in South Asian families in a culturally sensitive way to raise awareness through honest conversations with survivors and advocates. But when our research into transnational abandonment in the U.S. produced only a few academic studies and no media coverage, it became the focus of our investigation.
We began conversations with survivors, caseworkers, therapists, academics, and advocates, then added family law experts and immigration lawyers to the roster. Our research expanded to review both US and Indian legal implications for abandoned foreign nationals. We examined the aftermath of abandonment — what happens to survivors battling legal systems in two countries, India and the U.S. Without adequate support networks or access to legal or financial resources, they fall through the cracks between family law court and immigration court, because the two courts don’t talk to each other. We searched for solutions to address patterns of violence, abandonment, and resources for survivors.
It was a huge learning curve.
Over four months, we interviewed 9 survivors and 12 experts over 5 months to build a clear picture of the issue and identified legal solutions (U Visas and VAWA provisions) to address abandonment issues and resources for survivors. Some became amazing allies — Bindu Fernandes at Narika, immigration lawyer Shah Peerally, family law experts Dorchen Leidholt and Carolien Hardenbol at Sanctuary for Families and Mona Kafeel of Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation. They supplied information, clarified legal complexities, and introduced us to their networks. Tanya Momi, a survivor and artist, shared her artwork for free.
Getting to this point has taken commitment. From July through October, we recorded three deeply personal stories from survivors for a unique storytelling project Chai with Sahelis – audio stories told by survivors in their own voices. We also published two in-depth articles on the dynamics of DV, transnational abandonment and the impact of dual jurisdictions on immigration and child custody.
The most innovative and impactful community engagement piece was celebrating “Chai With Sahelis” with survivors at Narika’s offices in Fremont.
We gave each survivor a $500 stipend and a candle embellished with a Desi Dost sticker. We organized an art project — a canvas on which survivors and their children wrote messages of hope, for Narika to exhibit in their office.
Some findings were disheartening. One unedifying truth that emerged in “Chai with Sahelis: (sisterhood) was the glaring lack of solidarity among the female family and friends that survivors turned to for help.
Rennu Dillon, featured in the audio story “It’s Not Just a Thappad,” said friends asked her, “Why are you leaving him? Sab aadmi aise karthe hain (all men do this). You have nice kids, a nice house, nice cars. Live with this.”
And though we discovered safety nets in VAWA, the U-Visa, humanitarian parole, and severely under-funded DV support groups, it became clear that there was no pathway to resolution in U.S. Immigration and Family Court for survivors stuck in the country without legal status.
But six months into our investigation, an exciting prospect emerged. In the next stage for our project, we will explore options that could help abandoned DV survivors and policy makers understand the chasm between U.S. immigration and family law courts We are thrilled that USC is supporting the next phase of this project
The DesiDost Project is a series on the impact of domestic abuse and transnational abandonment in the South Asian community, supported by the USC Center for Health Journalism in partnership with Desi Collective, Narika, and India Currents.