Interpreters help victims of violence in Missouri's immigrant communities

Monday, September 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:52 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 21, 2009

COLUMBIA — Some years back, a Somali woman came to Refugee Health and Interpreter Services at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis complaining about anxiety attacks. After the staff at the center coaxed the story from the woman, they knew she shouldn't stay with her husband anymore: He was selling her to his friends as a sex slave.

The woman, who was a new immigrant, took her children and went to live with a distant cousin. But she returned to her husband four-and-a-half months later because she felt she was failing in her role as a wife. The relationship didn't change much, and she left him for good after six months. This time, she took with her feelings of physical and emotional empowerment.

If You Go

What: Working with Victims of Violence in Immigrant Communities – Linguistic and Cultural Issues.

Presenter: Barbara Bogomolov, RN, BSN, MS; Manager, Refugee Health and Interpreter Services, Center for Diversity and Cultural Competence, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Washington University Medical Center, St. Louis

When: 9 a.m. to noon Thursday

Where: 212 Parkade Center, 601 Business Loop 70 W.

Cost: Free

Contact: For additional information, please contact Deb Hume at 884-3757 or

"I would love to see her some years on," said Barbara Bogomolov, manager of the Refugee Health and Interpreter Services, who recounted the episode. "She could become a strong community leader as well."

Bogomolov will conduct a workshop Thursday at Parkade Center, 601 Business Loop 70 W, on helping victims of violence in immigrant communities. She will be talking about putting together a coalition drawn from law enforcement, religious leaders, family assistance, and medical and legal communities to help victims of violence in smaller cities that do not have the resources of an urban center.

The women who Bogomolov's staff sees rarely come for assistance with domestic violence. They seek help for bruises or pregnancy assessment, or with complaints of starvation or verbal abuse. Sometimes victims, who are mostly women, report rape or are asked to have sex with their husband's friends, Bogomolov said.

"Violence or other abuse in the home is not something that is often volunteered without skillful probing," Bogomolov said. "You have to listen extremely carefully what the woman says or asks from you."

Interpreters strive to understand the cultural grounding not only of the abused but also of the abuser and the family's ethnic community while building the trust that will allow a woman to share her story.

The common approach to such cases is to devise a way to get the woman and her children out of a violent situation, Bogomolov said.

"But such approaches may not be applicable because often the woman will not leave the situation."

Bogomolov and the 42 interpreters on staff in St. Louis try to provide support for an abuse victim, such as finding a job for the abuser, teaching the woman English or helping get her children into school. Bogomolov said they connect to abuse victims in 79 languages.

But the multiple programs that support the Refugee Health and Interpreter Services, are not available in rural Missouri. Bogomolov said the state is increasingly becoming the home of secondary immigrants from diverse communities, including Hmong and Spanish-speaking people.

Marshall, in Saline County, for instance, lost its only interpreting service for victims of violence when Carrie Tyler came to Columbia to work at Centro Latino. Tyler says she had 15 to 20 people each day who contacted her for help in Marshall. Besides providing advice and helping find safety, she has seen five women through childbirth. "I am grateful to be for someone who is in that type of violent situation and not speak the language."

At The Shelter, a not-for-profit home for victims of abuse in Columbia, limited staff and volunteers havestrained the number of services provided.

Outreach Coordinator Kelley Lucero and her staff, 17 in all, have attended to more than 400 people this year alone who sought counseling and crisis intervention services. But one transitional residential home was shut down at the beginning of this year because of a lack of funding. That means 24 fewer beds for the community, Lucero said.

The Shelter has staff and interns who can speak Spanish and Mandarin, but Lucero said they need more volunteers to help to reach out to women in 20 languages.

"Victims will not read fliers on domestic violence in ethnic grocery stores or public places; it's too humiliating for them," Lucero said. "We need to reach them where they will be alone."

Bogomolov, who has 21 years of experience in interpreting and refugee services in the United States and Russia, hopes to train workers who assist victims of violence in rural Missouri during the workshop. Tyler said she is working with Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition to set up a support network for victims of violence in immigrant communities in Columbia.

A coalition of contacts in key service sections of the community is important for prevention and detection of domestic violence, Bogomolov said. Those contacts "can be a 92-year-old woman in the community who everybody respects," she added.

And it is important to do something now, she said, "before we have blood on the kitchen floor."

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