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“Shimtuh” brings help to abused Korean women

on December 15, 2008


Though she is a domestic violence advocate for the Korean community in Northern California, Isabel Kang is used to getting calls for help—in Korean — from all over the United States.

“Nebraska,” she says. “Arizona. In Chicago, I worked with one woman who called once a month from a small town in Indiana — for two years — helping to plan her escape.”

Painting by Korean artist Young Kim

Painting by Korean artist Yong Nim

That woman made it, Kang says. “The woman worked with her husband at the same family business, so she had to find a time when he wasn’t around to round up her two kids, gather her important documents, and get on the Greyhound bus to Chicago — all before he discovered where she went,” Kang says. To make matters worse, she adds, the husband had driven over her foot not long before the day of her planned escape, so she had difficulty walking, as her foot was broken. When the woman arrived in Chicago at 10 pm that evening, Kang was waiting at the bus depot, and quickly drove her and her children to a women’s shelter. But even though she escaped successfully, Kang says that the woman continued to fear her husband would find her.

The fact that women call these domestic violence helplines from so far away, Kang says, shows how few services are available to meet the needs of non-English speaking Korean women experiencing domestic violence –physical or emotional abuse, rape, stalking, or intimidation. “Domestic violence is an undeclared war within our homes,” Kang says.

Kang works at Shimtuh (“resting place” in Korean), a domestic violence and sexual assault program based at the Korean Community Center of the East Bay (KCCEB). Located between a string of Korean sushi, noodle, and barbeque restaurants in Oakland’s Temescal district, the Korean center is a multi-service organization that also provides citizenship and immigration help and promotes civic participation.

An energetic and slim woman who wears modern, dark-framed glasses and looks ten years younger than her 49 years, Kang is quick to smile and laugh, but transitions to a more serious tone as she talks about the nature of her work. A typical day for her includes counseling women on Shimtuh’s helpline, meeting with women to talk about the options and services available to them, and serving as a liaison and interpreter. “Most of them don’t know how to navigate the system,” she says, “especially those who are first-generation immigrants.”

She usually juggles several cases at once, often clicking back and forth between one phone line to the next for a good portion of the day, rarely getting a chance to eat lunch or grab a cup of coffee. Sometimes she goes with her clients to legal hearings; Kang says one of the hazards of their not speaking English is that the women themselves may end up facing arrest as perpetrators in domestic violence cases. “The greatest reason why the women have been wrongfully arrested is because the legal and criminal justice systems have failed to provide interpretation services so non-English speaking women can tell their side of the story,” she says, sitting at a large conference table in KCCEB’s front office area that serves as the organization’s meeting room, lunch room, and reception area.

She tells the story of a Korean woman in Monterey County whose husband had prohibited her from socializing with friends, going to church, or holding a job. Not long after he finally served her with divorce papers, Kang says, the woman herself ended up detained by police. “She was arrested on an assault charge,” Kang says, “and was never provided an interpreter at the time of arrest. So the arresting office based his police report on information he took down from the husband, who spoke English.”

Before the pre-trial hearing, Kang says, she counseled the woman on the phone about her rights, since she could not accompany the woman to court and no other Korean-speaking advocate was available. Later, she learned that the woman agreed to take a plea bargain, agreeing to probation and anger management classes without understanding the American legal process. “Now she has a police record, which may limit her access to future employment,” Kang says.

Art made by the Korean American Youth Alliance, a program of the Korean Community Cultural Center of the East Bay.

Art made by the Korean American Youth Alliance, a program of the Korean Community Cultural Center of the East Bay.

Another case, Kang says, represents several she’s worked on before. “When one woman’s partner tried to choke her, she flailed her arms around trying to escape and ended up scratching his face with her nails,” she says. “When the police came, they looked at the scratches on him, didn’t see any marks on her, and assumed that she was the aggressor.” Kang says such assessments reflect the need for better police training on how to detect which person is the aggressor in domestic situations, regardless of the physical evidence. Such training is particularly important when investigating cases in the Korean community, Kang says, due to the language barrier many of the women face.

Not all cases end badly. Kang remembers one in San Francisco in which a man called a policeman to his house for help. “When he walked in, the man kept saying ‘Arrest her! I’m the citizen, she’s not,’” Kang says. The woman was trying to talk to the policeman in Korean, according to Kang, and by coincidence, the policeman happened to be married to a Korean woman. “The policeman called his wife, who acted as an interpreter,” she says. “The woman was not arrested.”

Domestic violence in the Korean community is underreported, Kang says. The U.S. National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly two million women are physically or sexually assaulted in the United States each year; a Shimtuh survey of Bay Area Koreans eight years ago found that between nearly half those surveyed knew of a Korean woman who had been physically or emotionally abused by a partner. “There’s a number of reasons why Korean women don’t admit there’s a problem, or fail to seek help,” Kang says. “Many women are afraid that their family will be broken up and their husband deported, which affects them, as the men are mostly the main breadwinners of the household. There’s community pressure not to leave the relationship.”

In addition, she says, Korean culture tends to make it more difficult for a woman to escape domestic violence. “Korean culture is patriarchal, making it the wife’s duty to make sure that the husband comes first,” Kang says, adding that cultural tradition blames the woman for being the cause of her own abuse, which can make her an outcast in her own community or church if she publicly raises the problem. “Everyone points to her as a home-wrecker,” she says.

Not surprisingly, abused Korean women can receive the most pressure from her husband and his extended family. She tells of one woman whose husband came from a prominent family within the Korean community. The woman had been battered so badly by her husband that she could not go to work for a month. But her husband’s family told her that if she went to the hospital for treatment, or told her employer why she missed work for a month, they would cut her and her child off economically. As a result, the woman chose to stay silent and recuperate at home.

Kang is quick to point out, though, that although such Korean cultural norms are problematic, they are not so different from many of those in America, if one looks below the surface. “Americans are always saying – ‘You’ve made your bed, now you have to lie in it,” she says. “It’s not just Korean women who are pressured into staying in abusive relationships.”

Another reason why women don’t talk about domestic violence, she says, is because they feel it would reflect badly on the Korean population to outsiders. “For an immigrant population that is already isolated in the U.S.,” she says, “they’d rather keep ties with their own community than risk being even more isolated.” Still, Kang says that Shimtuh’s domestic violence helpline receives anywhere between 300 to 500 calls a year.

Kang emphasizes that based on her 19 years of experience — eight of the last years at Shimtuh — no particular group of men appears especially prone to domestic violence. . “One group where we do see more violence is the home, though, is within military families,” she says. “Many Korean women come to the U.S. married to American GI soldiers because that was their only option to escape poverty. Most of the women that call from the small towns around the country are in that situation. Many times they’re the only Koreans in town, so they’re completely isolated.”

Shimtuh tries to help women within a Korean cultural framework, rather than necessarily going after perpetrators in court. “Automatically pushing for what seems to be the most aggressive strategy isn’t always the solution that’s in the best interests for many immigrant women,” she says. A man convicted of abuse may suddenly be at risk for deportation, she says, leaving the woman with decreased resources to support herself and her family.

Kang is a double immigrant herself, having emigrated with her family first from South Korea, to a Korean community in São Paolo, Brazil, and then to the United States. Before she was born, her family came to South Korea as refugees from North Korea. She says her career is rooted in a childhood experience she had at 12, when she saw her own nuclear family, by then settled in Brazil, take action to support an aunt whose husband beat her regularly. “It was different from how other Korean families reacted,” she says. “Instead of pretending that it wasn’t happening, my family confronted her husband and told him that it had to stop,” she says.

Kang credits much of her family’s stance towards her uncle to the strong women in her family – her mother, aunts, and grandmother. “They were my role models,” she says. “They gave me the strength to fight for myself, and fight for others.”

The woman who escaped her situation in Indiana is stable now, having settled in Canada, Kang says. But she notes that just as it took the woman two years to escape her abuser, most of the women she works with go back and forth several times, from the violent relationship to living on their own, before they can leave for good. It’s extraordinarily hard for an abused woman to move away permanently, she says, when she cannot speak English, doesn’t have the money to live on her own, and wrestles with Korean cultural beliefs that make her believe she should resolve the matter within the relationship itself.

“Every woman I have worked with has shown strength and ability to live her life free from violence if enough resources are out there for her and her children,” Kang says. “The women I have worked with have shown incredible courage under horrendous circumstances. That keeps me going.”

But Kang is realistic. “Breaking free of domestic violence doesn’t happen instantly,” she says. “It’s a very risky and painful process. Some do not make it.”

Korean Community Center of the East Bay/Shimtuh:


  1. Programs and programs on December 21, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    What is the relation if any between the Shimtuh agency and the AIWA agency (Asian Immigrant Women Association) also founded by a Korean-American woman and doing similar work?

  2. sadi on January 5, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    I,m a desprate woman with no family hear and no help or I,m not able how to use resorses .pls help also I,m iranian if any info in this pls send info

  3. AWS on January 6, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Dear Sadi. Asian Women’s Shelter provides services and support to survivors of domestic violence, and can provide support in many languages including Farsi. If you are in need of resources please call our help line 877-751-0880.

  4. isabel on January 6, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Dear Sadi.
    i hope you were able to connect with AWS. At Shimtuh, we don’t have the language capacity but if you are still in need of help, we can tap to other resources in the East Bay.Let us know. Our help line is 510-547-2360.

  5. Minsoo on February 14, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    I’m a recent transplant to Monterey County. I am trying to find work as a counselor, and I would like to know where there are Korean resources here so that I can help my community. I noticed the story about the woman in Monterey. It’s difficult finding a small ethnic community when you aren’t familiar with the area. Anyone have tips for me?

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