Imagine you have arrived in a new country, with few or no financial resources, no working knowledge of the culture in that country, and you can’t speak or understand the language everyone else speaks.
You’ve arrived with two of your children and you’re not sure when the rest of your family can join you. You have come from a war-torn country where torture, murder, rape, lack of health care, malnutrition and poor living conditions are “normal.”
You are afraid to talk to the police or anyone else who represents “the system” in your new country because where you come from, sometimes that means danger to your family.
Now add to that your experience as a rape survivor.
Maybe you were raped in your country of origin, in a refugee camp or in your new country. You experience similar emotional, physical and mental responses to sexual violence that others in your new country experience — lack of sleep, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Only in addition to all of this, your children are counting on you to navigate new systems in this new country, so you can eat and find a home. You and your children also experience trauma from your experiences getting to your new country.
Unfortunately, this is a common situation for many refugees arriving in Maine. New Mainers — mostly resettled in Portland and Lewiston — don’t have to imagine the above scenario. It is their reality.
With these realities, refugee women and children (and some men) need additional help and support to heal from such massive trauma. They need a culturally and linguistically appropriate response, which includes service staff who speak their language, understand their cultural and religious backgrounds and make them feel comfortable in their healing process.
In short, they need the help of people who have a deep understanding of their entire experience as a person — not just as a rape survivor.
It’s what we call looking at the whole survivor. It means that no survivor reacts to sexual violence the same way, and when someone comes from an entirely different background, country and way of existing in the world, those differences are even more apparent.
It means understanding that sexual violence is a global problem, a problem here at home and a problem with consequences that cross cultural boundaries and impact entire communities. The United Somali Women of Maine serves women and children of all refugee backgrounds, with specialized understanding and services dedicated to helping refugees heal from the trauma they experience.
The United Somali Women of Maine, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Maine’s sexual assault support centers, with the help of professionals from many disciplines (health care professionals, law enforcement, city and state governments and other social service agencies), are working together to create innovative responses to sexual violence experienced by refugees. This coordinated community response requires work and understanding of one another’s goals, but it also shares a primary goal — addressing sexual violence.
We are working to address this global problem here at home and working toward a Maine free of sexual violence for all Mainers — those “from away” and those who have spent their lives here. We can get there together.
Fatuma Hussein is the executive director of the United Somali Women of Maine. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.