Mission Partner Profile: New York Asian Women’s Center

January is Human Trafficking Awareness month. On Sunday, Larry Lee of the New York Asian Women's Center offers a Moment for Mission at FAPC. In honor of his visit, we are republishing this mission partner profile, which first appeared on Sept. 26, 2014.

Larry Lee has something to say to the members and friends of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

"It's not just the poor. It's not just immigrants. This is a problem that affects everybody. Please get that message out to your congregation."

Larry LeeLee, executive director of the New York Asian Women's Center, was speaking of domestic violence, and the statistics back him up. Nearly a third of adult women have experienced a physical assault by a partner. Episodes of domestic violence, similar to those making national headlines in recent weeks, happen to as many as four million women every year.

FAPC has supported the mission of the NYAWC through benevolence grants since 2010. In May, a team of FAPC Serves volunteers converted a weedy backyard into a garden at the agency's women's shelter in Queens. Most significantly, NYAWC is now one an FAPC mission partner, ensuring a stronger financial contribution and a growing, collaborative relationship with FAPC staff and volunteers over the next three years.

Lee and his colleagues at the NYAWC recently welcomed the senior staff of FAPC for a half-day introduction to the agency and its efforts to help women and their children overcome domestic violence and other forms of abuse.

Get to Know this Mission Partner

The New York Asian Women's Center was founded in 1982 by a small group of volunteers looking to help immigrant Asian women suffering in domestic violence situations. The group soon added a hotline for women seeking help. The hotline -- a single telephone and answering machine -- was run by volunteers out of a supporter's office, with the phone hidden in a file cabinet during off hours. 

As awareness spread, hotline hours and language capabilities expanded. Today, the 24-hour hotline a pan-Asian population representing 18 languages and cultures. The agency operates two shelters (in Queens and Brooklyn), each with 20 beds, that provide a safe refuge for women and their children for up to 180 days. The women receive counseling, legal and financial services, recreational programs and a community environment that enables them to heal and re-take control of their lives.

About half of the agency's shelter residents are non-Asian. "We serve everyone," Lee said. "But we do have particular expertise serving Asian-speaking populations."

Eight in 10 of the agency's clients never enter a shelter. For these women, NYAWC provide a range of on-site domestic violence services (including counseling, legal assistance, housing, immigration and entitlement programs) through New York's Family Justice Centers. An Asian Women Empowerment Center in Elmhurst assists Asian domestic violence and human trafficking victims, and female victims of gender violence and other crimes. 

Eighty percent of the women served by the NYAWC have incomes of less than $15,000 a year, and almost all have a primary language other than English. ESL classes help to expand their earning potential, and assistance with everything from job search to budgeting enable the women gain financial independence.

A mentoring program, digital art therapy program and other resources are designed specifically for children who have experienced or witnessed abuse. A program called Project Free helps survivors of human trafficking regain their freedom and recover from trauma.

Every year NYAWC receives 3,000 calls to its hotline and assists more than 600 abused women and their children. Fewer than 10% of the women served remain with or return to their abusers.

The Role that Faith Can Play

"An increasing focus of our work is on healing," said Alena Victor, director of shelter operations for the NYAWC. "Not just physical healing, but emotional healing as well. We honor the role that religion can play in being part of recovery."

NYAWC counselors may explore spiritual issues with women and help connect them with a supportive faith community. When there is interest among the guests, Bible study classes form in the shelters. "We let the women themselves take the initiative when their faith can be a strength to them," Victor said.

"We get invited to churches a lot," Lee said. "They can be helpful in raising awareness and providing support."

Some can also be stumbling blocks. A pastor who teaches that it is a sin for a woman to leave her husband, for example, can challenge a woman's resolve to escape an abusive situation.

Confronting Human Trafficking

Mary Caparas, who manages the agency's Project Free program, encourages pastors and church leaders to get training that will help them "know the flags" for trafficking and domestic violence. "Women experiencing violence or abuse need hope, first of all," she said. "This is a way to give them that hope. That really matters."

Mary CaparasAn estimated 50,000 people, mostly women and girls, are trafficked into the U.S. every year. About half are from Asian countries. While sex trafficking gets much of the media attention, labor trafficking is "equally insidious," Caparas said. Poor women may pay as much as $70,000 to a smuggler based on the promise of citizenship and lucrative employment in the United States. When they arrive, their passports are confiscated and, under threat of jail and deportation, the women are little more than endentured servants.

In an effort to increase their earnings, some women move from sweatshop to massage parlors, and eventually into prostitution, where they run afoul of the justice system.

For these women, NYAWC's Asian Women Empowerment (AWE) program provides an alternative to incarceration. AWE provides wellness and trauma-sensitive yoga, ESL and vocational tutoring, and information on women’s health and immigrant rights. The agency works in partnership with the courts to help women regain their freedom.

"New York State has transformed its thinking around prostitution," Lee said. "There is movement in the justice system to recognize women as victims, not as criminals."

The New York Asian Women's Center provides a number of volunteer opportunities for individuals and groups. Interpreters and translators in Asian languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Japanese and Bengali) are particularly needed. As our mission partner relationship evolves, FAPC and NYAWC will create avenues for providing volunteer support to the agency's diverse programs. 

To learn more about this mission partner, visit them online at nyawc.org.
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