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Domestic Violence Agency Struggles to Stay Open

Helping abused women can be difficult when they come from cultures where marriage and family are supreme. It's even tougher to find professionals with the language skills and cultural knowledge to work with them. One woman has been trying to address this within her own community by founding an agency specifically for Arab-Americans. But Itedal Shalabi will tell you herself, it's been a fight.

The day she was scheduled to meet this reporter for an interview, Shalabi confessed that she tried to cancel the appointment.

“I wanted to spend the day just calling people and saying we need to talk, we need some support,” says Shalabi.

She was sitting at her desk at Arab American Family Services, the agency she co-founded with friend and professional partner Nariman Taha.

“I wanted to push you back just because I didn't want a lot of my voice to sound so monotonous and so down as the burden of how do we move forward is trying to play out,” Shalabi explains.

AAFS is in Bridgeview, the heart of the Arab American community. This was supposed to be the summer that it became more than just a grassroots effort.

“We were looking at institutionalizing AAFS in more of a professional (level) of Masters level psychology students, social work, business administration, program design,” says Shalabi.

Instead, under financial pressures, Shalabi's had to slash her professional staff, and increasingly rely on interns and part-time workers. The alternative, says Shalabi, was to close. But Shalabi quickly adds that closing wasn't an option.

“It's a growing issue in our community, domestic violence,” Shalabi says. “And more and more women are coming, saying what do I do, where do I go, how do I get the help?”

The weight of the issue lies heavily Shalabi's five-foot frame, because she says no other agency in the Chicago area focuses on Arab American abuse victims. Detective Sam Dajani of the Tinley Park Police Department agrees that it's not adequately addressed in the community.

“Eight years ago as a new police officer I wasn't really seeing lot of calls at households that are of Arab or Middle Eastern background,” says Dajani. “And I can just tell you that as years went by, the call volume has risen.”

Dajani says there's nothing to suggest that domestic violence is a bigger problem with Arab Americans than it is with any other population. But he notes that other communities are addressing the problem in a way that Arab Americans haven't.
“They just think that their problem is the only problem in the community,” says Dajani. “And they'll try to deflect the blame from theirselves as a family, to throwing it on the family service and blaming them as the scapegoat side of this, (saying) 'Yeah, this would have never happened if they would have never got involved.'”

Shalabi says it's true that people in the Arab American community blame her for making things worse. She says AAFS still struggles against the perception that it's a divorce agency, and that it encourages women to abandon their families.

“'Why are you telling the women they can get order of protection? Why are you telling the woman that she can go to the shelter? Why are you taking her to the shelter?' Those are the kind of questions that came back,” says Shalabi. She says she's often told by victims' family members that she should just advise women to be patient and pray for the situation to go away.

But Shalabi says things are starting to change. Some religious leaders in the Arab community have helped by preaching about healthy marriages, or donating money to help abuse victims start over. Still, she says it's not enough. “The community wants to talk about it, but doesn't want to get its hands dirty dealing with it. And this agency has gotten its hands dirty dealing with it,” says Shalabi. “I think if this agency needs to continue it needs to continue with more support from our community leaders, whether it's our imams, whether it's our Muslim organizations, whether it's our Arab churches. This is not a 2-people program,” she says.

Shalabi will soon have to reassess whether the agency can stay open. She thinks she can make it until the end of September. But anything beyond is uncertain. Unfortunately, September is when more women start seeking her help.

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