Breaking the silence on domestic violence in California’s Slavic religious immigrant families

Published on
July 7, 2021

Domestic abuse and violence remain topics considered shameful and disgraceful in many Slavic religious immigrant communities — not something to be talked about in public.

The patriarchal culture automatically blames the woman if domestic violence is happening in her family. Members of Slavic religious communities with conservative views are taught to obey the advice of their pastors — who are considered as honorable people conveying “God’s will” — rather than talk to secular authorities. This is partially explained by a long history of persecution of Christians and their total distrust of a ruling party in the former USSR.

Lack of information, open conversations and isolation make it difficult for these immigrant communities to realize how deep these problems affect families’ emotional, mental, and physical health. Even worse, a community may even stand up for a person who is an admitted sex offender or abuser just because he was a pastor in his community. 

Historically, Sacramento has been a destination point for thousands of religious refugees from Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and other countries of the former Soviet Union, seeking refuge from persecution in the USSR. According to our data, about 75,000 religious immigrants live in the Sacramento area, and over 100 Slavic Christian churches (mainly Baptist and Pentecostal) now exist in the region and have become the centers of close-knit religious communities, whose members maintain a conservative religious lifestyle.

After arrival to the U.S., many immigrants experience problems: They might not be able to learn English and understand their new reality; new social rules complicate life; and they might struggle to adjust to their new American life. So they live in isolated conservative communities around churches, which provide a link between the community and the outer world. Churches also help the newly arrived immigrants with accommodations, documents, furniture, and so on.

Maya is a domestic violence survivor, and a believer. She is sure that God saved her from domestic violence. She opened a healing center for women named Healing Salt. Maya thinks that one reason for domestic violence in immigrant’ religious families is a tradition of submission to a man; a woman depends on him and a man can do anything to her. 

“Violence ruins a woman to the ground, so she becomes nobody ... A woman always must obey and a man can do anything to her. On top of that, conservative pastors frequently say, ‘Humble yourself, endure. You have to forgive,’ she says.

So, under the pressure of these conservative traditions, women are taught they must endure the violence in silence, not reporting it to the police, living with the abuser, and putting her life at risk.

“A women is a God’s creature. She was given power and influence; she was not created to be abused and bitten,” Maya says.

A very small number of victims report attacks and abuse to the police. This results in a lack of accurate statistics in Slavic religious communities and makes it difficult to track the actual numbers of domestic violence cases. 

This reporting project, with support from the Center for Health Journalism’s Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund, will underscore the challenges facing Sacramento’s Slavic immigrant women within their families, as parishioners in churches and inside the communities they live in when facing domestic violence. It will also explore how members of this immigrant community are also finding ways to build resilience and support each other while challenging religious beliefs and customs.