“Domestic violence is looked at differently in our culture,” said one woman from Africa. “If a girl is getting married, she has to be a virgin or she will be degraded,” said another from the Middle East.

Harrowing stories of partner violence, shaming of rape victims, children who have been sexually assaulted, kidnappings, honor killings and fear of authorities were calmly recounted during a Monday morning roundtable at the MGH March 20.

Flown in from Algeria, Chad, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, nine women speakingthree different tongues – Arabic, French and English – attended the MGH’s Helping Abuse and Violence End Now (HAVEN) discussion. The goal of the visit, organized by the international exchange group WorldBoston, was to give delegates a chance to learn how the United States confronts domestic and sexual violence. “There is so much to learn from each other,” says Debra Drumm, HAVEN director, "I wish we could have spent more time together.”

With the help of two interpreters, Drumm and Joan Meunier-Sham, of the Massachusetts Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE), described their programs’ wide-ranging functions and services.

HAVEN advocates work out of the MGH campus in Boston and at the health centers in Revere and Chelsea, supporting those affected by abuse with counseling, safety planning and referrals to outside resources such as women’s shelters. “Last year HAVEN saw about 700 clients from all backgrounds, ranging in age from 14 to 81,” says Drumm.

SANE has 140 specially trained nurses working throughout the state who are certified in forensic medical-legal exams. “They submit about 70 percent of the evidence collected on sexual assaults in the Commonwealth,” says Meunier-Sham. 

While HAVEN and SANE may be examples of sophisticated systems here in the U.S., the international delegates say their home countries are not necessarily starting from scratch.

“We have a similar social department to HAVEN in our hospital,” said Mahamat Abdelkerim Oum Kalsoum, a cardiologist from Chad. “We can connect victims with monetary and psychological resources.” Ola Abu Hlyyel, a lawyer from Jordan, said she works on awareness campaigns to educate people about rape and sexual harassment, especially in situations where children are involved.

Despite the successes, the delegates point to many more examples of the persistent and “deeply embedded” cultural attitudes and fears surrounding assault victims. For those brave enough to step forward, delegates said, the result is sometimes frustration with the court systems in their home countries.

Drumm said HAVEN staff members have recently assisted women who have emigrated from northern Africa, many of whom were surprised that working with the U.S. court systems also can be a slow process at times.“This meeting really helps us to confront the realities of the communities we serve,” says Drumm. “It helps to understand even more about where these women are coming from.” 

Read more articles from the 03/31/17 Hotline issue.