Domestic Violence Surges in Dearborn due to Covid-19

An Interview with Semaa Shlebah of ACCESS

It’s been called the pandemic within the pandemic: the surge in domestic violence cases after the outbreak of Covid-19. And it’s happening throughout the world, including in Dearborn, home to the largest Arab American community in the US. 

Semaa Shlebah, the Supervisor for the Victims of Crime Act Program at the Dearborn based ACCESS, has been working to combat domestic violence (DV) for years. I spoke with her last week about her work, why she thinks DV cases are spiking, and what can be done to curb its rise.

Before continuing, some of this material may be difficult for some. Also: if you need assistance, please contact ACCESS or the National Domestic Violence Hotline. All calls are confidential. Language translation is available.

Tell us about yourself and how you got started with this work. 

I was born in Iraq and I started this work in 2015. I worked in various social services positions and I had no idea that there are so many survivors within our community. When I started learning about the survivors, I decided I wanted to help. 

In our community, there is so much stigma when it comes to domestic violence. But it’s not like it doesn’t happen. They just don’t come forward with it. I try to work toward eliminating the stigma and to give people a chance to come forward. 

There was also some personal stuff that made me interested in this issue. I was married before and while there was no physical abuse, there was a lot of emotional abuse. It took me a while to stand up for myself and I try to be an example for people to do the same thing. 

Hope is not dead. That’s what I believe.

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted domestic violence cases in Dearborn?

As part of our reporting to the state, we usually take in around 30 or 40 new clients per quarter. During the last two reports, we had almost 80 cases per quarter. So the numbers have doubled. 

What do you think explains this increase?

A lot it has to do with the stay at home orders. A lot of people have lost their jobs. Clients previously were going out to work. But now with the stay at home orders, they are in each other's faces, working from home, helping their kids with school. It’s a lot to deal with.

The abuse became worse. And more women just can’t handle it anymore and they are coming forward. I also think the stigma is gradually decreasing. More are coming forward to speak out. For example, we often do events where we invite survivors to speak about their experiences. Every year we would have to struggle to get people to speak about their experience with domestic violence. This year, we had a lot of sign-ups. 

Have you noticed any pattern in the domestic violence cases?

Not really. I don’t think it has to do with whether someone is religious or non-religious, or what religion they are. It’s all different ethnicities, some US born, some born outside the US. The majority of our clients are Arab Americans, but we help everyone who comes to us. 

In terms of age, it’s all age ranges, but most of the cases we see are between the ages of 25-45.

Does the pandemic present any unique challenges to helping survivors of domestic violence?

The biggest issue is housing. If a person wants to flee an abusive relationship, where are they going to go? Many landlords are not taking new tenants because they are worried about Covid. And in the past, some people might have taken their children to work to avoid an abusive partner, but people are not going to work in the same way. So it’s been challenging. 

How can people help?

They can donate to the program. Or they can sponsor a person in need. We spend 100 percent of our donations for our clients. Also, spread the word and tell people we are here. We are Hippa compliant, which means all calls made to us are strictly confidential. If a person calls us, their safety is our number one concern.