Domestic abuse a problem for Greek Americans too

By the time you finish reading this article, at least one woman will have been abused.

Every 15 seconds a woman is beaten by her husband—a staggering statistic on the prevalence of domestic abuse in America. Of the approximately four million women abused each year in the United States, four are killed by their partners every day.

The Greek American community is not immune to the problem of domestic violence, and although the issue of domestic violence isn’t anything new, speaking out about it in the Greek community is. The first step, social workers say, is acknowledging that domestic violence occurs within the Greek community. The second step is reaching out to victims and letting them know that they are not alone.

What might be unknown to many Greek American women is that there are organizations, created for and by Greek Americans, which can help. The nonprofit organization Elpides, which means “hope” in Greek, was founded in New York in October 1993 as a resource and referral service for women who are in abusive relationships.

“Domestic violence is a disease that cuts across every ethnic group, in every socio-economic group and every educational group,” said Elpides President Deana Balahtsis, an attorney with a master’s degree in a clinical social work who practices family law.

Balahtsis used as an example the recent murder of Carol Kotsopoulos, who, prosecutors say, was beaten and then shot dead by her husband, Nicholas Kotsopoulos. “This latest incident in Long Island is just another example of that,” Balahtsis said.

Despite the sobering statistics, many Greek Americans believe there is no domestic violence problem in the Greek community, according to social workers at the national office of the Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society, who created the organization “Dynamis” to help Greek Orthodox victims come forward, get help, and break the silence that perpetuates abuse.

Elpides was created when, at a panel discussion of a group of Greek women in New York City, one panelist stood up and talked about being molested by her father. “This disclosure shocked the audience, because Greeks deny the existence of such behavior and/or do not publicly reveal family secrets,” an Elpides fact sheet reads. “During further discussion, some women echoed similar and/or other experiences.”

Balahtsis stressed that Elpides is a pro-family organization, despite criticisms by some in the community that they are “home wreckers.” These criticisms further emphasize the community’s reluctance to address the problem of domestic violence, opting instead to deny it exists and blame the victim for leaving a dangerous situation, Balahtsis said.

“Raising awareness is something we must continue to do at every level,” said Balahtsis. Elpides will host a women’s support group in the fall at its offices in Astoria, New York.

“We’re trying to broaden the scope of what we do,” said Balahtis. “We’ve had a law clinic, a health fair, and in the fall we’re planning a mental health clinic for depression.” Elpides is also hoping to sponsor a children’s art class in the fall.

While Elpides is mainly a referral agency which aims to help battered women, Dynamis—the Greek word for strength—wants to educate and empower Greek women in general. Created in collaboration with the New York chapter of the Hellenic American Women’s Council (HAWC), Dynamis’ ultimate goal is to end domestic violence in the Greek American community.

HAWC, headquartered in Washington, DC, is a national, nonpartisan organization that brings awareness to public policy issues and promotes women who want to take on leadership roles in their community, the nation, and in their professions.

The social workers at the National Philoptochos stress that problems don’t get solved by themselves. They have seen countless cases where women were told to endure the abuse and pray.

“The church plays a tremendous role in the lives of Greek Americans,” said Paulette Geanacopoulos, a social worker who wrote a training manual on domestic violence for the Greek Orthodox community. Geanacopoulos led training for a group of Greek Orthodox priests at Hellenic College/Holy Cross in Brookline, Mass. She has conducted more than 20 domestic violence seminars for clergy, seminarians, philoptochos chapters, parents groups, court and law enforcement officials and other professionals. Although not every Greek Orthodox priest has gone through domestic violence training, the manual has been distributed to the clergy throughout the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Geanacopoulos said domestic violence is not a bigger problem in the Greek community than in other ethnic groups, but it does exist and needs to be addressed.

Many times, said Geanacopoulos, an abused woman feels as if she’s being punished by God. “Many younger priests were in denial that there is a problem,” said Geanacopoulos. “But the important thing is how they walked out of the training, not how they walked in. It’s important for a priest to help her understand that she’s a victim and praying will give her strength to think through what she needs to do, but praying will not prevent the abuse.”

Among other issues, the manual deals with the influence of cultural attitudes and the religious beliefs on a victim’s silence. Ours is a patriarchal society, Geanacopoulos writes, in which men are the head of household and women keep the family together. Disclosure is considered shameful in the Greek community and a betrayal to the entire family, as Greeks are eager to defend family honor. But the victim must overcome the shame and put it where it belongs—with the abuser. The majority of abusers, however, blame the victim.

“We’re told that marriage is forever,” said Geanacopoulos. “A women is taught by her family to put up with the abuse—her mother tells her that her husband’s a good provider and to stick with him.”

Some statements that reflect our cultural and religious attitudes toward the problem of domestic violence, according to Geanacopoulos, include: “Any other women would love to have him as a husband”; “How will you raise your children by yourself?”; “Nobody in our family has ever been divorced”; “Become a better wife (or mother or cook.)”

The truth is, according to Jean Sotirakis, director of HANAC’s child and family counseling program, that there is nothing a woman can do that is “good enough” for an abuser: there will always be something to instigate the abuser’s bad behavior.

Sotirakis said that problem is with the abuser, who has a need to control and maintain power, stemming from a major lack of self-esteem.

“Women think there’s a cause and effect,” said Sotirakis, “but there is no reason for it, despite the abuser’s statements that it’s because of her—you can’t make the alcoholic stop drinking.”

Geanacopoulos suggests reframing these long-held beliefs that prevent some women from seeking help, and realizing that marriage requires mutual respect.

Dynamis is funded by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. “Getting something funded in the Greek community is very difficult,” said Geanacopoulos, who wrote the grant application for the organization.

Balahtsis said the founder of Elpides, Georgia Post, dreamed of creating a Greek American battered women’s shelter. “In order to fund something like that, it takes a lot of money,” said Balahtsis.

The Daughters of Penelope in Mobile, Alabama, created a shelter called Penelope House, the first and only Greek-sponsored women’s shelter.

“One of my hopes is to start an Elpides chapter in major cities across the United States,” said Balahtsis. “But at this point we’re struggling as it is to run our program.”

Elpides services include: crisis and supportive counseling, safety planning, information and referrals to battered women’s shelters and support groups, health and medical assistance, educational and vocational programs, immigration services, housing and relocation and access to legal options.

“I feel an ethical responsibility to do some pro-bono work,” said Balahtsis, who notes that Elpides has even received calls for help from women in Greece.

“A big part of this effort is getting the whole Greek culture to say ‘this is not okay’,” said Sotirakis.

Geanacopoulos recalled one woman who had been abused during her entire 30 years of marriage. Only once she was hospitalized did she decide to leave.

“Her husband was a cantor in the church,” said Geanacopoulos. “Nobody believed her.” When the woman confided to her priest, he told her to pray, said Geanacopoulos.

Reverend Athanasious Demos of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland, writes in the manual about clergy perspectives on domestic violence: “When a couple come forward to be married in the Orthodox Church, they stand together as equals.”

It is said during the service, Demos stresses, that the woman is to be obedient to God, and not—as some men like to interpret it—obedient to their husbands. “When a Greek Orthodox wedding reaches the point when this quote is read, there are some men who look at their wives as if to say, ‘remember these words, I’m the boss!’ Unfortunately, some battered women have bought into that and become more susceptible to accepting abuse, beatings and battering, with no recourse,” Demos said.

He adds that the roles of husband and wife are not to be “crutches” for one another, but to be respectful supporters of one another so that each may reach their full potential in life.

Demos points to the bible to dispel notions that the church accepts male dominance and battering in the home. He refers to Ephesians 5:25-28 to describe a man’s true role in marriage: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself up for her…So husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself.” He goes on to say that God intends for us to treat each other with dignity. Over time a battered woman loses her dignity, confidence and strength to walk away from a dangerous situation.

Most abused women don’t even recognize that they are in an abusive relationship, said Geanacopoulos. Some abusers disguise their controlling nature by convincing a woman that they want to spend every moment with her because they are so in love with her, or tell her to quit her job because it’s so hard on her and she’ll have more time and energy to raise the children.

“The abuser weaves a tighter and tighter web around the woman,” she said.

Many women fear for their lives or are too demoralized to leave their abusive husbands. After years of being abused and being told that they’re not good enough, they are broken down, little by little.

“They learn how to give in,” said Geanacopoulos.

She offers the following advice to women in an abusive relationship:

Don’t blame yourself; know that you are not alone; develop a safety plan; work with someone to decide what you’re going to do.

Women want the abuse, not the relationship, to end, said Geanacopoulos.

“The woman has to realize that she has choices,” she said.

Balahtsis said Elpides is updating its referral list, and invites lawyers, therapists, and social service providers to call Elpides if they would like to be a resource for battered women.

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