In one of the nation's most aggressive attempts to help foreign-born domestic violence victims, the Howard County Domestic Violence Center is training volunteers to work with battered refugees from Russia, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Iran.
The regional program -- begun by the state this summer with a four-year, $688,000 federal grant -- reaches out to women whose conservative cultural back grounds may make it difficult for them to seek help in cases of domestic abuse, counselors say.
"There's a lot of denial and there's a lot of fear that if they actually report the abuse, they may lose their husband, and their children may lose their father," said Frank Bien, director of the state's Office of New Americans, sponsor of the program.
The Refugee Services Program will work with women in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
Four outreach workers -- each from one of four countries whose natives are targeted for the project -- will hold workshops on child-rearing skills, offer crisis counseling and refer victims and abusers alike to counseling centers in the area.
Howard County was chosen as the home site because it is centrally located.
Officials say they hope the program will help the foreign-born lift the "veil of silence" -- a term that refers to a refusal by domestic abuse victims to talk about the abuse they're suffering for fear of retribution from the abuser.
"We're very excited about the program and expect it may be a prototype used throughout the United States," said Anna Mary Portz, community resettlement analyst at the National Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington, which provides the funding.
Maryland's pilot program comes at a time of worldwide attention to the plight of battered women.
This month, leaders from around the globe met in Beijing to discuss women's issues. And many are awaiting the outcome of the O. J. Simpson trial, with its high-profile allegations of domestic violence.
Such publicity has led many American women to report the abuse they've suffered, counselors say.
But they add that foreign-born women in the United States still often suffer in silence because talking about family problems with outsiders is a taboo in their culture.
"Domestic violence is kind of a personal and private thing that nobody can touch," said Kieu-Nga Nguyen Dang, one of the four outreach workers in the new program. "But in my country [Vietnam], that's a fact of life. Women accept it, even though they don't want it."
Although there are no statistics on domestic abuse among immigrants, state police record about 20,000 spousal-abuse allegations each year -- and that doesn't include abuse between unmarried couples.
Victims' advocates point to such incidents as the death of 31-year-old Howard County resident Andrei Gordon, a native of Russia. He was slain in October by his live-in girlfriend, Tatyana Kogan, 26, a Belarus-born immigrant, who said she stabbed him to death because he continually beat her.
The conflict between the two reached its climax when Ms. Kogan said Mr. Gordon attacked her in a dispute over a piece of pie.
In April, Ms. Kogan used the battered-spouse syndrome to win a suspended prison term after pleading guilty to manslaughter. She was sentenced to six years in prison, but a Howard County Circuit judge suspended all but the 183 days she had served in the Howard County Detention Center while awaiting trial.
"We are sure there will be plenty of people who ask for these programs," said Amy Beres-Kuelling, coordinator of the Refugee Services program. "Refugee groups typically are underserved because of language barriers, but we know they're out there."
The pilot program focuses on Russian, Ethiopian, Vietnamese and Iranian women because those countries account for the bulk of immigrants who have fled to Maryland out of fear of persecution in their homelands, the state Office of New Americans says.
Maryland's Russian-born community is the fastest growing of the four target groups. Almost 7,000 Russian refugees have immigrated to Maryland since 1989. Vietnam is second with 4,378 refugees, followed by Ethiopia with 816 and Iran with 282.
More than a third of the refugees moved to Montgomery County and a quarter to Baltimore County. About 17 percent moved to Prince George's and about 14 percent to Baltimore.
Each of the outreach workers has a background in social services, but only one has had training in domestic violence.
In their summer training, all were taught basic crisis-intervention skills in preparation for handling hot-line calls and dealing with clients who visit domestic violence centers in the five jurisdictions covered by the program.
"Keep an open mind. Keep yourself safe. Don't put yourself in the situation," Pamela Dello-Russo, associate director of programs at the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County, told outreach workers at a training session.
The outreach workers said they know the project is going to be tough, because Ethiopian, Vietnamese and Iranian cultures frown on therapy and counseling.
"You're stigmatized as being crazy," said 29-year-old Rakhsha Hakimzadeh, who is working with Iranian refugees. "Most people try to keep problems in the family."
"The problem of domestic violence isn't recognized in Russia," said volunteer Katya Kronick, 43, who has a doctorate in psychology. "If someone called the police to report domestic violence in Russia, the police just wouldn't come at all. They think it's not serious."
The four outreach workers have started moving their message to the streets and airwaves.
Ms. Dang has spent days knocking on doors in communities with large Vietnamese populations. Lomi Tshay Belay has talked about domestic violence on Ethiopian radio stations, trying to persuade victims and abusers to seek help.
And all four workers now await responses from cultures that have long been silent on domestic violence.
The Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence 24-hour referral service, identifying domestic violence centers across the state for victims and abusers, can be reached at (800) MD-HELPS.
To contact the Refugee Services Program at the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County, call (410) 997-0304 or (301) 854-2272.