She’s ready to hear from Vietnamese women in abusive situations

India Smith, Special to the Reporter
Aug. 28, 2014

Tram T. Nguyen

“At last, a lawyer who speaks my language.”

For women experiencing domestic violence in Dorchester’s Vietnamese immigrant community, language can be the final barrier to getting help, but since Tram T. Nguyen, Esq. joined Greater Boston Legal Services as an Equal Justice Works Fellow, that barrier has been coming down.

When battered women are referred by Carney Hospital, or come to the weekly intake sessions at Viet-AID in Fields Corner, they find in Nguyen a lawyer who not only understands the Vietnamese language and culture, but who also understands their experience as immigrants.

Nguyen’s family came to the US as refugees when she was five years old. Although they settled north of Boston, in Methuen, Nguyen always felt strongly connected to Dorchester. “We were part of the refugee community and my father, Long Nguyen, was active in the refugee community here,” she said.

According to Nguyen, women in Vietnamese culture are extremely hesitant to reveal domestic abuse. The woman is held responsible for taking care of her husband and family. Anything that might cause her to break up that family, even domestic violence, is seen as deeply shameful. The woman is expected to stick it out.

“So it is rare for a woman to come to us and say ‘I am a victim of domestic violence and I need help,’” said Nguyen. Instead, a woman seeks help for a different problem, but domestic violence lies behind it. “For example, a woman may say she needs to apply for public benefits because she is living alone with her children and has no income. Well, how did she get into that situation?”

According to Nguyen, older women may accept physical abuse as a normal occurrence. “They may not even realize that they can call the police,” said Nguyen. And older Vietnamese men are often veterans who, like their American-born counterparts, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. This can manifest as spousal abuse. “But the culture does not recognize depression, does not recognize PTSD,” said Nguyen. “People are just expected to tough it out.”

Nguyen first became interested in combating domestic violence during her senior year at Tufts interning with the Asian Outreach Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services. There, she saw how social and cultural factors could trap women in potentially life-threatening situations. She learned more about the problem working for the Census Department, where she served as liaison between the department and leaders of Boston’s Vietnamese community.

Though her GBLS fellowship, funded by the US Department of Justice, Nguyen handles legal matters that relate directly to domestic violence, including divorce and child support. She helps women obtain restraining orders, find shelter, apply for public, and handle immigration issues.

Individuals with any and all concerns are welcome at Viet-AID’s open intake sessions, held every Tuesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.