Julie Kim still remembers the date when everything changed for her: November 27, 2017.
Her husband had been emotionally abusive from the start of their relationship, she said. But things kept escalating over the years and, on that date, he physically assaulted her so severely that she described the incident as “life-threatening.” She said it happened in front of their 6-year-old daughter and was loud enough that a neighbor called the NYPD.
That’s when she decided to leave her husband for good.
But she had been preparing for that moment for some time.
A friend put Kim, whose name has been changed to protect her identity and whereabouts from her ex-husband, in touch with the Korean American Family Service Center [KAFSC] prior to that attack when she first began seeking help. She called its hotline and, since then, has relied on its support.
“I had no idea there was an organization where you could go in and speak in your own terms, in your own language and really understand what's happening and be able to express in my own language,” she said with the assistance of an interpreter. “Even if there's language access [at another organization], I don’t know if the interpreter is able to really translate how I feel. For me, that's crucial.”
Her husband’s abuse included threats about her finances and immigration status, such as keeping her from her passport and government documents. In a country where she can’t speak the language and a world apart from her loved ones, she felt alone and desperate.
That’s why the familiarity of a place like KAFSC, a New York City-based non-profit organization that provides a range of resources from counseling to education, took her by surprise.
Kim said she reached out to other organizations before she was referred to KAFSC. But it wasn’t just the language accessibility that convinced her to utilize its services.
“People knew the cultural nuances and different customs,” said Kim, who came to New York City from South Korea in 2009. “I felt right at home and I was really able to communicate and tell them what's happening, pouring my heart out.”
Asian Americans are the fastest growing population in New York City, nearly doubling every decade since 1970 and making up 15% of the population, according to the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families.
Yet community leaders say their groups have been historically underfunded by the city and state for years. Organizations serving the Asian American Pacific Islander community received 4.37% of City Council discretionary dollars and less than 1.5% of social service contract dollars, according to CAFC.
And the state budget’s direct allocation for AAPI resources is even less.
“The reason that there's not a specific percentage number of state dollars we receive is that it would be such a negligible percentage that it's not even worth listing,” said Carlyn Cowen, chief policy and public affairs officer at Chinese-American Planning Council.
Asian Americans represent about 10% of the state population, but advocates like Cowen tend to refer to it as “10% and growing” because “those numbers come out of old data and we expect that when we see the 2020 census numbers that we'll see an even higher percentage.”
“You can count on less than five fingers the number of Asian American community organizations that are supported through the state, so that's actually in a more dire situation than the city,” said Anita Gundanna, co-executive director of CAFC.
In March, a broad coalition of AAPI-serving organizations called on the governor’s office to allocate $19.5 million from the state budget to support their work. On Tuesday, the governor allocated about half of that amount—$10 million—from the $212 billion state budget, according to CACF. It also included a $2.5 million investment for the Department of Health to support data disaggregation for the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.
“While the budget did not include the full $19.5 million investment that Asian American organizations, community leaders, and allies in labor, business, faith, philanthropy and nonprofit sectors called for in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, the $12.5 million investment is a significant step towards addressing urgent issues in the AAPI community, from the increase in anti-Asian violence to unemployment and food insecurity,” read the CACF press release on Wednesday.
The investment of these funds would not only go to responding to the rise in anti-Asian attacks and economic relief but to support groups that provide gender-based violence services for AAPI women, incidences of which have skyrocketed over the last year.
Of the nearly 3,800 incidents reported over the course of the last year to Stop AAPI Hate, a non-profit reporting forum, a disproportionate number targeted women.
And after the shooting in Atlanta in which eight people were killed, including six women of Asian descent, community members are feeling a range of traumas from what many consider a hate crime inextricably tied to race and gender.
“A lot of our survivors are in that line of work,” said Jeehae Fischer, executive director of KAFSC, referring to assumptions that the targeted spas were connected to sex work. “What had happened in Atlanta feels for them—they could have been one of the victims.”
But the impact of the Atlanta shooting goes far beyond just those directly involved in a similar line of work.
After a law enforcement official explained the shooter’s motive in his own words as “a sexual addiction” and “not racially motivated,” many Asian American women felt incredulous at this seeming erasure of what many face on an everyday level.
“What we're seeing is also the fantasizing and sexualizing of Asian women in general and how that's not a new thing in American culture,” said Yasmeen Hamza, CEO of Womankind, an organization aiding survivors of gender-based violence. “And how that also plays a role in how Asian women are viewed when we talk about the intersection of anti-Asian violence, but also misogyny, and really how that tragedy plays into both.”
The denial of the massacre’s racialized and gendered components by many elected officials after the attack only serve to erase the very real needs of AAPI women, according to community leaders.
“It's absolutely necessary to frame what happened in Atlanta in that capacity—that particular women were targeted based on their gender and their ethnicity,” said Kavita Mehra, executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women, a non-profit serving South Asian women survivors of gendered-violence. “It's completely ignoring the fact that the Asian American community has experienced and Asian American women in particular are experiencing forms of violence at this moment in time.”
The impact of COVID-19 on organizations like KAFSC, Womankind and Sakhi is hard to understate.
Over the past year, KAFSC’s 24-hour hotline has tripled and their cases have increased by 49%, according to Fischer.
“With the same resources, in some ways, we’re working with less because of the impact of COVID-19,” she said.
But for survivors like Kim, access to culturally-competent and in-language services could very well be the difference between life and death.
“It’s something that's really difficult to imagine,” said Kim about what her life might look like without the support of KAFSC. “I could imagine me just enduring my abuse and just stay where I am. The reason I'm here is because service providers like KAFSC exist.”
The first time she stayed at KAFSC’s shelter was only temporary.
“I decided to go back and restart the relationship,” she said. “However, the violence never stopped and it escalated to the point—the physical violence I could not endure anymore.”
Even though she returned to her abuser, she kept in touch with the organization.
About two months before the last incident in 2017, she started feeling extra apprehensive about her situation.
“There were other incidents happening prior to it escalating to that point,” she explained. “I told [my husband] I was dropping my daughter off at school, but after dropping her off, I went to KAFSC to speak with one of the counselors.”
The organization was able to help Kim not only stay safe but build up her independence as a single mother in the city.
“I didn't want to go back for this reason, but it was just a no-brainer,” she said. “There was no question about going back for the help again.”
The assistance continued even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when Kim lost her job in childcare. She was able to take advantage of the organization’s food pantry, rent subsidy and cash assistance programs, she said.
Though Kim said her resolve to keep away from her ex-husband is strong, not all survivors can say the same, especially during a difficult time like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Survivors are experiencing a heightened risk of domestic violence and gender-based violence in general,” said Hamza. “And what we've seen historically after, for example, Hurricane Sandy, an influx of survivors came out seeking services as things began to open up. It impacts our ability to be able to provide support services for everybody that needs it.”
It’s this type of aid that community advocates are worried will be impacted without a sustained commitment to financial investment from the state and city.
“At what point will our community be recognized and seen by the state government in this capacity, especially given the fact that we have been serving the community through COVID?” asked Mehra. “They've been reliant upon us.”