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SHORT DOC: Opening the Door to Talk About Domestic Violence in Asian-American Communities

Christine's Story: Raising Awareness About Domestic Violence 7:48

LOS ANGELES — Christine Lee still remembers the night she thought she would stop breathing.

Someone she loved and trusted at the time had pinned her to the ground, upset that she hadn't done something he asked her to do.

After throwing a number of punches, he began choking her. Lee said she she lost consciousness multiple times.

“He let go just in time,” she recalled. “He really liked to watch me beg him to stop.”

It was the first time Lee had ever been physically abused by him, though there were signs of emotional and verbal abuse throughout their relationship, she said. He would call her names when he was upset, but she let it go because she wanted to believe he could be the the charismatic person she had met if she just changed certain aspects of who she was.

But after the abuse became physical, Lee knew something was wrong.

WATCH: 'Christine's Story' – an NBC Asian America short documentary from Jubilee Media

Today, Lee is the community engagement manager at the Center for the Pacific Asian Family (CPAF), a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to addressing domestic violence and sexual assault in Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Through her work, she’s been able to share her story, but she also admitted that reliving that part of her past wasn’t easy for her or for her family, who viewed it as a disgrace.

“The thing is, I don’t enjoy talking about this. I really don’t like it because every time I talk about it, I’m re-traumatizing myself. I’d rather not talk about it. But then...is there anyone else out there that’s going to talk about this?” Lee asked.

Christine Lee said she's been able to find a new relationship and a new career since she left a relationship that became physically abusive, but talking about the trauma she experienced in her past has been seen as a disgrace to her family. Jubilee Media/NBC News

The impact of the 'model minority' label

Nearly one in four women in the United States have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the statistic can be higher, with 21 to 55 percent of Asian women reporting physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime, according to a report by the Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence.

Lee's family isn't alone when it comes to reluctance in openly discussing instances of domestic violence. Despite its prevalence in Asian-American communities, visibility and awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault remains hidden behind the shame attached to disclosing such matters to others.

It's one way that the model minority perception affects domestic violence in the AAPI community.

RELATED: Asian-American Advocates Work to End Stigma of Domestic Violence

“[They] want to maintain the illusion that everything is going perfectly in the relationship, things are fine at home. There’s a lot of shame coming forward and divulging your most deeply held secrets,” Fiona Oliphant, acting director of the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project (DVRP), said.

Keeping up such a facade, however, affects the availability of resources.

Purple ribbon pins are displayed for a domestic violence awareness candlelight vigil. Brynn Anderson / AP file

“Resources are often driven by data,” Oliphant said. “When people are reluctant to share the true extent of the problem in the community, then there’s no data that proves or establishes there should be culturally specific resources available to meet the need that hasn’t been established.”

Without visibility, the model minority perception can contribute to a lack of resources for Asian Americans, who don't appear to deal with domestic violence.

“People think, 'Well, they don’t really need anything. They’re all so well to do and there are no problems.' And also because we don’t hear about any of the issues and we don’t see domestic violence victims being portrayed who are [Asian American], people assume there are no needs there. And that just continues to keep the problem going,” Connie Chung Joe, executive director of Korean American Family Services (KFAM), said.

Raising awareness through education

The lack of culturally-sensitive resources was something Nilda Rimonte, a Filipino-American woman who founded the Center for the Pacific Asian Family (CPAF), recognized in the 1970s. In response, she created programs still used at the organization today.

CPAF currently offers a spectrum of services for domestic violence survivors including a 24-hour multilingual hotline, counseling and case management, an emergency shelter, and a transitional program to help those in the emergency shelter make the move to permanent housing.

"Unfortunately with thousands upon thousands of calls each year, violence is still happening and it's still prevalent and it's still pervasive. There needs to be more conversation about what's happening to a generation of women and children," Patima Komolamit, Shelter Program Director at the Center for the Asian Pacific Family, told NBC News in a recent short documentary about domestic violence. Jubilee Media/NBC News

Each year, the organization has experienced an increase in individuals seeking their services, CPAF community program director Ellen Hong said. In the last fiscal year, it received more than 4,600 crisis calls in more than 20 languages on its hotline. It's unknown whether the uptick is a result of increased incidents of sexual assault or domestic violence, or if it's due to CPAF's outreach efforts, Hong said.

In fiscal year 2015-16, for instance, the organization conducted outreach efforts in the Japanese community and saw an increase in calls requesting for assistance in Japanese.

Among its top hotline calls based on language requests is Thai, which Hong attributes to outreach efforts in the community. It also receives a volume of calls requesting for Mandarin, Korean, and Vietnamese language services, Hong said.

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In recent years, the DVRP has received more than 200 calls annually from individuals seeking help with domestic violence related issues. It has also worked to expand services for Asian American and Pacific Islander survivors by partnering with mainstream service providers who undergo three hours of cultural humility training to learn about cultural barriers and how to appropriately conduct intakes with Asian American and Pacific Islander survivors.

Survivors who seek help from organizations like CPAF come from a range of ethnic backgrounds and ages. For the DVRP, which is based in Washington D.C., the clients it serves tend to be between the ages of 25 through 60, according to Mariam Rauf, the organization's outreach program manager.

“What we have found to be the case is that due to societal pressure, folks tend to stay in abusive relationships because they want to protect the marriage, maintain the relationship, and they’re ashamed and they don’t seek help. When they finally do reach out for help, they tend to have already been married for 10, 15, 20 years,” Oliphant, DVRP's acting director, said.

KFAM serves a similar age range. Most of its clients are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, though it also serves some who are in their 80s.

“When people come in as older age survivors, it could be that they experienced abuse for many, many decades and they’re finally getting to a point where they’re willing to come out,” Joe, KFAM’s executive director, said.

In addition to helping those who've experienced abuse, organizations are investing in efforts to end the cycle of domestic violence by helping youth identify what healthy relationships look like. With power and control the root cause of the issue, CPAF tries to work with teens to emphasize the importance of boundaries, consent, and healthy sexuality.

"There's so much more to a survivor of domestic violence than just this terrible thing that happened," Jong-Ling Wu, Senior Advocate at the Center for the Asian Pacific Family, told NBC News in a recent short documentary about domestic violence. Jubilee Media/NBC News

“A lot of our youth don’t have parents who are willing to talk about healthy sex and what healthy sexuality looks like, so it’s a lot of education in that regard,” Hong said.

The work that organizations such as CPAF, KFAM, and DVRP are doing is all part of an effort to encourage individuals to also seek help within their own communities so that they don't view the organization or a shelter as the only means of alleviating their situations. Opening up those lines of communication, advocates say, is a crucial component of addressing domestic violence.

“It’s just really important to encourage the community to shift its values regarding shame and to stop silencing survivors and blaming survivors, to create a space where survivors can come forward without fearing repercussions from their family, friends, religious community, so on and so forth,” Oliphant said.

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