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Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Woman finds healing after leaving her abuser

Emotional and psychological abuse, verbal abuse, financial abuse, isolation and stalking are all forms of domestic violence.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn — October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, this type of abuse affects one in every three women and one in every four men. 

However, not all domestic violence cases look the same. Catherine Oaks, the director of victim services at the Helen Ross Mcnabb Center said they can sometimes be difficult to detect. 

"Most people typically think of physical violence. But, there's also emotional and psychological abuse, verbal abuse, financial abuse, isolation and stalking as well," Oaks said.

The element that ties all of these forms together is called 'coercive control.' The term describes some ways that abusers may try to seize power over their victims and maintain control over them.

The McNabb Center delivers support to more than 30,000 people throughout East Tennessee each year. Fibia is one of those survivors.

She asked WBIR to not disclose her last name for her own safety.

Fibia got married to a man that she knew since she was 15 years old. They tied the knot in 2003 and spent 18 years as a married couple.

"He was a lovely man. He was a very hard worker, like a perfect husband and friend in the relationship," Fibia said.

The couple moved from Italy to the United States in 2019. That's when the relationship took a turn.

"When we came over here, he was starting to change ... but very quickly, I mean, within the next day," Fibia said.

Oaks said it would be difficult for her to move to a new country and leave the relationship.

"Moving to the United States from another country, there are language barriers, cultural barriers, there's a lot of not knowing the community or the people," Oaks said, "So, unfortunately, that can also give an abuser a lot of power."

At the time, Fibia was not familiar with the English language. This initially made it challenging for her to make friends, get a job and seek out resources. 

The abuse started happening within the first few months of the move. Financial abuse was the first sign of domestic violence

"He's gonna show that, 'I'm a man, and I have a controlling power in you. So you cannot do anything that you want. I'm going to control you,'" Fibia said.

Fibia said her husband started keeping the money from her. 

Financial abuse is one of the most common first signs of domestic violence. It usually entails abusers providing victims a small allowance and not allowing them to work. Abusers could accumulate debt due to this, which can impact victims' abilities to leave the situation.

This manipulation often leads one of the people in the relationship to become financially dependent.

Fibia was one woman who wanted to get a job, but she faced challenges because of several barriers associated with emigrating to a new country.

"I was just trying to get some money because you have to get some to leave," Fibia said.

Oaks said this is a common problem in domestic violence cases.

"If you think you don't have any money, you don't have a job or any skills, because you haven't been allowed to work — what is it that you can do? And how can you go live on your own and be independent?" Oaks said.

Fibia had limited employment options due to her language barrier and started up in a factory. Fibia said she did not tell her husband that she got the position, and in turn, he questioned where she was via text message.

She did not tell him. According to her, the next day her husband sent her a picture of her place of work.

"He said, 'See, I know every minute where you are. And he sent me a screenshot with the location where I am,'" Fibia said. "I thought this is not real, this is not happening to me."

According to Fibia, in addition to money being hidden from her, she also lost access to all of her documents.

"But I didn't have another way I could go," Fibia said, "I can't come back to my country because he has took off all the documents, the passport, the birth certificate, I mean anything. I didn't have money. So was I don't have another option."

Oaks said she has seen similar situations arise with a lot with people who move overseas. 

"There's been plenty of cases that we also have worked with where maybe an abuser lets the victim's Green Card expire, or didn't allow them access to the documentation that they needed to update statuses," Oaks said. " It can definitely be a scary and dangerous time."

The McNabb Center offers a 24/7 crisis hotline for victims of domestic violence. That number is 865-637-8000. They also have an emergency shelter that can help victims, on the spot, get to safety from their situation.

Fibia found the McNabb Center through police connection. She lived in the emergency shelter for a while with her two sons. 

She said she has been working toward healing from her situation. 

"We are happy now," Fibia said, "I feel like I'm free. I feel like I have more power to move ahead with life."

Fibia also said the resources at the Mcnabb Center have helped her better understand what happened to her. She is learning all about domestic violence, the types and effects it has on the brain. She said she also wants to reach other people who are in a similar situation as her.

"Don't stay over there in this circle of abuse, because it's going to affect your life — especially your emotions, and this is very hard to do," Fibia said.

She wants people to use the resources available. Oaks has tips on how to approach the conversation of domestic violence with your loved ones, especially if you think they may be at risk.

"If you're recognizing or having some concerns about a loved one, and maybe a relationship that they're in, the first thing is to just listen. Don't be judgmental," Oaks said.

Being aware of how you respond is important. People should focus on listening and understanding first before they starting suggesting solutions.

They can also call the crisis hotline with questions, or if they have concerns about their own safety or their loved ones.  

The emergency crisis shelter is open for anyone to use and can provide a safe place to stay for people trying to leave an abusive relationship.

If you need something more long-term, the McNabb Center also offers a transitional housing program where people can have safe housing for 6 months to 2 years.

"There are a lot of special people that are more than ready to help you to go ahead. Don't forget, you can't change your past. But, today you can make a change for getting a different tomorrow," Fibia said.

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