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Migrant woman searches for husband who has vanished, a common occurrence as men struggle to find jobs

By Nell Salzman, Chicago Tribune
Published: June 15, 2024, 11:56am

CHICAGO — During Jessica Juma’s first week of work, her husband disappeared.

For nearly six months, the husband and wife from a rural Ecuadorian town had struggled to find jobs in Chicago. They had gone to clinics and panhandled in front of grocery stores.

But then, the 36-year-old mother found a therapist, who helped soothe her trauma and obtain the right paperwork to work legally. When she was offered a job packing fruits and vegetables at Mariano’s in Lakeview, her husband told her he was happy she was working. But the 37-year-old still hadn’t found a job himself. The stress was taking a toll.

Later that day he left and never came back.

“It was like normal. Everything was normal, but we never heard from him again,” Juma said.

Since his disappearance, Juma has spent weeks in a daze, holding back tears. She’s walked along the lakefront, calling his name — Angel Mashiant. She’s filed a missing person’s report and approached police cars to ask for help.

She’s gotten no answers from police and doesn’t know what to do.Though it’s uncertain what happened to Juma’s husband, the migrant mother represents a common phenomenon for new arrivals: After traveling thousands of miles to make it to the U.S., some migrant men seemingly walk out or vanish from the lives of their partners and children, leaving them to fend for themselves.

As more than 43,000 migrants have passed through Chicago, sent on buses and planes from the southern border since August 2022, hundreds of single mothers with children can be found staying in the 17 shelters run by the city and state. It’s unclear how many had arrived with partners.

The women who have been left are now trying to find work while raising their children — all without the help of their partners.

Licensed therapists and those working closely with migrants say the frustration and shame felt by men of not being able to provide for their families may be a factor in their choice to just walk away. “We see cases like that,” said Ana Gil-Garcia, founder of the Illinois Venezuelan Alliance, who has led informational sessions for migrants at dozens of shelters across the city. “When men can’t provide, they decide to leave. They don’t take responsibility — and then mom is left with the children.”

‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to establish myself here alone’

Nareida Santana, 37, from Cartagena, Colombia, stood outside a migrant shelter in the West Loop Tuesday and recounted how she and her partner traveled for days across six countries to reach Chicago at the end of April.

About two weeks ago, she said, he suddenly left. She doesn’t know where he went. She shifted her weight back and forth as she talked.

She has a 7-year-old boy and now has to do everything alone. The tasks stack up: enrolling him in school, navigating public transit, finding work and housing.

“I’m so scared,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to establish myself here alone.” Santana said she knows there are women whose husbands have left them who are in worse situations than she is, who are pregnant or have significant health needs.

She said shelter workers are giving her guidance on how to interview for jobs, but it will be useless until she gets a valid work permit.

For now, she’s tirelessly trying to find work so she can move out of the shelter.

“It’s impossible to rest much in there,” she said, gesturing to the brick warehouse sheltering more than 700 migrants on five floors.

Veronica Sanchez, a licensed social worker, led a series of healing circles for migrants at the Parent University in Pilsen this spring through an effort organized by the mutual aid group Southwest Collective. Sanchez said migrants talked openly about the trend of men leaving their wives.

As volunteers supplied hot meals and child care in a separate room, adult asylum-seekers engaged in group therapies, with topics ranging from anxiety and depression to traditional gender roles. Sanchez said many have been so focused on getting their basic needs met they haven’t had the time to think about their mental health. In some cases, she said, this leads to last-minute separations. “We discussed a little bit about depression at the beginning,” Sanchez said. “I told them we were going to talk very openly about any sadness they might be feeling.”

At a group session in mid-May, Sanchez led a discussion about what constitutes a healthy relationship.

“I’ve seen couples that have been together for many years, and they arrive here and it changes everything,” said a woman from Venezuela whose name is not being used out of privacy concerns. “I know it’s hard here, but how can they not remember everything they’ve been through?”

‘Not my American dream’

The city couldn’t immediately provide the current number of single migrant women with children in its shelters, though it does track family composition in the shelter system. City officials said case managers refer shelter residents to nonprofits for mental health support. Additionally, the city trains hundreds of shelter staff on how to provide support for women who may experience gender-based violence, including domestic violence.

“Mayor Johnson believes that all Chicagoans deserve mental and behavioral health care, whether they just arrived or they have been here for generations,” a city spokesperson said in a statement.

Yoleida Ramirez, a 42-year-old single mother from Caracas, Venezuela, who is staying at the same shelter as Juma on the Lower West Side, said she has searched and applied for stable work in Chicago since November but hasn’t found anything.She and her three little girls were placed in a shelter in December, and the staff recently told Ramirez that she needs to find her own housing by June 23. She’s worried she won’t be able to.

“It’s so difficult,” she said, through tears. “I’ve looked and looked, but can’t find a job.” After she drops her kids off at school at 7 a.m., she goes to Home Depot and prays she can find work painting or cleaning.She left her home country because she couldn’t find work there either, she said. She didn’t have enough money to buy her children food. “I’d heard about the American dream, but this is not my dream,” she said.

The disappearance

On May 25, the last morning Juma saw her husband, she said they woke up early in the shelter and he teased her that she was going to be late for her work shift at Mariano’s. She put on an apron and he passed her a pair of socks and $2 for the bus, she said. Then, as Juma worked inside the store, her husband panhandled outside with the couple’s 15-year-old son, 19-year-old daughter and 6-month-old grandchild. A little before 8:30 a.m., he told the teens he was going to buy some new shoes.

When Juma got back from her shift, she and her children waited. He always came back, she said. But hours passed and there was no sign of him. She filed a police report the next day.

Weeks later, the lack of closure is painful for Juma. She’s still in denial that he’s gone.

She’s had trouble confirming that police have processed her missing person report because when she calls to check on it, the people who answer only speak English. She thinks they’ve given up searching for Mashiant.

A spokesman for the Chicago Police Department told the Chicago Tribune in a statement that, “The report has not been finalized at this time. We do not have access to most missing persons reports because they are done on paper.” Juma said the shelter told her on June 2 that because Mashiant had disappeared, she would lose her place in the system. They’ve since rescinded that, she said, but Juma cries when she talks about it. “They told me they were going to take his cot away,” she said.

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She’s done everything she can to look for him. She put posters on lamps near the grocery store. She obtained video footage from a nearby business, which shows him swinging his arms and eyeing something in the distance as he walks through the alley. But she has no answers. She can’t talk about him without crying. She wonders if he may have tried to drown himself in the lake. She wanders along the shore looking for signs of his floating body.

‘He wasn’t in his right mind’

Like many migrants who have come to the city to escape poverty and violence in Latin America, Juma and her family don’t know anyone in Chicago. The transition was difficult, she said, and they’ve received backlash for panhandling.

“There was a man who threw food at us, and said he hoped Trump won so we would be deported to our country,” she said.

Juma said their family left their small agricultural community in Ecuador in late September after her 19-year-old and 15-year-old faced back-to-back acts of gang violence.

Their family received increasingly threatening calls, so they decided to leave Ecuador. They arrived in Chicago in December. On the way here, she and her husband and son were kidnapped in Mexico for five days, she said.

Before her husband went missing, Juma had unpacked her difficult past with Erika Meza, a licensed master social worker with Onward House in Belmont Cragin who leads group therapy sessions with migrants. Meza said she has an especially close relationship with Juma.

For months, Meza said, the Ecuadorian mother had expressed anxiety over not having a stable income. Shelter officials were threatening to evict them from the shelter where Juma is currently staying.

Meza said she helped the couple submit their paperwork to work legally in the United States, but Mashiant was still applying for jobs.

“He was beginning to get really sad, staying at the shelter,” Meza said. Juma told her husband to go to group therapy, too, because she said it helped her to understand and cope with her depression, but he hadn’t gone. Meza suspects Mashiant left in a moment of panic. “I think he wasn’t in his right mind,” she said. “Depression and anxiety can bring you to do things you could never imagine.”

Still searching

Juma’s husband was a quiet man who grew up in the jungle in Ecuador. He couldn’t read and write.

Other women at the shelter say he must have left with another woman, but Juma says she knows that’s not true because he doesn’t know anybody here.

“The only thing I need is for him to appear so I can pay for a place for us to go. Those were our plans. We planned to work, to pay for a place for us to live,” she said.

Like many others, Juma is now left to do everything alone. She has to work and pick up her son from school. Wednesday morning, a woman who cleans the streets outside Mariano’s told Juma that she could take the bus west to the last stop where there was a lake.

Juma loaded her grandchild in a carriage up onto the CTA bus. She rode it to the last stop, dismounted and looked around.

“Is there a lake near here?” she said, confused.

She was 5 miles from Lake Michigan. Slowly the reality set in. Her face dropped.

She waited at the bus stop to go back to the Mariano’s where her husband first disappeared.