Ana planned her escape from her abusive partner for two months.
The undocumented mother of three needed $1,700 for rent and $35 for the application fee. She wanted to rent an apartment in Belmont Cragin to start a new life without him. But he controlled everything.
The 48-year-old Mexican immigrant arrived in Chicago alone when she was 16. Her mother sent her here; Ana didn’t have a choice. A few years later, she found herself living with an older man who she said was controlling and abusive.
She felt alone as a young mother in a new country who didn’t speak English. With no money or a support system, she couldn’t figure a way out — even after the abuse became physical.
“It was normal for me,” she said in Spanish. She doesn’t want to use her full name because she’s afraid of being deported. “My mother told me I had to be submissive to my husband.”
Ana saved and borrowed money — even her teenage son who contributed by handing her the $190 he earned in his summer job.
“I left with nothing,” she said, adding that she could only afford to feed her family beans and tortillas for months.
“I made it. It was the best decision I’ve made,” she said, holding back tears. “Last year, my daughter hugged me on her birthday and told me leaving her dad was the best decision.”
It took years for Ana to feel comfortable talking about the abuse. Once she started talking about it, she saw it all around her. That’s why during the pandemic Ana helped a friend dealing with similar abuse. Ana dropped off food and lent her money. But as a domestic worker she doesn’t have much to share with the women who share her struggles with domestic violence during the pandemic.
Gender-based violence has been the shadow pandemic during the COVID-19 lockdown and immigrant women are facing additional challenges. During the first year of the pandemic, domestic disturbance calls slightly decreased. But those calls increased in 2021 by 12%, according to Chicago Police Department data. During that time, the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline (IDVH) experienced a substantial increase in the number of text messages received.
Neha Gill leads Apna Ghar, an advocacy organization to end gender-based violence. The nonprofit that runs a 24-hour crisis hotline.
“We’re serving survivors from 50 countries and our staff speak more than 20 languages,” Gill said. “We’ve developed cultural competency serving those survivors. They have immigration, cultural and language barriers.”
Gill said cultural competence matters when dealing with domestic violence situations.
“This idea that you have to leave and start over, in a lot of the communities we serve, it just doesn’t work,” she said. “The culture and communities that we represent can be more communal cultures.”
IDVH reported calls increased by 16% in the state and by 6% in Chicago, according to the 2020 “Measuring Safety” gender-based violence report by the Network, a coalition of more than 30 diverse Chicago-area organizations providing services to domestic violence survivors.
“For many experiencing harm, they will wait for the person causing harm to go to work or leave the house to call service providers. With stay-at-home orders in place, these calls were more challenging for survivors to make. Text messaging could be done more securely than making a call,” the report said.
Immigrant women struggling with domestic violence face additional challenges.
“Immigration status played a role in the violence experienced as her options for resources were extremely limited because of her status (employment, education, housing, primary care clinics, mental health, financial assistance, and other important resources to assist them,” the report said.
And there’s distrust of the police.
“For many immigrants, they are undocumented or they live in mix-status families,” said Linda Xóchitl Tortolero, who leads the Pilsen-based advocacy organization Mujeres Latinas en Acción. “If they call the police, they are afraid things can get out of hand. There may be lethal use of force or they’re afraid immigration might be called. They are afraid for their economic survival for them and their families. If the person who caused harm is deported or put into jail how will that help the family? These are heart-wrenching decisions for survivors to have to make. Involving police does not always guarantee the safety of anyone in that household.”
Chicago police arrested only 14% of the 138,843 domestic violence calls they responded to between Jan. 1, 2019 and April 20, 2022, data shows.
Organizations providing support to immigrant women struggling with domestic violence are taking an abolitionist approach as a way to respond to the community’s needs.
Itedal Shalabi, Arab American Family Services executive director, said the Arab community distrust police and it’s deeply rooted in previous interactions.
“It stems from the trauma of 9/11. It impacted everyone but impacted our community a lot more,” Shalabi said. “A lot of the community members are afraid to reach out to the police. Police are not looked upon as someone who is your friend.”
Shalabi said survivors told them they didn’t want to see their husbands arrested.
“We just want the abuse to stop,” Shalabi said the women told them. “If we want to end domestic violence we have to be inclusive of those who harm.”
Survivors want rehabilitation, she said.
“[Survivors’] ultimate goal is not to have the person punished forever by being deported and be out of the lives of their children,” she said. “We actually get a lot of those questions, but he’s going to be out of their lives. It’s not what they want.”
And a model that focuses on rehabilitation starts with changing the terminology when it comes to labels like “abusers” and “victims.”
“Such terms imply a permanency and pathology to an individual’s identity, with no space for restoration. In contrast, a ‘person first’ approach positions the person before their actions, allowing individuals to be perceived as more than their actions. ‘A person who harms’
suggests the individual can transform their behavior and make amends,” the Measuring Safety report said.
Ji-Hye Kim, executive director of the nonprofit KAN-WIN, said part of the work is educating immigrant women about what abuse actually looks like. KAN-WIN was created in 1990 by a group of Chicago-area Korean immigrant women who wanted to help domestic violence survivors in the Asian community. Now the organization provides services to Asian women from different countries and cultures.
“How each culture defines domestic violence or gender issues is all different. One of the things that we found out in focus groups and listening sessions is that when we use the U.S. definition of domestic violence, people were not understanding it. It just didn’t translate,” Kim said. “You have to find out how it can be understood or resonate with folks to be able to identify certain actions as domestic violence or sexual assault.”
Kim said by describing specific actions as domestic violence or sexual assault women was useful. There’s a lot of stigma in seeking help because many women believe the abuse is a family affair and there’s shame attached to seeking help.
“Another thing is that many people come from countries where they are not familiar with social services,” Kim said. And as a result women may not know that there are organizations that can help.
That was Ana’s experience. She left her ex without any support. She wished she’d found an organization to help her find a good paying job, an affordable apartment and food assistance for her children.
But despite the difficulties she’s proud she freed herself.
“Now, I make decisions about my life,” she said. “No one decides for me.”