Sisters Flee from Violence for Safety in the U.S.

Posted on February 26, 2018 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

Disabled and Abused

Julia Cruz

Walking Dogs to Support Her Family

Abandoned by her husband, Juana Cruz tried to support her daughters, Julia and Estefany, with the only job she could find in their impoverished town of Chlatenango, El Salvador: walking people’s dogs.  But walking dogs for neighbors not much better off than she left her family with earnings so meager they did not have enough to eat.  

Ultimately, she made the same heartbreaking decision so many make in this third world country.  She left her daughters Julia, then age 11, and Estefany, then age 6 and developmentally disabled, with a family friend in El Salvador so she could support them cleaning houses in the U.S.  The friend allowed the sisters to live with her but left their caretaking to young Julia.

Children Raising Children

Not yet a teen, Julia tried to protect her disabled little sister.  But odds against her success proved too high.  El Salvador is ranked among the most deadly countries for women in the world, the deadliest for women in Latin America.  In this nation where rapes and murders have become almost routine, danger looms even darker for girls without parents; worse still for girls with disabilities.  Little Estefany with her limited cognitive abilities, made a walking target.  A neighbor sexually assaulted her when she was 9 years old.

Julia reported this to the police and the police prosecuted the neighbor.  But the word was out. Estefany made an easy victim.

Julia and Estefany represent two of the hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant minors fleeing gangs and poverty to the safety in the United States.  And they represent two of the thousands of children helped each year by Catholic Charities NY.   But each child’s story is unique.  And some, like that of Julia and Estefany, are particularly powerful.

 “When I met Julia, she seemed wise beyond her years,” says Catholic Charities Immigration Attorney Brett Stark, Esq., who successfully represented the girls in Immigration Court and received green cards for them.  “And when I met her sister Estefany, I began to understand why.”

Fleeing rape and abuse

To protect Estefany from more abuse, Julia fled with her to find their mother in New York City.  They traveled for three months by car, bus and walking through Central America and Mexico.  Ultimately, in July 2014, they balanced on a crowded float to cross from the Rio Grande to the Texas border.  Finally, a few weeks later, they reunited with their mother.

Now legal U.S. residents, they are thriving thanks to significant legal, social service and counseling support she received from Catholic Charities. 

Safe at Last

Julia, now a junior at International Community High School, was honored with a “Beat the Odds” scholarship as one of the best and brightest of New York City immigrant youth.  The award comes complete with college prep plus $10,000 towards the college of her choice. She is already taking advanced placement courses and plans to study industrial engineering in college, she says.  Julia was also chosen as a special guest of Melissa Mark-Viverito for the city council speaker’s State of the City address. 

As for Estefany, she finally receives support she needs to live as independently as possible despite her disability.

Life as poor immigrants in New York City still poses its challenges.  Julia and Estefany share a two bedroom apartment with their mother, stepfather and uncle. They have little furniture, no dresser and no closets.

But they have safety, Julia says.  And they have each other.

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