Latino Voices

A Year Later, Asylum Seekers Work to Build New Lives With Help From Chicagoans

A Year Later, Asylum Seekers Work to Build New Lives With Help From Chicagoans

This week marks one year since the first bus of asylum seekers arrived in Chicago from the southern border. Since then, WTTW News has covered the city’s and volunteers’ response to aid the thousands of migrants seeking shelter.

Venezuela native Elney Mandonado arrived on a bus to Chicago almost a year ago. She and her sister now share in the comfort of a new home — but Mandonado said the journey came with terrifying obstacles.

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“In Mexico, our circumstances separated us,” Mandonado said. “We were robbed, and at one point, we didn’t know anything about each other, and when we saw each other, it was emotional because my sister thought something happened to us.”

Mandonado is a long way from Venezuela, where she operated a sewing business for many years until she said her country’s economic turmoil forced many like her to leave.

“It’s been an adventure,” Mandonado said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, where you are going to arrive, and they helped us.”

Maldonado is talking about people like Yolanda and Harry Pena, parishioners who work in partnership with Grace and Peace Church on the Northwest Side.

“Through our resources and Grace and Peace Church that provides things like this, the bedding and clothing, the food for them to have, so this is it,” Yolanda Pena said.

The couple opened the doors of their foundation’s headquarters to migrants last year, building a team to support transitioning asylum seekers through their new reality.

“Our gratification is seeing them be successful,” Harry Pena said. “Successful that they can move into their own apartment, get a job and get excited.”

Their work doesn’t stop there. At the 25th Police District headquarters, Yolanda Pena welcomes new arrivals living at the police station with things like medical assistance and basic necessities.

“At this district,” Yolanda Pena said, “we have about 58, and every day, we either get a family in or an individual here.”

Elianni Esea made it to Chicago a week ago with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. They traveled through the Panamanian jungle, Guatemala and Mexico. They’re one of many families sleeping on the floors of police districts waiting for a shelter.

Esea said she feels relieved to be in Chicago.

“I’m hoping things will be better for us,” Esea said. “I thank God nothing bad has happened here, and we have had help.”

But navigating the transition from temporary status to U.S. resident can be a long journey. Esea and her husband said they have to wait until 2025 to make their case in immigration court.

It can be a taxing process that the Penas try to assist with.

When asked what the city still needs to do, Harry Pena said it’s important to start funding grassroots organizations.

“If they come and see the work that has been done, you won’t have to ask us. Ask them. You ask them how they have been impacted here, and that’s our passion,” Harry Pena said.

Mandonado said she is getting closer to obtaining a work permit.

“With the grace of God, having my work permit, I feel things will change for me,” Mandonado said. “It brought me joy being able to possess my asylum, add my fingerprints and know that soon I’ll have my permit to work and do things better.”

In the meantime, she volunteers at Grace and Peace Church, helping others in her shoes start their new beginning in Chicago.

“I hope people remember to have compassion because we don’t know when we will need it,” Mandonado said. “Not everyone’s situation is the same, and not everyone here came to do wrong.”

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