Leaving it all Behind

Everyone has moments when they feel like escaping their life and starting again. Here we investigate the rise of the modern-day runaway
Saturday , 16 July 2011
Leaving it all Behind
The modern day runaway

Coming and going in Dubai is nothing new; people pass through the Emirate as regularly as the sandstorms that cover it. While it’s usually a new job elsewhere, debt or a feeling that they have ‘done their time’ that moves people onto fresh pastures, a new phenomenon has emerged: women are leaving without a word because they’ve simply had enough. They may have poured milk on their son’s cornflakes a few hours previously; chances are they watched the TV with their husbands the night before, and then – without revealing their plans to anyone, and with calm calculation – they close the front door behind them, and never go back.

“There’s been an increase in the past two years where women are choosing to ‘disappear’, either because they’re not able to resolve financial affairs or because of a marriage breakdown,” explains solicitor Emma Williams* who has watched the trend in the UAE grow and has dealt with the families in the aftermath. “Expat women, in terms of financial problems, feel they have no choice but to flee. But when it comes to a relationship breakdown, they fear local law, especially if children are involved. They are also socially isolated and away from home so they feel unable to cope without a family or friend to support them. Sometimes they feel it is the only way to break free from a controlling or manipulative partner,” she adds.

So they are choosing to leave everything they know behind and flee the country. Of course, many eventually return to their home countries, but there are some who just vanish without a trace. “I can think of several people I’ve met who tell of their mother leaving one day, saying she is going on holiday, and never returning,” says Helen Williams, a counsellor from Lifeworks Counselling Dubai. “There was one situation where the father couldn’t bring himself to tell his daughter that her mum had left, so she just kept waiting for her mum to come back.”

Statistics with the Criminal Monitoring Department of Dubai Police reveal that 84 people were reported missing in the first five months of 2009, of whom 68 were reported by families in Dubai and 16 were reported by people abroad – specifically from Gulf countries. According to Gulf News, one of the reasons given for people going missing in Dubai is lack of money and contacts in the country. That person has usually lost touch with their family back home and does not know where else to go.

Vanishing Act
And it’s not just a trend that’s on the rise in the Middle East. According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, 109,950 people are currently missing in the US, but it’s believed that there are up to one million unreported missing persons in the States today (to put it into perspective, that’s like half the population of Dubai suddenly disappearing into thin air).

“Missing persons is truly a global disaster,” says Todd Matthews, from the Doe Network (doenetwork.org) and “more and more missing person cases seem to be women”, he adds. Indeed, recent figures by the UK-based organisation Missing Persons revealed that the number of people going missing has risen by almost 30 per cent in the last few years and, according to Missing Persons PR officer, Amelia McGibbon, “latest figures reveal an astonishing 330,000 missing people reports were filed in the UK in 2009, up from 250,000”. Joe Apps, manager of the UK’s Missing Persons Bureau, backs this up, “On a case-by-case basis, we have seen more families report missing women than in any years previously”.

While those statistics are sad enough, what makes it worse is that it’s in the month of January when most women decide to escape. “There have been spikes around the Christmas holidays for disappearances,” says Matthews. “For some women, the stress and pressures of the festivities are too much to take and they reach breaking point. Come the New Year, they can’t take it any more.”

Apps backs this up saying, “Two thirds of missing people have simply had enough and decided to leave.”

Single mum Erika Cirioni, 33, is a case in point. Following Christmas celebrations she was last seen getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party in 2007 in Norwich, Connecticut. She stopped by her mother’s house on the way and was reportedly seen the next morning, on 1 January, walking back through the downtown area. These sightings are the only things her two children have to go on. “I’ll never forget the last time I saw my mum,” recounts Erica’s youngest son, Ben*. “She tucked me into bed, kissed me goodnight and closed my bedroom door. I turned over and closed my eyes, not dreaming for a second that would be the last time I’d see her.”

Johan Duncan, 31, feels the same gaping hole in her heart whenever she thinks of her missing mum. When her mother Patricia walked out of her family home in Buckie, Scotland, in 2002, her family didn’t immediately report the incident as they assumed she would return. Patricia had never said she was unhappy or that she wanted to leave, but after two days, the family rang the police. Suspicious circumstances were quickly ruled out as there were no signs of foul play, so Patricia became another statistic on the missing people board. “Almost 10 years on, every day we rack our brains as to why she left,” says Johan.

Keeping Mum
Tragically, it is the family – and the children of whatever age – who suffer the most. “The effect on the family is rarely considered by the person who leaves, although chances are many end up damaged for life,” says Dr Sandra Wheatley, consultant psychologist for the UK organisation Potent. Williams, from Dubai Counselling, agrees. “People, especially children, have a tendency to blame themselves. They believe there must be something wrong with them for their mum to leave.”

While research suggests that once a person has made the decision to leave, it becomes harder than ever to find them again, while for those left behind, no expense can be spared in trying to find their missing loved ones.

Searching for a missing person can cost the police anything from Dhs6,000 to Dhs1 million, but this doesn’t take into account the hours and monetary contribution made by the affected family.

Families are left to agonise over every little detail: what happened in March 2008 to make Janet Cowley leave her two daughters and disappear into the night? And why did Annette Francis-Chridi disappear on 28 December 2008, but leave her toothbrush at her family home?

Reasoning it Out
McGibbon cites financial pressure as one of the main triggers for the modern-day runaway: “In the current economic climate, the combination of job losses and debt may culminate in a rise in the number of missing people.” Counsellor Williams continues, “Many women choose to go because they believe it will help their family; they imagine that their loved ones would be better off without them.”

Carrie Gant, 32, believes this could be true of her mum Sandra, who disappeared in the UK in 2003. Sandra, allegedly, often got depressed and would drink as a way of coping with her problems. Carrie and her three siblings thought things were on the mend until she received a phone call from her sister, Lauren, to say that their mum hadn’t been seen for five days. “Over the years we’ve put up thousands of posters, knocked on doors and done endless press interviews, but still nothing,” says Carrie. “We can’t deal with it. How can someone just go missing without a trace?” Lauren, 23, says the most important thing is for the family to get answers. “Someone knows what has happened and I want to break the wall of silence,” she says. “As a family we need to move on with our lives.”

Moving on is another reason Williams cites for the rise of the runaway. “Women have far more choice now than they ever did before. In the 1950s, for instance, it was very difficult for a woman to support herself financially, so leaving was virtually impossible. But now a woman no longer feels she has to stay in a situation she doesn’t want to be in.

“Greater equality has given women greater choice, especially for those who feel trapped. But sometimes they leave on the promise of a better life for themselves,” she adds.

Never was this more true than for Tiffany Tehan, 31, who went missing from Ohio in April last year (2010), sparking a nationwide search across the whole of the US. A loving husband and a one-year-old daughter, Lexie, waited anxiously for news at home, fearing the worst. It transpired that Tiffany had run away to start a new life with a new man, and was discovered in a hotel room in Miami.

At any one time, there are 5,000 unresolved missing people cases in the UK on file and almost 10,000 in the US. These are long-term cases that remain unresolved for years, while the families never stop searching for answers. “Most people, even if the case turns out to be suspicious, would rather know what happened than be kept in the dark,” says McGibbon. “It’s the not knowing that can often be the worst thing.”

For many families, answers are all they need to be able to get on with their lives. But, until then, there are thousands of families who can do no more than leave a key under the door mat, lay an extra place at the table and always keep the bed sheets clean just in case they should ever receive an unexpected guest, who one day decides to come back home.

If you’d like to report a missing person, call Dubai Police on 04 269 2222.