The Four Lives of Butrus Lazarus

A South Sudanese refugee finds a permanent U.S. home with the help of a Diversity Visa and Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska

His name is Butrus Lazarus.

Lazarus of the Bible endured death for four days before Jesus gave him a new life. The Lazarus in our story endured four different stages of immigration status before a computer in a government facility randomly gave him a chance for a new life in the United States of America.

Stage 1: Refugee

South Sudan gained its independence in 2011 and almost immediately descended into Civil War. Map courtesy of  Voice of America.

Butrus fled his home in Southern Sudan in 2003. At that time, the Second Sudanese War had been waging for 20 years—the entirety of his young life.

Approximately 2 million people died during this conflict; another 4 million were displaced. Butrus, his father in jail, his Christian family a target of persecution, was determined to survive.

Following another biblical example, Butrus fled to Egypt. He applied to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and was accepted as a refugee. He waited to be resettled.

He was still waiting nine years later.

“There is no refugee camp in Egypt,” he explains. “I found work where I could, cleaning houses and things like that. This is how I was able to live and to survive.”

With such a rootless existence, school was out of the question. Yet it was the one thing—besides his family—that Butrus yearned for the most. He had always been serious about his studies.

An American missionary working in Cairo took an interest in him. She was able to find a place for Butrus in a high school outside the city. He stayed there for two years, when his missionary angel was able to help him, once again, with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Honestly, the idea of going to the United States was not in my mind,” Butrus admits, “I just wanted to go to college. I wanted it more than anything.”

Stage 2: Student Visa

Butrus surrendered his refugee card for a student visa and arrived at Iowa Western Community College in 2011, not long after South Sudan became an independent nation.

Life in Iowa was different, but Butrus soon felt at home. He was reunited with his eldest brother—who had been resettled in Iowa as a refugee—after a separation of nine years.  He could worship at a local church where many South Sundanese were fellow congregants.

“I struggled for that first year, but only for monetary reasons,” says Butrus, shrugging. “It wasn’t tough. I was happy. I enjoyed the school very much and the people were very friendly.”

Stage 3: Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

A U.N. peacekeeper from China on patrol in South Sudan. Courtesy of Foreign Policy.

In 2013, South Sudan descended into bloody ethnic violence and civil war. Recognizing the impossibility for those South Sudanese residing in the United States to return to an essentially failed state, the US government designated South Sudan for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

A person with TPS can legally work in the United States. Butrus, a student struggling to pay college costs, needed to work. He wanted to apply for TPS, but felt he needed help with the application. He found that help with staff attorney Gary Walters of Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska.

“Butrus is a great guy; very intelligent and very hard-working,” says Gary, “In South Sudan, he and his family were targeted because they were Christian and because they were from the wrong tribe. I was glad we were able to help him stay here.”

Gary helped Butrus apply for TPS the first time and then renew it two years later. In the meantime, Butrus continued working and taking as many classes as he could. He eventually transferred to University of Nebraska in Omaha, choosing to major in finance.

Stage 4: Diversity Visa Lottery

In 2017, 19.3 million people applied for the U.S. diversity visa lottery program. Although only a tiny fraction of these applicants will succeed in receiving visas, it is a wildly popular program worldwide, particularly in Africa. In 2015, for example, 10 percent of the Republic of Congo’s citizens applied for the program.

“It gives hope to people,” explains Gary, who, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo had witnessed first-hand the excitement the lottery engenders. “And it shows our welcoming nature towards all kinds of immigrants.”

“Can you believe it? I had no idea of what the diversity visa program was,” says Butrus ruefully, “until I was trying to help a friend apply.”

Although most people who apply do so from their home countries, applicants living in the U.S. are also eligible, if they can prove they had legal status the entire time they have resided here. Butrus had never overstayed his student visa. He now had TPS. Furthermore, he was from a country which had not sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. in the previous five years. He was definitely eligible.

Butrus Lazarus is now a  U.S. Permanent Resident.  

Butrus was always uneasy about his TPS, knowing that it could be canceled at any time. The lottery was a long shot, but it was also a chance for to stay in his new home.

“I thought, ‘well, why not me?’” he says, chuckling. “Why not let me try?”

He applied in October 2015 and again in 2016. The second time he was lucky. Among all those other names, the computer had plucked out his. But it wasn’t a done deal yet.

“It’s a two-part system,” explains Gary, who has been a JFON attorney for nearly a decade. “First you get your lottery number. Then you have to wait for that number to open up a visa spot. It doesn’t always open up. Basically, if you win, but the spot doesn’t open up, you lose your chance.”

Once again, Butrus was lucky. There was a spot available for him; now all he needed to do was file for his immigrant visa and successfully complete the interview process.

“I was really nervous about that,” he confesses, “because you don’t know what kind of questions they will ask.”

“It was not a difficult case,” counters Gary. “Butrus was a person in good standing, with no record, and well-regarded in the community. He’s exactly the kind of person you want settling in the United States.”

Epilogue

Butrus is now a U.S. permanent resident. He will graduate next year from the university. He plans for a career in banking. He wants to become a U.S. citizen.

Does he miss his home in South Sudan?

“I miss my people,” he says quietly. “With my green card, I can travel anywhere I want to, but…it’s not good there. The war doesn’t stop.”

Butrus bows his head. “I am so blessed.”

Is he remembering the terrors of war, the years of loss and hardship? Or does he reflect on the many kindnesses of strangers he has encountered along his journey?

Perhaps, just perhaps, he considers one random and monumental act of kindness in particular…from an inanimate machine in a government office somewhere in Kentucky, briskly choosing the next Lazarus.

_____________________________________________

 

Feature photo by Reuters

Simple Gifts

  JFON Southeastern Michigan client and new U.S. permanent resident reminds us of the things we take for granted 

When Carolina and her family left Chile for the United States in 1999, she thought they were going for a nice visit.

“I had no idea whatsoever of my parents’ plan to stay,” she says, shaking her head at the memory.  “I was young and I didn’t understand much.”

Carolina adapted to her new life, as kids usually do. She went to school and studied hard in her ESL class so she could keep up with her new American friends. She graduated high school and planned to continue on to college.

That was when she realized, like so many young immigrants before and after her, what it means to be undocumented.  Like the sudden shock of a hard frost on young fruit, Carolina’s dreams withered and died. She gave up her plans for college. She got a job instead; the kind of job you get when you don’t have a social security number.

Fast forward a few years, with two young children and a U.S. citizen husband, Carolina wondered if she could finally secure her status in the country she had long considered home. A friend told her about Justice for Our Neighbors Southeastern Michigan.

“Everyone was so nice,” Carolina says of her first experience at the immigration legal clinic at Ypsilanti First United Methodist Church. “This is where I was introduced to our attorney Melanie Goldberg.”

“Carolina was very sweet,” remembers Melanie. “I didn’t know why she hadn’t done anything before, but I was glad I was able to help her.”

Carolina and her children enjoy a day in an apple orchard, picking and eating some of Michigan’s finest fruit. 

On the outside, Carolina’s case—being married to a U.S. citizen and having in-laws ready and willing to be her support sponsors—looked like it would be a relatively routine one. But Melanie soon discovered that there were some issues to resolve before they could proceed.

For one thing, they needed additional documentation, and that would require extra time.

“Melanie was so well prepared,” says Carolina approvingly.  “She took the time to thoughtfully request precise evidence to be sure that I wouldn’t be at risk of denial when filing for my green card. Although it slowed us down a bit and I was eager to get things rolling, I was glad she spent time researching and making sure we wouldn’t have any delays.”

JFON SEMI handles 15 – 20 green card cases each year; each typically takes about six months. Carolina started the process in November 2016 and finally received her permanent residence this past September.

“I felt secure and confident with her beside us in the interview,” says Carolina. “She filled out every form for me and prepared us so well.” Carolina takes a deep breath. “I literally couldn’t have done it without her help.”

Carolina is normally a shy person, and definitely not a fan of public speaking. Yet when asked to tell her story at our annual JFON Roundtable Conference in Detroit, she jumped at the opportunity to express her gratitude and her joy.

“I am now proud to say that I’m a permanent resident,” she told the audience, smiling shyly at the thunderous applause, “and, God willing, I will soon be a U.S. citizen!”

Carolina and her husband have two children—an 18-month old daughter and a 6-year old boy.  As she speaks, Carolina comes back to her children again and again. Yes, Carolina’s working life has changed, but, more importantly, her life as a mother has changed. It’s obvious which change she values the most.

“Last year, when my son was in kindergarten,” she relates, “I missed so many activities because I was not driving. I missed field trips and performances, and it made me super-sad. But now, with the benefits of being a legal resident, I can confidently sign up for volunteer work and to chaperone at field trips.”

Parents in the room steal glances at each other. Did any of us ever consider chaperoning an elementary school field trip a “benefit?”

“Now,” Carolina adds, her voice quavering with emotion, “I can speak with the rest of the moms without feeling somehow left out. It feels amazing not having to worry about my children’s future, and be able to save for their college education.”

Carolina rubs happy tears from her eyes and beams. From someone who was living day-to-day, she is now living for the many days ahead of her, with hopes, plans, and dreams. She and her husband would like to travel. They want to work hard so that one day they can move into their own home. Carolina would also like to pursue her long-delayed dream and go back to college.

“I want to set a good example for my kids,” she says, “that no matter how old you are, you can continue learning and dreaming to achieve higher.”

Carolina, like so many of our clients, reminds us of the many simple things we take for granted. Perhaps one day she’ll take them for granted, too. Today, however, these simple things are still very new and wonderful.

“I have no words to describe how blessed we were to have found JFON,” she says simply. “Melanie was more than a lawyer to me. I felt like she was my good friend.”

 

JFON Defends the #DREAMers

We—National Justice for Our Neighbors and the entire JFON network—are extremely dismayed by President Trump’s cruel and reckless decision to revoke Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Speaking on behalf of the entire Trump administration, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced his intention to end DACA by March 5th, 2018.

This decision will not only affect the 800,000 young people currently with DACA status, but many more DACA-eligible youths whose applications filed after today will not be considered.

Congress now has six months to take action on DACA and pass legislation to protect these young people and secure the future of all those eligible for DACA.

DACA recipients are not only our clients, but our board members, staff, partners, friends, and family. Our future is intertwined with theirs, our country and lives enriched by their many contributions.  We stand in full solidarity with immigrants and our allies and will lift our voices unequivocally in opposition to this decision and in full support of the Dream Act of 2017.

In the meantime, our attorneys will identify any other avenues of legal remedies for clients with DACA and help these young people apply for immigration benefits.

This is not the end.

We are also here to stay, and we will never back down from this fight for justice. 

What can you do? 

Stay Informed.

Check out and distribute the Immigration Legal Resource Center’s resources and Catholic Legal Immigration Network’s tool on the revocation of DACA.

Join your community in the streets.

Visit Here to Stay to find the nearest action to you.

Call your Representatives!

Tell Congress to enact the Dream Act of 2017 and protect immigrant youth. Use this call-in script and information provided by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition.

 

My DACAmented Life

NJFON Board Member and Elementary School Teacher Luis Juárez reflects on the 5th Anniversary of DACA 

As we commemorate five years of DACA, I sit back to reflect on the opportunities I have received in my DACAmented life. This executive action has catapulted my life to a level that I never thought I could reach. It has given me a privilege not available to many undocumented people and helped me turn my dreams into a reality.

Luis prepares for his video broadcast for students and parents of Lipscomb Elementary.

Personally, I am responsible for impacting the lives of hundreds of students at school. My undocumented experience, combined with my professional life, has equipped me with a plethora of resources that I get to share with the families I encounter. My teaching philosophy is sharply defined by these experiences and this has brought me incredible accomplishments in the classroom.

Lastly, thanks to NJFON, I now find myself in leadership spaces where I have a direct impact on communities around the country.

As I continue this journey, I am very conscious that this could not have been possible without DACA. My story is one of many, and it is incredibly important that we continue to be protected and supported. If there is anything we have proven, it is that we are willing to do the impossible to make a name for ourselves and give back to a country that has taken a chance on us.

Julio’s Story

West Michigan JFON helps young accident victim become DACAmented 

Julio was brought to the United States in 2005, when he was only 13 years old. Unfortunately, he did not find a welcoming land of opportunity here, but was instead terrorized and exploited by an abusive uncle. Julio was not allowed to go to school. Even at that tender age, he was forced to work to pay off family debts to his uncle.

When Julio turned 16, he was finally able to move out of his uncle’s house and live with his brother. He was also able to start school. But Julio lacked evidence of his physical presence in the U.S. before he started school in 2008— evidence necessary for a successful DACA (Defered Action for Childhood Arrivals) application.

Julio first came to JFON West Michigan in 2014, after he had suffered a workplace accident that caused him paraplegia. He had to sue his employer to receive the worker’s compensation he was due to help pay for his expensive medical bills.

He could not, however, collect any money without a social security number, and for that he needed to prove his DACA eligibility.

Julio and his legal team at JFON West Michigan waited anxiously for well over a year, trudging through a challenging RFE (Request for Evidence) process before he finally got his DACA application approved.

“When he came to pick up his work permit,” remembers site attorney Alex Gillette, “he and his friend brought us two dozen doughnuts. Julio had proudly paid for them himself as a thank you to our staff.”

“Since we first met Julio,” continues Alex, “he has grown so much; his memory has substantially improved and his confidence has grown exponentially.”

Alex smiles happily. “We are thrilled he received DACA,” she says. “That program changed his life.”

Why DACA Matters

“If I could work—even a little—it would help my brother who is supporting me and my little sister.”

In our video The JFON DREAMers in their own words, we see but a sampling of the young DACAmented clients the JFON network has helped over the last five years. They tell us of their plans to go to college, join the military, and have successful careers. They express their hopes to be of service to their communities, their adopted country, and the world. We hear their longing to belong and to be recognized as Americans.

But another, more prosaic, reason why DACA matters so much to our clients is found in an open-ended question on the I-765 Worksheet submitted to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). Applicants are asked to explain why they need work authorization.

“My dad is sick. He has diabetes and I want to be able to help him pay for his medicine and other bills at home.”

We’ve collected a lot of these statements from our clients over the years. Some of them expound on their goals and ambitions:

“I need to work to save for college,” they begin, followed by the expressed desire to become—a nurse, a teacher, a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, a diplomat. One young man expressed himself simply and poignantly:

One constant that runs through many of their statements is the worry and concern for their parents.  Some of these applicants are still teenagers in high school, yet they are keenly aware of their elders’ struggles and sacrifices:

“I know my parents are having a rough time with the economy. I want to help them pay the rent and buy food.”

 “Helping my grandma pay for her medication would be the nicest thing I could ever do.” 

 Many of the DACAmented who were young adults in 2012—or who have since become young adults five years later—are now working to support their own children. Many others support parents, siblings, relatives both here and back in the country of their birth:

 I am the cashier and food runner at a local deli and make approximately $8.00 an hour.  I need to have more work. I send back money to Honduras to help support my mom, dad, and two sisters.”

“My mother and I work to support my younger brother, who has cerebral palsy.”

For many of our DACA clients, security, the ability to wake up in the morning and know they will return to that same place in the evening—this is what truly matters the most; even if that security is doled out two years at a time.

This benefit of DACA has gained greater urgency during the current administration, which has stated that all undocumented immigrants are priorities for deportation. The statements below were written way back in 2012 and to read them now is to feel, once again, the ever-present menace of living in perilous times.

 “I have a daughter and want to start building her future. I would like to not be deported and have to leave my family behind.”  

“DACA will cease my fear of being deported and I would feel more safe and not so scared because I can prove to anyone that I can be in the U.S.A.”

New Anti-Immigrant Bill is an Affront to Our Core Values

 NJFON Executive Director Rob Rutland-Brown urges you to take action against the anti-family and anti-refugee bill before Congress

National Justice for Our Neighbors strongly opposes the “Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy” (RAISE) Act, introduced by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) and championed by the Trump Administration. This anti-family and anti-refugee bill would dismantle our nation’s immigration system based on supporting family unification and would greatly reduce refugee admissions, instead favoring a “merit-based” points system based on the applicant’s ability to speak English and benefit the U.S. economy.

Like so many other proposals that have been floated in recent months, the justification for this bill—that it would increase wages and protect American jobs—relies not on facts but on myths meant to make us fear immigrants. For example, last year the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine produced a 500+ page report in which the lead researcher concluded that immigration had “little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the longer term.”

More importantly, this bill is an affront to the core values of JFON: promoting family unity and defending the most vulnerable.  We are called to serve those who are desperately seeking safety, refuge, and family.

Another relevant text, also not cited by those introducing the bill, the Bible, reminds us, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:40)

Here are some components of the bill that demonstrate why we vehemently oppose it:

  • Reduces legal immigration channels by 50-70 percent, with an 85 percent cut to family-based immigration.
  • Permanently caps refugee admissions at 50,000 per year, the lowest resettlement goal in U.S. history, during the largest global refugee crisis in world history.
  • Eliminates the ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor their brothers and sisters, and creates an impossible process for them to sponsor their parents for five-year visas, during which time the parents would not be able to work and the child would have to cover all expenses and health insurance costs.
  • Stops green card holders from sponsoring their children over the age of 18.
  • Leaves approximately four million people, who have been promised a visa and are waiting in line for it to become available, without any opportunity to reunite with their family members.
  • Essentially only permits individuals who have certain education levels, work history, English-language ability, or high-paying job offers to enter the United States.

The Interfaith Immigration Coalition, of which National JFON is a member, has drafted this sign-on letter that we encourage all faith leaders, churches, and JFONs to sign. Also, we urge you to call your Senators and Representative today at 202-224-3121.

Sample Script: I’m your constituent from [CITY/TOWN], and I am strongly OPPOSED to Senators Cotton and Perdue’s RAISE Act. This bill would permanently cut refugee resettlement numbers to historic lows, make family reunification inaccessible, and essentially only permit individuals who have certain education levels, employment history, and English-language ability to enter the United States. I urge you to reject this bill and do everything in your power to see that it does NOT become law.”

Thank you for your help.

Fugees Family United!

Refugee kids find a home with their team and their coach

 Their school finds a home with a United Methodist Church

“There was this one time,” remembers  Asad, a lanky 15-year old from Sudan,  “we were winning and that made the other team mad. ‘Go back to where you came from!’ they yelled at us. One of my teammates was wearing a hijab and they called her a terrorist. That really affected me, you know, because I am a Muslim. And I am a refugee.”

Asad takes a break from the soccer game.

“We could have reacted badly,” he adds, “but we knew we couldn’t let them get into our heads or we would lose the game. So we just walked away and let it go.”

Asad is as quick with his smile as he is with his feet. But he, like so many of his teammates, is a child survivor of war. He has lost much of his childhood to that war.

“I have had a hard life,” he acknowledges matter-of-factly. “But now I try to use my experiences as lessons to help me stay off the bad lane in life, and as a way to move on.”

He looks to his teammates, many of whom have witnessed horrors equal to his.

“I think,” he says thoughtfully, “that soccer has taught us peace.”

Summertime

On one end is the Washington Monument. On the other is the alabaster-white dome of the U.S. Capitol. In the grassy mall that lies between them, on a day shimmering with heat, the kids are playing soccer.

Some of the players—there are both boys and girls—come from the Northern Virginia suburbs. They have uniforms and proper footwear. They love soccer, and it shows. They are very good.

And then there are the Fugees, invited guests of the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, whose inspirational story is now part of the Many Voices, One Nation exhibit at the National Museum of American History.

The Fugees Family are a team made up of refugee kids, hailing from some of the most troubled spots in the world today: Sudan, Burma, Iraq, Syria.  One girl plays in a hijab. The boys are playing barefoot. These teens also love soccer. And they are also very good.

Visitors to the festival stop to watch the game, and the kids among them are invited to join the Fugee team. One teenaged boy immediately takes off his sneakers so he can play barefoot, too.

“All right!” he shouts after his teammate—originally from Thailand—scores a goal. They grin and high five each other.

The kids of summer play soccer on the Washington Mall.

Their coach, Luma Mufleh, an asylee and immigrant from Jordan, watches from the sidelines. “Put them on a field and let them play,” she says.  “At the end of this, they’ll be exchanging Facebook profiles.”

Ala kaffi el Qadar numshi wa la nudri ‘An el Maktoob

(On the palm of fate we walk and do not know what is written)

You may already know something of the Fugees Family and their remarkable coach. They have been the subject of numerous news stories, videos, TV shows, and a 2009 book, optioned for a film by Universal Studios in Hollywood. Coach Luma was one of CNN’s Top Ten Heroes of 2016. This year she has her own Ted Talk.

Clarkson Citizenship class. Photo courtesy of America by the Numbers.

You may also have heard of their hometown, Clarkston, Georgia, the “Ellis Island of the South.” With its access to public transportation, close proximity to Atlanta, and affordable apartment complexes ready to be occupied, Clarkston was identified as an ideal refugee resettlement hub in the 1980s.

Refugees from 50 different countries have made Clarkston their first American home. Today, the town welcomes 1,500 refugees a year; half of its 13,000 residents are refugees. It truly is the “most diverse square mile in America.”

“The only place I’ve experienced this kind of diversity,” Luma says, “is in New York City.”

It was this diversity which led Luma to Clarkston one day in 2004 on a search for authentic pita—the kind she remembered from her childhood. She took a wrong turn and came upon some refugee boys playing soccer with rocks as goal posts and a sorry excuse for a ball.  Luma had a better one in the trunk of her car. She used it to entice the boys to let her play with them.

And so it began. Luma formed a soccer team for refugee boys. She then started helping them with their homework, getting to know their families, and worrying about their struggles against poverty and gang violence. Are they going to have a meal when they get home? Are they going to be jumped for their soccer cleats walking back to their apartment complex? How far behind will they fall in their studies?

Luma decided to start a school—an academy—for child survivors of war.

Was that wrong turn written on her own palm of fate? Was it destiny? Could Luma have had any idea how much her life—and the lives of so many refugee kids and their families—would change from a simple and unexpected game of soccer?

No one is left behind

Coach Luma’s plan for a Fugee academy—small classes, remediation, social integration, and soccer at its core—found a home at Clarkston’s First United Methodist Church.  The students occupy 90 percent of the church building space during the school year. They need all this room and more; there is a long waiting list of kids who want to come to the Fugee Academy.

The changes Clarkston has undergone in the last 30 years are reflected in this church; its once all-white congregation has shrunken dramatically, the remaining original parishioners now quite elderly.

Along with the church’s traditional English service, there is also one for their Eritrean brethren. An additional five congregations of other denominations hold services at the First UMC; one Burundian, one Nepalese, and three Burmese.

“On any given Sunday,” says Pastor Karen Lyon, “we have services in this church from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. And everyone is welcome here.”

Pastor Lyon recently completed her own Doctorate of Ministry, and she credits the Fugee students as a source of inspiration. “When you are in the presence of these kids, and you see their hunger for learning, their discipline—they are often in school from 7:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night—yes,” she states emphatically, “they encouraged me to study harder.

“They are one great family,” she adds.  “No one is left behind. They know all too well what it feels like to be left behind.”

 Epilogue

The game is over. Members of the Fugee team are gathered under a tent, water bottles in hand, speaking to an audience of festival visitors.  They answer questions and share their opinions about the museums they’ve visited and their favorite subjects in school. They share memories of arriving in a new country, one with leafy trees and weird food. They admit to struggles to learn English and new customs.

Mostly, though, they talk about being part of the Fugee family, of belonging to each other, to the team, and to their coach.

Life is good.

Photo courtesy of the Fugees Family. Coach Luma (center) with some of her kids. There are currently 83 students from grades 6 – 12, each grade reflecting the resettlement influx of that year; Afghanistan, Sudan, Burma, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 6th grade class this year is predominantly from Syria.

 

* Coach Luma plans to open a Fugee academy in Columbus, Ohio in 2018 and a few more in Midwestern towns where there are refugee resettlement hubs.  All of them will follow the Fugees model so kids can have “this experience of being welcomed, wanted, and loved.”

To read more or to help them with this project, please visit the Fugees Family

 

Asylum

 Emily Kvalheim of South Florida Justice for our Neighbors helps abused and neglected children find safety in the United States. 

A couple of months ago, a 12-year-old client and I sat down at the large, wooden desk in the middle of our small office. We were coloring pictures from a Dora the Explorer coloring book. Even as an adult, I find that coloring can relieve stress, and I hoped it would do the same for the young girl who sat next to me.

Emily and one of her youngest clients take a break from Immigration Court to look at the Miami River and skyline.

We began talking about school. She told me about her classes and that she was studying hard to learn English because she wanted to be a doctor one day. We bonded over our love of animals.

She told me about her life in El Salvador. I did my best to let her direct our conversation.

Soon I learned that her grandpa often got drunk and said he wanted to rape her.

Soon I was getting up to grab a box of tissues and a bottle of water as she explained that her uncle groped her cousin in front of other relatives, but nobody did anything.

Soon she told me about the nights when her uncle snuck into her bed and raped her.

She cried as she told me her family didn’t love her and wouldn’t protect her. We were the first to hear about what had happened to her in El Salvador. She couldn’t even tell her family.

About five weeks ago and with the help of a Spanish-speaking “monitor,” I was the Spanish-English interpreter for her three-hour affirmative asylum interview. I was so proud of her for telling her story, even through sobs. It was incredibly brave.

The waiting after the interview is the most difficult for everyone, I think, especially for the family. I get frequent phone calls from asylum applicants, wondering if I’ve heard anything. They are all afraid they will be forced to go back and face their nightmares once again.

The question people ask me most often is whether my job is emotionally draining. The answer is yes, sometimes, obviously.

“I knew immigration law was complicated,” says Emily, shown here in her South Florida JFON office. “I just didn’t realize how much.” 

The answer is also that, while it is hard to hear and interpret and repeat and write down and reread the horrifying acts of violence and persecution that my young clients have faced, it was much worse for them to have to live those real experiences.

I owe it to them to be at least as brave as they have been by fleeing and sharing their stories so they can stay safe.

As I look back on my time as a Global Mission Fellow Missionary serving with South Florida Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON), my heart is full. This experience has been incredibly rewarding, and I will miss my clients greatly as I head to law school in the fall.

Last week I opened up a letter: “Recommended Approval” it said, in bold, at the top.

“She’ll get to be a doctor,” I thought. The sense of relief washed over me when I called the child’s mother. Contingent upon an identity and background check, etc., the United States has decided to protect her from the persecution she faced as a young girl in El Salvador.

I allowed myself a chance to feel the joy of that moment.

Then I was back to work, with 12 more asylum applications to finish before I leave in July.

_____________________________________

* Emily Kvalheim and Caitlin Kastner, both Global Mission Fellows of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries have spent the last two years working for South Florida JFON. They have both been an invaluable asset to that mission, but now their time is at an end.  We wish them all the best in their future endeavors, knowing they will always leave their little piece of the world better than when they found it. Godspeed!

We wrote about Emily and Caitlin when they first started their work for South Florida JFON. Please read it here. 

 

For the Love of my Five Daughters

JFON New York reunites sisters after a 22-year separation

He was a hard-working man in a country where hard work is not always rewarded. He was a devout man among the Christian minority in Hyderabad, India; a lay minister in the Methodist Church, who loved to preach and loved to sing. He was a man who always wanted to do the right thing.

But ask anyone who knew this man to identify the defining purpose of his life and the answer would always be the same: love for his daughters. He had five of them; they were the joy of his life, but also his worry. How would he adequately provide for them? What kind of future would they have? Where was the opportunity for them?

So when Mark had a chance to immigrate to the United States, and to bring his family with him, he took it. This had been his dream for a very long time. He was determined that his daughters would start new and better lives in America.

All except one. Tiara, the eldest, was 21 years of age and recently married. No longer a dependent, she was not allowed to accompany her father. She and her husband would need to stay in India until Mark could find a way to bring them over.

It was a heart-wrenching decision. They were a close and loving family. They knew it would take more than a decade to bring Tiara to them. The sisters had never been separated. How would they bear so many years apart?

“It was difficult to be left behind,” admits Tiara quietly. “But I understood why.”

It was for the good of the family, and the family is everything.

Like these girls enjoying a holiday at the beach, Mark’s daughters were devoted sisters.

In 2001, after some years living in the United States, Mark—a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR or Green Card holder) who was on his way to citizenship—petitioned the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to bring Tiara and her husband over to join the family. He assumed he was doing the right thing, that as a Green Card holder he had a right to petition for Tiara.

He was wrong.

“My father didn’t do his homework,” admits Josephine, the second eldest daughter. “He should have asked somebody, but he didn’t have anyone to advise him. He didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that.”

USCIS never informed Mark of his mistake. He became a citizen in 2002, still waiting to hear when his eldest daughter would be joining them. In 2006, they were finally informed that Mark’s original petition as an LPR was invalid. Now they would have to start all over again.

For a U.S. citizen parent to bring over a married child from India the waiting time is 12 years. If Mark had waited and submitted the petition when he became a U.S. citizen, the family would have been together by 2014. Now the earliest they would see her would be 2018.

By his mistake, Mark had cost his daughter Tiara and their entire family four years. Four years when they could have been together.

“He carried this guilt until his deathbed,” remembers Josephine. “For 22 years, he lived with regret for leaving her behind. He wasn’t able to give her the advantages the rest of his daughters had. And then, to know we had lost all those precious years…” She shakes her head. “It was a terrible blow.”

Their father died in 2015. It was a shock to everyone. He had been ill, yes, but it hadn’t seemed that serious. Always protecting the ones he loved, Mark had hid his illness well from his daughters.

“The last time I saw him,” recalls Josephine, her voice quavering, “he made me promise: ‘If anything happens to me,’ he told me, ‘you have to continue. You have to bring your sister here.’”

“I honestly feel like I reassured him,” she adds. “He trusted me. He had faith that I would get this job done. I was not going to fail him.”

Although Josephine willingly shouldered this burden from her beloved father, the obstacles preventing her from carrying out his last wishes remained immense. A family petition dies with the petitioner. Josephine would have to submit her own petition and as she was only a sibling, the wait would be another 14 years. The year would be 2029. The sisters would be middle-aged women, their own children grown, before they would be finally reunited.

Citizens of India whose U.S. citizen siblings filed family-sponsored petitions on or before Sept 15, 2003, are finally eligible for an immigrant visa in June 2017.

Josephine was at a loss as to where to turn and what to do. A friend from church told her about JFON New York and site attorney TJ Mills.

TJ advised Josephine to apply for a humanitarian exemption, so that Tiara, her husband and child, would be moved to the front of the line. “It was going to be difficult,” TJ acknowledges. “Tiara’s life was not in any danger and she was not suffering undue hardship—unless we could convince the USCIS that a family’s separation of 22 years is an undue hardship.”

“What we had on our side,” TJ adds, “is that family unity is fundamental to U.S.  immigration policy.” He began gathering affidavits; a local congressman became involved; and TJ carefully laid out the case for a timely family reunification.

They won, and Tiara, her husband, and child will shortly be moving to the United States.

“Honestly, I feel like USCIS probably felt remorse,” says Josephine. “My guess is that they felt somewhat responsible for the delay. If they had only informed us of my father’s mistake…” She stops, her voice quavering again with unshed tears. “And perhaps,” she finishes quietly, “they also recognized that we all had been apart long enough.”

It was a miracle late in coming, but it was still a miracle. “I give the glory to God,” Josephine says gratefully, “but also to TJ.”

Josephine and her sisters are busily making preparations for the day when they are finally reunited. There will be a joyous celebration, of course, with many thankful prayers. “And then,” says Josephine, “we will all go to visit our father’s grave and spend some time with him.”

Together the five daughters will remember the father who loved them and wanted to give them the world. A father who nurtured trees under whose shade he will never sit and who planted seeds for a garden he will never see bloom.

“He is,” says Tiara simply, “still in the midst of us.”