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Windows, walls and invisible lines

Portraits of life in sanctuary

Joel Dyer

The following feature appears courtesy of Boulder Weekly in Colorado, where editor and photojournalist Joel Dyer has been crossing the country to document the lives of people living in sanctuary in the United States. The stories below appear in the fifth installment of the ongoing project, which will culminate in a book and traveling photography exhibit. 

“When I started this effort in March 2018, there were an estimated 25 to 30 people in 22 states who had taken public sanctuary in churches to avoid deportation and family separation,” Dyer writes. “At that time, the best estimate for people who had taken non-public sanctuary in the United States was just over 100, but that figure was clearly just a best guess.

As of July 2019, there are now 44 people in public sanctuary and the number in non-public sanctuary is even less clear. As the Trump administration’s assault on immigrants intensifies by the day, the number is likely growing.”

For more information, visit boulderweekly.com.  — TTV Staff 

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Vicky Chavez 
(with her two young daughters)
Salt Lake City, Utah
Time in sanctuary: 18 months

You can’t cut it any closer than Vicky Chavez did in January 2018. After being ordered to leave the country by ICE officials, Chavez bought plane tickets for herself and her then 4-month-old and 6-year-old daughters. She packed their few belongings, went to the airport and even checked in for the family’s deportation flight. But then she became overwhelmed by what would be waiting for her and her small children when the plane landed.

In 2014, Vicky and her then-3-year-old daughter fled their home town of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a city widely regarded as one of the most dangerous and violent in the world. Vicky left her home country because she says she was experiencing sexual violence and domestic abuse. She said things were rapidly deteriorating and that both she and her daughter were told they were going to be killed. Vicky chose to flee to the U.S. because she hoped to apply for asylum— which she says she did immediately upon her arrival—and because her parents already lived here legally.

Despite doing all the things her attorney instructed, Vicky and her daughter’s asylum request was eventually turned down by the courts. She says she still doesn’t understand why but suspects that her legal advice may have been flawed. After her appeals also failed, Vicky, who had another daughter in 2017 (a U.S. citizen) was ordered to leave the country and return to Honduras even though she has no immediate family, no job prospects and no way to feed her children there. And as Vicky put it so bluntly, “I knew I might be killed if I went back and that meant my children could be killed as well.”

So, standing in the Salt Lake City airport waiting to board her plane to what she believed would be the death of her family, Vicky suddenly changed her mind. She asked one of the activists who had come to see her off if she would take her to a church where she and the girls could take sanctuary. 

That was 18 months ago and Vicky, now 31, along with her nearly 8-year-old daughter and her nearly 2-year-old daughter, who has no real memories of life outside of sanctuary, are still spending every day of their lives inside the walls of Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church. They live in a converted classroom.

Vicky does her best to make the girl’s lives as normal as possible under conditions that are anything but. She tries to always keep a good attitude and a smile on her face when around the kids. She told me the only time she lets herself be sad is when they are both asleep.

Vicky has no idea how long she’ll be both imprisoned and protected within the church walls she now calls home. And while she hopes to have her case for asylum reopened at some point, she says no matter what happens, she knows she made the best decision for her children. “At least we are all together and safe, and that is more important than anything else.”

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Saheeda Nadeem
Kalamazoo, Michigan
Time in sanctuary: 16 Months

Saheeda Nadeem came to the United States 14 years ago on a non-immigrant visa. Her goal was to create a better life for her two elementary-aged children, her daughter, Lareb, and her son, Samad.

Saheeda was born in rural Pakistan 63 years ago. Her parents helped her to gain her education and then, while she was still a teenager and sensing that her opportunities would be greatly limited if they stayed in Pakistan, her family immigrated to Kuwait, where Saheeda became a domestic servant. After years in Kuwait, Saheeda still wanted more opportunity for her children than what she had been given. That’s why she decided to come to the U.S. around 2005.

Saheeda and her kids found a home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the woman from Pakistan would become a beloved part of the community. She is known as “Auntie Saheeda” for her decade of work with disabled adults in a group home setting and as a parental figure for orphaned refugee children relocated to the Kalamazoo area. 

After her visa ran out, Saheeda was granted annual deferments from deportation. But after Trump took office, ICE ordered her deported back to Pakistan, a country she has not set foot in for more than 40 years and where she has no known family or friends.

The area where Saheeda is from in Pakistan is very strict in its Muslim teachings. While Saheeda is herself a devout Muslim, she fears that without having a male family member, her life will be in danger. For these and other reasons, Saheeda’s family and friends believe she may be killed if deported to Pakistan.

For her part, Saheeda says she simply can’t leave her children. Sadly, her daughter, Lareb, was killed in a car wreck in 2016 just as she was graduating from college. Saheeda took comfort in visiting her beloved daughter’s grave every single day before being forced to take sanctuary in Kalamazoo’s First Congregational Church. She told me not being able to visit her daughter’s grave is the hardest part about being in sanctuary. When asked if she struggles with boredom after working so many hours prior to being in sanctuary, she smiles and says, “No, I eat three times a day and I pray five times a day. I am still very busy.”

Saheeda’s son Samad is still in college and protected for now by his DACA status. He is a passionate and outspoken advocate for his mother and increasingly for all those threatened because of their undocumented status.

He says if his mother is deported he will go to Pakistan with her because her life could well depend on it. But as a young man who has grown up in the United States, it is certainly not the preferred outcome for himself or his mother. 

As for this historic old church in Kalamazoo that has so kindly provided sanctuary for Saheeda, it is just the latest in a long history of such social justice actions. The church was actually the last stop on the Underground Railroad so many years ago. Oh, how little has changed.  

Eastern U.S.
Time in non-public Sanctuary: 
withheld upon request

There are many reasons why some immigrants ordered to leave the U.S. have taken sanctuary, but not publicly. In many cases it is because they will, with almost absolute certainty, be killed if returned to their countries of origin. 

That is most definitely the case with Diego, whose real identity, country of origin and current location in sanctuary I have agreed not to reveal.

As a teenager, Diego and a close friend were walking together in their hometown when members of the MS-13 gang shot and killed Diego’s friend. Eventually, the police persuaded Diego to identify the murderers. After that, the gang beat Diego badly, injuring him and putting him in the hospital. Diego knew that when he was released the gang would likely finish the job. 

It was then, lying in a hospital bed half dead, that the young man decided he would leave his country immediately and head north to the U.S. 

Diego made it. He started a new life for himself, got married and had a son. His marriage has since ended, but Diego is single-handedly raising his 4-year-old son who now lives with him in sanctuary. 

If returned to his country of origin, Diego says he would not be alive for long and he doesn’t know what would happen to his son. “I can’t take him with me into that. And I can’t just leave him behind not knowing what will happen to him,” he says.

Diego has explained all this to ICE, but he was still ordered to leave.

As in so many of these cases, deportation is little more than a death sentence. 

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