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Safe in sanctuary, but no end in sight

  • Irida Kakhtiranova makes a blueberry pie Wednesday, May 9, 2018 in the kitchen of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. She is a Russian immigrant facing deportation and was given sanctuary at USNF on April 6. She is the wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of three U.S. children. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Irida Kakhtiranova makes a blueberry pie Wednesday, May 9, 2018, in the kitchen of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. She is a Russian immigrant facing deportation and was given sanctuary at USNF on April 6. She is the wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of three U.S. children. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Irida Kakhtiranova makes a blueberry pie Wednesday, May 9, 2018 in the kitchen of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. She is a Russian immigrant facing deportation and was given sanctuary at USNF on April 6. She is the wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of three U.S. children. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Irida Kakhtiranova makes a blueberry pie in the kitchen of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Irida Kakhtiranova in her room where she lives at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Irida Kakhtiranova in her room where she lives at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. She is a Russian immigrant facing deportation and was given sanctuary at USNF on April 6. She is the wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of three U.S. children. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Irida Kakhtiranova in her room where she lives at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. She is a Russian immigrant facing deportation and was given sanctuary at USNF on April 6. She is the wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of three U.S. children. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Irida Kakhtiranova in her room where she lives at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. She is a Russian immigrant facing deportation and was given sanctuary at USNF on April 6. She is the wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of three U.S. children. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Irida Kakhtiranova in her room where she lives at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. She is a Russian immigrant facing deportation and was given sanctuary at the society’s building on April 6. She is the wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of three U.S. children. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writer
Saturday, May 19, 2018

It has been a month since Russian immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova took up sanctuary from deportation in the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence church. She says her three children still burst into tears every time their visits end.

“They’re getting used to the sanctuary, but they also cry every single night saying they want to be with mommy when I Skype with them,” Kakhtiranova, 36, said Monday. “That part doesn’t get easier.”

It is the reality of living in sanctuary, where agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, won’t enter as part of a policy to avoid enforcement activities at “sensitive locations” like churches, schools and hospitals. But it means that Kakhtiranova — a gregarious woman who says she loves going on adventures with her 10-year-old son and 4-year-old twin daughters — is trapped inside.

“I’m going to miss his graduation this year out of the elementary school, and I won’t get a redo,” Kakhtiranova said of her son, her eyes welling up. “I was at every concert.”

She entered sanctuary at the Unitarian Society April 6, the day before a scheduled check-in with ICE, during which she was likely to face deportation. For years she had been issued stays of removal after overstaying an educational visa and is now considered an ICE fugitive.

Kakhtiranova, who had a job in a restaurant until she moved into the church, says she defines herself primarily as a mother and a worker. She stressed that she has worked continuously since coming to the United States 15 years ago, paying taxes and raising a family in a country where she has lived almost half of her life, and where, she says, she felt safer than she did in her homeland.

“I came here as a naive and scared person — scared of persecution in Russia,” she said.

A college student at the time, Kakhtiranova says she was in a relationship with a woman she had met in her dorm building when she left Russia. She says she didn’t feel comfortable living there as a lesbian.

“The dorm wasn’t safe any longer,” she said. “We couldn’t be open, we still had to hide it and avoid crowds.”

Arrived with a visa

In 2003, the couple were among the hundreds of thousands of foreign students who come to the United States every summer as part of the State Department’s international work-travel program, arriving on a “J-1” visa that Kakhtiranova eventually overstayed.

The two ended up in the resort city of Wildwood, New Jersey, where they worked on the boardwalk before eventually chasing the tourist season to Florida. There, they lived in an apartment together, which they eventually began sharing with a man who was a friend.

Kakhtiranova and her girlfriend soon broke up, but Kakhtiranova and the man continued to live together. After years as roommates, they became a couple and had a son together in 2007, eventually moving to western Massachusetts to be closer to her husband’s family. They married in 2009 and the birth of their twin daughters followed four years ago.

“We tried to stick together from the get go,” she said.

Kakhtiranova declined to give her husband’s and childrens’ names, or the city in western Massachusetts where her family lives, citing concerns over their privacy and safety.

Change in status

“Once we got married, I realized I was illegal and I was in trouble, kind of,” Kakhtiranova said.

Somewhere along the way her visa had expired and the federal government had issued a removal order against her, though she declined to say when or the reason why.

Under the Obama administration, immigrants without criminal backgrounds were not deemed a priority for deportation, and were frequently granted stays of removal on a yearly basis. Kakhtiranova said that was her situation: She received a stay every year since her marriage, and has consistently checked in with ICE in person, first weekly, then monthly, then twice a year.

Policy has changed under President Donald Trump, however, and undocumented immigrants have been prioritized for deportation regardless of circumstance. Last June, Kakhtiranova was denied her stay of removal for the first time. She entered sanctuary at the Unitarian Society the day before a scheduled check-in with ICE, during which she was likely to face deportation.

ICE response

ICE has declined to provide details on Kakhtiranova’s case, saying only that she was ordered removed by an immigration judge in 2007.

“In an exercise of discretion, Ms. Kakhtiranova was enrolled into the Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program on the condition that she voluntarily depart the United States,” ICE spokesman John Mohan said in a statement soon after Kakhtiranova entered sanctuary. “Ms. Kakhtiranova subsequently violated the terms of this agreement by failing to depart the United States. As a result of her noncompliance, she is now considered an ICE fugitive.”

Kakhtiranova says she tried to get legal help to no avail. “All the way until the last minute, I tried to reach out to attorneys,” she said. She is still looking for an attorney to this day.

A drastic decision

After she felt all her options were exhausted, Kakhtiranova says, she called a customer she had become friendly with at work.

That person connected her with the Unitarian Society, setting in motion a frenzied chain of events that resulted in the church and Kakhtiranova deciding that she would take up sanctuary there to avoid deportation.

In the lead up to the decision to move, and during the first several days in sanctuary, Kakhtiranova says she was filled with terror at the prospect of being torn from her family.

“I was physically shaking every single night,” she said. “I just couldn’t take my eye off the window… I probably slept an hour every night.”

After several days, however, she says she was able to calm herself, and has now fallen into a routine.

She often cooks meals for her family to eat at their home — mostly American and Italian dishes — and saves some for herself to eat with her children over video chat.

“While I’m cooking, I forget about it,” she said of her situation. “It puts my heart at ease, it makes me feel like I’m still at home.”

Kakhtiranova’s children sleep over at the church with her three times a week, and she says she stays in touch with her son’s teachers to make sure he is doing well in school. Much of the rest of her time is spent working on her legal situation — contacting lawyers and politicians, pushing her case forward as much as she can from inside the church walls.

Kakhtiranova hopes to find a lawyer to help her get her case reopened and fight her removal order. She said she has reached out to local politicians to see what they might be willing or able to do from their positions of power.

“I have a chance of fighting — and safely — from here. I will be damned if I don’t take that chance,” Kakhtiranova said. “I owe it to myself, I owe it to my family.”

The effort to help

Kakhtiranova’s optimism shines through in her upbeat interactions with church staff and volunteers. Someone is with her at the church around the clock; sometimes she socializes with them, other times she says they respect her desire to be by herself.

The Rev. Janet Bush of the Unitarian Society says the church has had an influx of volunteers and a dedicated core team assume the challenge of coordinating the efforts needed to support Kakhtiranova: food deliveries, scheduling and training “accompaniment volunteers,” organizing rides for her family.

“Every time I go downstairs I meet someone new,” Bush said. “It has been a fabulous opportunity, I think, for all of us to work together with other congregations and to really bear witness.”

Kakhtiranova seems to have an easy-going relationship with church staff and others, joking and laughing often with them. She began learning English when she first arrived in the United States by watching the television sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but says it was her husband who taught her American humor.

But Kakhtiranova said she misses her job — the daily interactions, the independence it provides, the role she plays as her family’s primary breadwinner. She has set up a fundraising page on the website YouCaring in order to keep supporting her family financially, and is brainstorming ways she can work while in sanctuary: teaching Russian, putting on pierogi-cooking classes or selling the dumplings.

She misses being outside, saying that she now spends more time in front of a screen than she ever has in her life. But most of all, she misses her husband and kids.

“Every time when my kids walk in here, I can already see them leaving,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I do my best to put that aside when they’re here, but at the end I know that they’re going to go home and all I want to do is go home. And my home is where my kids and husband are.”

Kakhtiranova said she still wakes up to see her son off to the school bus, only now she has to do so from a computer screen. But with the support of the Unitarian Society congregation and the many volunteers working to make her stay in the church comfortable, she says she no longer stares at the door wondering when ICE is going to break it down.

“Now I have hope,” she said. “And I know I have to keep telling myself that it will get better. And no matter what, I’m not going to let the government make me lose my hope again.”

Uncertainty ahead

There is no way for Kakhtiranova and church leaders to know how long she will need sanctuary in the church.

“I don’t know that we’re thinking that far ahead,” Bush said. “We’re certainly aware that we’ve made a big commitment and we are realistic about that. But you can’t really anticipate what can happen in the future. We’re supporting Irida and her family, and taking care of each other as well.”

Kakhtiranova says she’s ready for the potentially long road ahead, which is better than the alternative of detention in a cell and deportation. Congregation president Laurie Loisel says she remembers clearly the phrase Kakhtiranova used when they spoke candidly about the challenges of living in sanctuary: “I would live in a rabbit hole.”

On Monday, Kakhtiranova added, “As long as I’m with my family, as long as I’m doing what is right by them.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.