Guest column: One year later, Unitarian Society marks one-year anniversary of becoming a sanctuary

  • In this April 6, 2018 file photo, Irida Kakhtiranova is 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. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Saturday, April 6, represents an anniversary we never wanted to mark.

On that day in 2018, Irida Kakhtiranova, a mother, wife, friend, community member, worker and U.S. taxpayer, left her job and moved out of her family’s home to seek sanctuary at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence.

It has been 365 days that Irida has lived in a small room in our church basement. Try to imagine that.

She has watched her son turn 11 and her twin daughters turn 5. She has marked her wedding anniversary and other milestones. The Unitarian Society does not have the capacity to house her family, but her children and husband visit several times a week, and it is there that the family has celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, and their favorite holiday of New Year’s.

It’s been a long haul. Our congregation could not have provided sanctuary to Irida without the many volunteers from other faith communities who signed on to work with us, as well as dozens of people from the community with no religious affiliation.

We thank everyone who has worked to support Irida and our community-based sanctuary effort in any way over the past year. We feel as committed as ever to helping her remain where she belongs, with her family, in the community they all call home. One of our stalwart longtime volunteers, the Rev. Michael McSherry of Edwards Church, told us this several months ago:

“As a neighbor, I hope you can find ways to let the wider community know what you need, because this is not a load for you to carry alone. If you need more help, keep saying so. If the list of volunteers needs to grow by a quantum amount, tell me and other leaders of houses of worship and local civic groups. Ask for more help if you need it.”

So here we are, a year in, saying, yes, we do need more help. Here are some ways:

We need financial contributions to help pay the family’s expenses. Please consider contributing to this GoFundMe page at

We need grocery store gift cards ($25, $50 or more) to be used by our shopping team to buy groceries. You can buy them at your local supermarket or come by our office to purchase some.

We need volunteers to spend time in our building as an accompaniment volunteer, or to cook meals or help organize fundraisers on the family’s behalf.

You and your friends or your book group or your faith community could organize your own fundraiser specifically to raise money to help cover Irida’s legal costs. Call us, or email our sanctuary team:

Irida came to the Unitarian Society last year via the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, which works tirelessly on immigration justice issues in our community and beyond. The Workers Center is in partnership with us, and with First Church in Amherst, where Lucio Perez has lived in sanctuary since October 2017.

Irida and Lucio can live in these two Hampshire County church basements because of a longstanding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) practice, which holds that immigration enforcement will not take place in so-called sensitive locations, which include houses of worship, schools and hospitals.

Sanctuary allows someone who is in danger of deportation to have a protected place to live while making a case for asylum or citizenship. For many, return to their native countries would pose a threat to them. They have built lives and contributed to their communities here. About 45 people live in sanctuary across the U.S. at this very moment, which compares to five people who were living in sanctuary before Trump was elected.

We are called to this work and action because, as a faith community, we uphold principles that affirm the dignity and worth of each person, and that affirm justice, equity and compassion in human relations. We believe immigrants are being vilified and scapegoated in our country.

We are called to offer sanctuary because under our current immigration system there are few paths to citizenship for the many immigrants who have been the backbone of our economy and productive members of our communities for years.

We cannot see what’s down the path that Irida and we are traveling now. We knew a year ago that we couldn’t do it alone, and this community has proved that indeed we didn’t have to. Thank you to everyone who is making this a true community effort.

Janet Bush is the minister of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, Laurie Loisel is president of the congregation and Joan O’Brien is leader of the Sanctuary Team.
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