Guest columnist Laurie Loisel: Sanctuary can offer only so much solace

  • 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. CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 10/8/2018 9:16:35 AM

Today is the six-month anniversary of when Irida Kakhtiranova, who is originally from Russia, entered sanctuary at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. This is a sad milestone to mark, as is the one-year anniversary later this month for Lucio Perez at First Church in Amherst. For Irida, it means she missed her son’s elementary school graduation, many nights of tucking her twin girls into bed, her family’s summer camping trip and any number of other family traditions.

A little context for people who have not followed this issue closely: What the Unitarian Society and First Church are doing is not illegal. In fact, the night Irida moved into the basement at 220 Main St., Northampton, our minister, the Rev. Janet Bush, went into her office to telephone the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Burlington, Vermont. While a few of us showed Irida to her room, which other members of our congregation had carefully furnished with donations from people in our community, Janet explained to an ICE agent that Irida had taken up residence with us. Because of an ICE policy that immigration enforcement actions will not take place at what they term sensitive locations such as religious institutions, places like First Church and the Unitarian Society have stepped up to provide refuge to law-abiding community members like Lucio and Irida, whose deportations would make no sense and only inflict harm on their families and communities.

Irida is a mother of 4-year-old twin girls and a 10-year-old boy who come to visit their mom as often as schedules allow. During her time in this country, Irida has worked hard as a server in the restaurant industry, and because her husband has a medical condition, she has been the primary breadwinner for the family. Her children and her husband are U.S. citizens. I believe deporting a mother and family wage earner makes no logical sense, and on a purely emotional level it is cruel and inhumane.

During the period last winter when members of the USNF congregation were trying to decide whether to offer sanctuary, we asked ourselves many questions: Was this in keeping with our mission? Did we have the capacity, people-wise, to take on this enormous task? Could our building withstand 24/7 use? Could we afford all the costs, some of which we knew about, but others unknown? Would we have any help?

In the end, by an 89 percent margin, we decided most of us could answer yes to these questions. Still, that vote was a leap of faith because we knew we couldn’t make this work without a lot of help from the wider community, with time and money. Over the past several months, help has arrived in force. We work closely with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, who brought Irida to us and is a leader in the fight for immigration justice. Volunteers from many other religious institutions in the Pioneer Valley — or people with no religious affiliation whatsoever — have stayed in the building as accompaniment volunteers, brought meals or bought groceries. These volunteers share a common belief that the current administration’s approach to immigration issues is just plain wrong. We are grateful for the help from literally hundreds of people in our effort to keep Irida safe, and close to her family.

Six months into Irida’s stay with us, we’ve settled into a routine, unpredictable though it may be, since we are dealing with a family with children. She has a small room where her children and husband come and visit.  Irida and her husband like to cook, so while we do have a small meal-train, more importantly, we purchase groceries so they can cook. Irida and her family have become part of our congregation and our families. As a longtime member of the Unitarian Society and currently president of the congregation, I’m proud of what we are doing, even while I fervently wish we didn’t need to be doing this work.

Irida is one of 45 people living in sanctuary across the U.S. at this very moment. By way of comparison, there were five people living in sanctuary before Trump was elected. This is a truly terrible time for our country. Meanwhile, Irida and her husband and their lawyer work on the legal case. This is a situation whose resolution is far from clear. We don’t know how long we’ll be at it, and as time wears on, so do the needs. We could use more volunteers. Financial support would be extremely helpful. If you want more information about how to help this effort, visit the website for the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence and click on the sanctuary tab or go the family’s GoFundMe page at

Two weekends ago, I took Irida’s children to an orchard just out of town, where we engaged in that quintessentially New England fall activity of picking apples. One of them climbed like a monkey, the way kids do at apple orchards. For the little ones, I lifted them up so they could reach the high branches to pluck out a perfectly ripe apple. It was a beautiful day and a satisfying chore. But we were making the best of a bad situation. Those kids really wanted to pick apples with their mom.

Laurie Loisel is a Northampton resident currently serving as president of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence.


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