Russian woman shares thanks for refuge at Unitarian Society

  • Irida Kakhtiranova addresses the Unitarian Society, Sunday, in Northampton. FRAN RYAN

  • Irida Kakhtiranova addresses the Unitarian Society, Sunday, in Northampton. FRAN RYAN

  • Janet Bush, right, minister of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, hugs Irida Kakhtiranova after Kakhtiranova spoke to the congregation on Sunday. FRAN RYAN

For the Gazette
Published: 7/22/2018 9:34:22 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Members of the Unitarian Society in Northampton rose to their feet Sunday for a long and emotional standing ovation for Irida Kakhtiranova, who spoke of her love for her family and her struggle to remain in the country with them.

“I simply can’t bear the thought of leaving my family. To this day I can’t imagine myself with anybody else in this whole world,” Kakhtiranova said, her voice cracking with emotion.

The 36-year-old Russian immigrant has been taking refuge in the Unitarian Church since April. Married to a U.S. citizen, she is the mother of three children, a 10-year-old son and 4-year-old twin girls, who are also U.S. citizens.

Kakhtiranova fled the Ural Mountain region of Russia in 2003 and believes she will be persecuted if she is made to return to the country of her birth. After leaving Russia, she initially lived in Florida, before moving to western Massachusetts in 2009.

In 2007, an immigration judge ordered her removal, but she has been granted stays of removal every year since that order was issued. Under the administration of President Donald Trump, however, she was denied that yearly reprieve in early 2017.

“I hit rock bottom about a week before I came into sanctuary here,” she said. “I had just heard from another lawyer that would not take my case.”

This, she said, was five days before she was to attend an immigration hearing.

Kakhtiranova said she had been told that, at best, she would be given 30 days to get her affairs in order before being sent back to Russia, and at worst, she would be immediately detained and deported.

Terrified of the grim options, Kakhtiranova decided to skip that hearing and was then living in constant fear of being picked up by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

“Over the next few days I tried to buy some time to get my children to be ready to be without me,” she said tearfully.

Kakhtiranova said she had heard that ICE raids were often carried out around 3 a.m., so she would leave her home around that time, not to return until well until after dark, more than 12 hours later, when she felt it was safer.

“I couldn’t take the chance of being hauled away from my home — I didn’t want my children to witness that,” she said.

Through the help of a friend, she was put in touch with the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center in Northampton and a consulting lawyer, Lauren Burke, who have all come together to aid in her case.

“The people here were kind and compassionate enough to welcome me with open arms, but also give me space when I needed to decompress and have room to breathe as I adjusted to living in a church,” she said.

After her address, members of the congregation lined up to offer Kakhtiranova hugs and words of encouragement.

“Her story is one that breaks your heart,” Unitarian minister Janet Bush said. “This was a wonderful tribute to the congregation and the community and it is a really important effort that we are engaging in together.”

Eric Day, 80, of Easthampton said he does not recognize what the U.S. is turning into, calling the current administration “very unfeeling.”

“I think it is diabolical. I think this country has taken a really nasty turn and that it is nothing like it used to be,” he said.

Kakhtiranova said she gets to see her children three days a week and can video-chat with her husband every night.

“I have a room here with a full kitchen,” she said. “I make pierogies — that is my form of meditation because it helps me come out of the darker times. I can daydream, my mind is free and it makes me feel better.”

Still, she said, the situation is painful.

“I doesn’t get easier. I thought that I would adjust but waiting and hearing no results from immigration services about my case is agonizing.”

Kakhtiranova said that the support of her family, the Unitarian Society, and other churches and community members that banded together to help her has made her feel stronger and begin to get her confidence back.

“This experience has really opened up my eyes and showed us that we are not alone,” she said. “That was what brought back my hope, my strength and the desire to fight.”

Kakhtiranova said she is not one to cry or get emotional and pushes back on letting the tears flow, but on Sunday this was impossible.

“I want to go home,” she said as tears welled up in her eyes. “I’m a mom, I’m their mommy, and family is what it is all about, it always has been for us.”

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