Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Torn Apart by War, Kept Apart by Suspicion


By Steve Lannen
slannen@herald-leader.com

Losi Grodya works two jobs, has a driver's license, is working on a community college degree and is readying to take her U.S. citizenship exam.

Despite all she has accomplished since settling in Lexington as a refugee from her native Democratic Republic of Congo nearly six years ago, she feels helpless when she talks on the phone with her daughters. Their home has been a Rwandan refugee camp for the past four years.

”They ask me when they are coming. Why is it taking so long? They tell me since I am in America, I must be able to do something to get them to come, but I've tried everything I can,“ Grodya said. ”I just want them to come here so we can all be together again. ... But I can't even do that.“

Her daughters, who as of late January were approved by U.S. officials to join her in Lexington as refugees, have seen their cases caught up in a post-9/11 provision in the Patriot Act that bars people from entering the United States if suspected of aiding a terrorist group.

Known as the material support bar, the law was also at the center of a high-profile case in April in which a Transylvania University student faced deportation to his native Sudan. Authorities said that because Lino Nakwa was kidnapped as a 12-year-old and spent a month in the training camp of a rebel group considered terrorists by the U.S. government, he was ineligible for a green card.

After a letter-writing campaign and intervention by Kentucky elected officials in Washington, Nakwa's case is waiting to be reviewed by Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

After months of delay, Grodya learned last week that her daughters are suspected of providing material support to a terrorist group. But she doesn't know precisely what they are suspected of doing.

Grodya's five daughters have shared stories not of complicity, but of kidnapping and rape in a country torn apart by decadelong conflict, she said. She fears they have not told her the worst, but that what they have said ”is now being turned against them.“

”We never took part in any of those conflicts. We just wanted to go somewhere where we would live in peace. We didn't want to fight nobody. We never killed,“ Grodya said Wednesday during an interview at the Kentucky Refugee Ministries.

War inside Congo began a decade ago and involved eight nations and multiple armed groups. As the country's security and stability deteriorated, tribal conflicts within the war also broke out, including one largely over land between the Hema and the Lendu in northeastern Congo. The conflict worsened with meddling by the nearby Ugandan army. Large numbers of men, women and children were massacred.

”Lendu were coming and using a strategy to scare you, and if you left they would take everything. If you stayed, they would kill you,“ said Grodya, an ethnic Hema.

In February 2001, she fled her hometown of Bunia with her children to live with her father in nearby Mahagi. After leaving she learned that her husband, who stayed behind, had been killed later that day.

The violence followed her.

Grodya and her then-young son, Olivier, went to the market to look for food. The family had not eaten for two days. She left her daughters at home.

Big guns from the rebel groups thundered in the distance. Word spread that the Lendu were at the airport and moving toward town. Panic set in and everyone scattered.

It was too dangerous for Grodya to return home.

Grodya heard many people from Bunia and Mahagi had fled to Uganda so she went there to look for her family, but she didn't find them. From there she went to a refugee camp in nearby Rwanda.

She asked to cross back into Congo to look for her daughters, but the Red Cross and United Nations High Commission on Refugees staff ­wouldn't allow her to return because the war was still raging.

For two years she and her son stayed in Rwanda, but she had no contact with her other children.

”I didn't have any news about my family. I wanted to go to see if they were alive or not. They said no, I can't,“ she recalled.

It wasn't until 2003, after she arrived in Lexington as a refugee, that she was able to acquire a cellular phone and contact her daughters. Her sister in Rwanda found relatives back home who said some of her children were back in Bunia, taken in by some Jehovah's Witnesses.

But she also learned of horrors.

She learned one of her daughters had been kidnapped at the age of 14 by rebels and forced to serve as a soldier. She eventually escaped during a training exercise in the bush.

Another daughter was taken by a Hema rebel soldier, who impregnated her when she was 18. ”It wasn't her choice. She was raped,“ Grodya said.

She still doesn't know the extent of what happened to all of her daughters. The younger ones ”don't want to tell me everything that happened. There are many things they don't want to talk about,“ Grodya said.

Many people have been caught up in similar cases due to the material support bar, said Kerri Talbot, associate director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C.

A law was passed in December to grant immigration officials more discretion in applying the material support provision.

Still, ”there are many cases where people by no means would be considered a terrorist by a layperson, but because the law was so overly broad they were caught up in that definition and unable to immigrate to the States,“ Talbot said.

Rep. Ben Chandler's office has become aware of Grodya's case. A Chandler spokeswoman said the office is looking at ways it can help.

An e-mail provided to the Herald-Leader by Grodya showed that a Chandler constituent-services representative received a vague response from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, saying the cases are ”on hold pending a more detailed legislative definition of material support of a terrorist organization.“

That means the USCIS office in Ken­ya is waiting for the ­USCIS office in Washington to tell it how to apply the law.

USCIS in Washington ”should basically get it together and apply that law fairly and allow people to immigrate to the United States if they have a case they have already proven and are not guilty of any wrongdoing,“ Talbot said.

A spokeswoman with the USCIS said Friday that she could not discuss specific cases, citing privacy issues.

Grodya still doesn't know exactly what evidence the government has to suspect her daughters of aiding terrorist groups.

”They're not criminals. They have nothing to do with them. They were victims of all this stuff and now they are going to punish them,“ she said.


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Reach Steve Lannen at (859) 231-1328 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1328.

*KRM is still working to help reunite the family.

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