Out of the Shadows

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aly copyAly Wane faces possible deportation as he announces his status

By Connie Berry
Sun editor

Aly Wane is 35 years old and hasn’t lived in the country of his birth, Senegal, since he was seven. His life has followed a jagged path, only smoothing out somewhat since he’s lived in the Syracuse area. He calls Syracuse his home, his community.

  On June 25, he made a very public announcement at the Harrison Center at All Saints Church sharing his undocumented immigrant status. Well over 100 friends and colleagues showed up to support him. Aly shared the presentation with immigration attorney Jose Perez; Ute Ritz-Deutch, a Tompkins County immigration reformer; and Rev. Kevin Agee, pastor of Hopps Memorial CME Church. All of them spoke of the injustice of the current immigration system in the U.S. They talked about undocumented immigrants living in constant fear of deportation.

   Perez brought up the recent Supreme Court ruling in Arizona which will allow police and local law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect is living in the country illegally. He also explained the president’s recent policy allowing a renewable two-year deferment from deportation and granting eligibility to apply for work authorization for certain qualified illegal immigrants. It is expected to affect up to 800,000 people. They must have come to the U.S. before age 16 but be under the age of 30 now, have lived in the U.S. for at least five continuous years, and be in school or have graduated from high school or serve in the military. The applicants must never have been convicted of a felony or a significant misdemeanor. Unfortunately, Perez said, this new policy does not apply to Aly.

   Aly’s story is complicated and could serve as fodder for a Hollywood movie or a really good PBS documentary. He shared it during a long interview over coffee before his press conference.

Growing up around the world

   Aly’s father was a Muslim from Senegal and his mother a devout Catholic from Mali. They met while studying at university in France, married, and decided they would settle in Senegal. They separated when Aly and his older sister were young, his parents’ background and traditions not making for an easy marriage. Aly’s father died at age 38, an apparent suicide after struggling with depression brought on by the tension and guilt over abandoning his family. His mother took off with Aly and his sister shortly after amidst threats of interference with her children by his father’s family.

   “I think my mom always felt like my dad’s family would hunt her down,” Aly said. They fled to France, where Aly and his sister stayed with a series of families while his mother looked for work. Aly’s mother was an international consultant on environmental matters. She landed a position with the UN Development Program (UNDP)  in New York and Aly said the years they spent there as a family were the last they would spend all together.

   “That’s the first time I came to the U.S.,” Aly said. “I tend to idolize those years. It was as much stability as I had ever had. I was legally here as her dependent and on a non-immigrant diplomatic visa.” Aly went to school at the French Lycee for four years while living in New York City.

   Then his mother was sent to Rwanda with the UN.

   “I was dragged there kicking and screaming,” Aly said laughing. “I was used to my Nintendo. They didn’t have a television station where we were going. Then we were there a little over a year and it ended up being the best place of my childhood — until the war started.”

Violence and trauma

   Clashes in the capital of Rwanda began in the early 1990s and while Aly experienced only a week of the bombing and fighting, he said the terror of what he heard has never left him. He was 13. “That’s the reason I’m an anti-war activist. I remember being traumatized by the sound,” he said.

   The trauma of the sounds would accompany the survivor’s guilt he felt at being evacuated with his aunt to Belgium. His mother’s position meant they were whisked out of Rwanda and flown to Europe, where Aly would met up with his mother who had been moved to Belgium earlier to recuperate from a car accident. Aly left his friends behind, many who lost family members in the fighting. Once in Belgium, Aly had to board with another family while his mother was hospitalized.

School in the U.S.

   After she recovered, Aly’s mother was assigned to Gabon in Africa. Aly accompanied her there and lived in Gabon for a year until he came to the U.S. in 1992, reentering on a student visa to finish high school at Georgetown Prep. His mother had met his stepfather while working for the UNDP in New York and eventually married him and left her position with the UN. Aly graduated from high school in 1994 and entered University of Pennsylvania, majoring in international relations. His mother and stepfather, meanwhile, had gotten involved in politics in Burkina Faso, which resulted in a major loss of revenue for his family. They could no longer afford his education expenses, leaving Aly somewhat stranded after his sophomore year. He explained that being in the U.S. on a diplomatic or student visa is a non-immigrant position.

   “At that time I was really struggling with where I should be,” Aly said. “I was born in Senegal but went to school here. I was seven years old when I left. Then I had to leave school and there was no way Mom could come and help me and I had no country to come back to.”

The USCCB has voiced its support for the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act and for compassionate treatment of immigrants. After the president’s announcement the bishops issued a press release: “This important action will provide legal protection, and work authorization, to a vulnerable group of immigrants who are deserving of remaining in our country and contributing their talents to our communities,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration. “These youth are bright, energetic, and eager to pursue their education and reach their full potential.” The release also quoted Archbishop Gomez as saying the president’s action is no substitute for the DREAM Act and he encouraged Congress to enact “comprehensive and humane immigration reform.”

   Aly had traveled to St. Francis Farm near Pulaski in the Syracuse Diocese for a working retreat when he was at University of Pennsylvania. The farm provided outreach to the rural poor in the community following the Catholic Worker tradition. Aly sold his textbooks and bought a bus ticket landing him in northern Oswego County. At the time Father Ted Sizing, John and Joan Donnelly, Tom McNamara — now a Franciscan priest — and Carl Stamm were living at the farm. Aly asked if he could stay and that’s where his passion for helping the oppressed was born. That’s where he spent time with college students who visited the farm for retreats living out Catholic social teaching in the community.

   “That’s where my real education began,” Aly said. “I read a lot about peace and justice issues and then felt called to move to Unity Acres nearby [a rural home for homeless men]. I still remember feeling a real push-pull there and I remember going to Father McVey’s grave [co-founder of Unity Acres buried on the grounds] and talking to him. I ended up spending a year and a half at St. Francis Farm and a year and a half at Unity Acres.”

   Those experiences served as an introduction to communal living for Aly, who says he had gotten used to a certain level of individualism by that point. He met Michael and Elaine Crough through his work at the Acres. They saw his potential and arranged to pay for Aly to get back to school and he entered Le Moyne College.

Family bonds

  But after just a few months there, tragedy struck. Aly received a phone call from his sister who was living in Chicago. Aly explained their mother had been brutally attacked by his stepfather in Zimbabwe and was in a coma. Aly dropped everything and flew to Chicago to be with his sister while they awaited word on her condition.

   “It was March 5 to 12 in 1999,” he said. “For a week we were in a complete fog. My sister by that time was working on her legal status. I couldn’t travel to the funeral. I don’t know if there was something I could have done. Immigration was the last thing I was thinking of.”

   Aly hadn’t seen his mother in four years by that point, relying on long distance phone calls here and there to keep in touch. After her death, he was in a country where he could not legally work but he had no home anyplace else. He slept on his sister’s sofa for a while, eventually volunteering at center for people living with HIV and AIDS. They dealt with death on a daily basis and this put Aly’s grief into a different perspective, he said.

   Aly made his way back to Le Moyne, graduating in 2001. After graduation, he stayed in Chicago with his sister for a while, looking for a job that could enable him to obtain an H-1B “skilled worker” visa. He began volunteering with the American Friends Service Committee because its mission of working with social justice issues appealed to him. They offered him a position in their Economic Justice program and he worked on their Africa committee dealing with issues of debt relief for Third World countries. His goal was to obtain his H-1B visa through the position. Unfortunately the organization experienced funding cuts and he was let go nine months into the job.

   Aly said he experienced some great job interviews in Chicago but there were so many obstacles in place for any potential employer — they would have to pay a fee, first advertise the position to be sure there were no U.S. citizen candidates to do the work, and obtain labor certification or permits to hire him. Besides that, Aly said, H-1B visas were becoming scarce and immigrant workers typically have to have very specific or very technical skills needed by employers — not an undergrad degree in political science.

   His sister was able to obtain H-1B status through her work, established permanent residency and eventual citizenship. She is his only living relative and the idea of being separated from her is terrible scenario for Aly to imagine. She is sponsoring Aly for legalization, he explained, but the waiting time for such a process is around 10 or 11 years.

   “I don’t want to live in the shadows for that long,” he said.

   Aly came back Unity Acres in 2003 staying there and working with the homeless again. He met people connected to the Syracuse Peace Council through his time at the Acres. He thought he would enjoy volunteering there and he moved to Syracuse living with a couple within walking distance to the council. Aly has been an active member of the Syracuse social justice community, advocating for change in all issues that contribute to oppression. Not surprisingly, he has spent the past few years getting to know and advocating for undocumented immigrants living in Central New York.  Aly said he has witnessed families torn apart by deportation, young children clinging to their parents in fear because their dad went to the grocery store for milk and never came home.

Out of the shadows

  Aly’s path of starts and stops and stalls brought him to the press conference this past week. He said he is frustrated with the immigration system in the U.S. but happy for his fellow undocumented immigrants who will benefit by the president’s latest immigration policy. He said he feels the system will not change unless some people take public risks to address the situation.

   “I want to help the community reject the fear at the heart of this conversation,” Aly said at the press conference. There are millions of people who live every day in fear of deportation. “They are part of your community. They work hard, they care about their families and they love this country and the system has demonized them.”Aly said announcing his status publicly was not a “provocation, not a militant act, but based on true facts on what a true undocumented person is.”

   Jose Perez said at the press conference that the positive economic effect of passing the DREAM Act has been estimated in the billions by the federal budget office. “Everybody says the immigration system is broken but then they get into politics and dehumanize the immigrants,” Perez said.

   Ute Ritz-Deutch said although the president’s new policy is a step in the right direction, it is only that — a step.

   “There are over 10 million people in this country who cannot benefit from these changes,” Ritz-Deutch said. “Let’s not lose sight of the larger picture.”

   She said New York State has 80,000 to 100,000 undocumented workers who live in fear of deportation. “They live in daily fear of getting into a car to go to the grocery store, doctor’s office and being deported. Every time they get into a car they are at risk of being deported,” she said. “There are millions of children living in the U.S. in fear that their parents will be deported.”

   Aly said his own story doesn’t compare to what other undocumented immigrants have gone through, nor did his press conference compare to some of the other acts carried out by others who dare to bring attention to their situation.

   The press conference was wrapped up by a reflection on Aly’s situation by his friend, Rev. Kevin Agee. He said as a faith leader, he is disturbed by the lawmakers in the U.S. who demonize and dehumanize undocumented immigrants, some of them doing so under the guise of religion. Those who make unjust laws manage to overlook Levitcus and Matthew’s Gospel, he said.

   “There may be some things they have overlooked in Leviticus chapter 19 verse 18,” he said.

   “I believe in a practical theology,” Rev. Agee said. “Faith is corporate as well as personal. Faith with no works is dead.

   “How can we love a God we cannot see and not love our brother who we can see? If you are a human being you are a creation of infinite worth.”

   Rev. Agee said he met Aly through a local organization working on change in the community. He said Aly is a “decent, caring and compassionate young man.” He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saying, “We need to learn to ‘live together as brothers or perish as fools.’ Aly is my brother. Nobody can look at someone on the outside and determine their qualities on the inside.”

   There were many people present who have come to know Aly and they were there to wish him well. There was a dinner and program following the press conference, but as it ended Aly said, “I have struggled with the issue of home but now I see Syracuse as my home. I love this country … I tell you right now I am afraid. [If I am deported] I will feel like an American in exile somewhere else. There are so many others who do not have the privilege I have to have a press conference. They are at risk of leaving their kids, their husbands, their wives. Because of my privilege I’m grateful because I have this opportunity and I have a chance to create a conversation in this community.”


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