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Taking sanctuary: Couple facing deportation adjust to life in Old Lyme church

Everything changes

Malik Naveed bin Rehman and Zahida Altaf can't go to work at their pizza restaurant. They can't take their daughter to storytime at the New Britain Public Library or to play at Walnut Hill Park. They can't visit their mosque. They can't go anywhere outside the walls of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.

They had worked seven days a week since November; now they have many unfilled hours each day.

"Malik is used to working 24 million hours a day with his restaurant," said Associate Minister Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager. In November, the couple took over ownership of Pizza Corner in New Britain, where they were living with their daughter.

Rehman and Altaf were thus pleased to help with preparation of the soup supper the church held on Maundy Thursday, three days before Easter. They rolled silverware in napkins. They placed bread in baskets.

Tasks completed, Altaf walked over to the window of the Fellowship Hall and stared out.

She and Rehman eagerly made calls and looked at their phones to check the status of their 5-year-old daughter, Roniya. Her cousin Roshanay Tahir, a freshman at Central Connecticut State University, was going to drop the girl off.

Roniya has been staying with Tahir and her parents in Wethersfield while going to school in Hartford, but she visits her parents on the weekends at the church.

Rehman and Altaf, who came to the U.S. in 2000, have been taking sanctuary at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme since March 19. That was the date set for their deportation after their original March 2 flight was canceled due to bad weather.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman John Mohan said in an email that under ICE policy, enforcement actions are not to occur at places of worship unless "exigent circumstances exist; other law enforcement actions have led officers to a sensitive location, or prior approval is obtained from a designated supervisory official."

There's no good way to explain to a 5-year-old that she's a citizen but you're not, that the only reason you're not in Pakistan now is because of bad weather, that you're temporarily living in a church while your attorney fights to let you stay in the country, or that if the fight is unsuccessful, you may have to return to a country you haven't seen in 20 years.

So the couple told Roniya they're at school to make better pizza. They told her that the monitor around her father's ankle is her baba's medicine.

"She knows that we're in trouble, but she doesn't know which kind," Altaf said.

The Board of Immigration Appeals denied their request for a stay, and the motion to reopen the case is pending. Attorney Glenn Formica, who has taken the couple's case pro bono, said it's unknown when the motion will be decided.

If the motion is denied, Formica said he will appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

John Martin, spokesman for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, said in an email, "The BIA adjudicates motions to reopen as quickly as possible, however, there are a number of variables that may affect the timeframe."

Both Martin and a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said their respective agencies don't comment on specific cases.

It wasn't for lack of trying

Malik Naveed bin Rehman and his wife Zahida Altaf have had to adjust to making their meals in the church kitchen at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme as seen Saturday, March 31, 2018. Malik and Zahida have taken sanctuary at the church since March 19, the date by which they were ordered to leave the United States by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after living in New Britain for the past 18 years. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Rehman and Altaf, 50 and 42, grew up close to Islamabad and eventually moved to the capital city. Rehman moved there in 1989 to help at his father's store, while studying to be an electrician at a technical college in the evenings.

"His father had a grocery store, so I go there to buy something, and he just started flirting," Altaf said.

But Altaf came from a wealthy family, while Rehman did not. Her family didn't agree with the marriage, and the couple feared what they might do as a result of the perceived dishonor to her family.

So in 1998, they fled to Saudi Arabia, with sponsorship from the air-conditioning company where Altaf worked. Wanting to have the child they so desired in a healthier place, they came to the United States on a visa in 2000.

Zahida Altaf takes a moment to look out of the window in the main fellowship hall at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme Thursday, March 29, 2018. Altaf and her husband Malik Naveed bin Rehman must stay inside the church while they challenge the deportation order, or they could be taken into custody by ICE and sent back to their native Pakistan. (Tim Cook/The Day)

ICE spokesperson John Mohan said in a statement, "Malik Naveed bin Rehman and Zahida Altaf, both of Pakistan, entered the U.S. on nonimmigrant visas in 2000, but did not depart the country in accordance with the terms of their visas."

He added that they were enrolled in ICE's Alternatives to Detention program, and that ICE is aware of their current location.

Their first impression of America was one of freedom. Rehman's view of Americans was that if they saw you working hard, they would respect you.

The attorney they hired in 2001, Earl Seth David of Manhattan, was sentenced in 2013 to five years in prison after he and his co-conspirators "applied for legal status for tens of thousands of illegal aliens based on phony claims that they had been sponsored by U.S. employers," according to the office of then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

Rehman recalled that when he told David he didn't have a sponsor, the response was, "Oh, don't worry about it; we got a sponsor." And at that point, he didn't speak much English.

On the application for alien employment certification with the U.S. Department of Labor, the attorney said Rehman's employer was SSG Door & Hardware Inc. It said as a carpenter, his job would involve operating a variety of woodworking machines, using hand tools to fabricate hardwood doors and studying blueprints of doors to be made.

None of that was true. Rehman said he never had an offer to work for that company, and he never in his life worked as a carpenter.

Altaf is convinced that if an attorney handled their case legitimately when they first arrived, they wouldn't be in the situation they are today.

The couple then went to Canada to make a case for asylum but were denied and returned to the U.S. in 2005.

Their next attorney, Jose Delcastillo, was indicted in 2006 on charges of federal document fraud and sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison, the Hartford Courant reported.

Rehman said that East Side Pizza owner Ethel Vastakis sponsored him from 2005-07, and he got an Individual Tax Identification Number. He then started working for Papa John's Pizza.

Rehman and Altaf were issued final orders of removal in January 2008. In 2015, they started making regular visits to immigration officials in Hartford, allowing them to get temporary work authorization and then Social Security numbers.

Last fall, the couple took over ownership of Pizza Corner in New Britain. Altaf said immigration officials gave them the go-ahead in a phone conversation.

But on Jan. 2, they were told to return on Feb. 2 with airline tickets. They were shocked. Their flight was scheduled for March 2.

Rehman got up about 7 a.m. that day and went to the Dunkin' Donuts in New Brite Plaza for a coffee. He recalled, "This guy says, 'Last night I see you on the TV.' I say, 'Maybe this is the last time I buy coffee from you.'"

He and Altaf headed to JFK International Airport in New York City with their daughter Roniya, who was excited to go to Pakistan. She said her mother was going to buy some new toys.

On the way there, they found out their flight was canceled due to bad weather.

"That moment I'm thinking: Some power, he wanted to stop it," Rehman said.

They hadn't known that taking sanctuary in a church was an option. But their advocacy team — a group of Central Connecticut State University students whose family members have fought deportation orders — encouraged them to stay and fight for their rights, and for their daughter's future.

Roniya has asthma, and they feared for her health if the family were to go to Pakistan, one of the most polluted countries in the world. Rehman also pointed out that women are limited to being housewives in Pakistan, whereas Altaf has been his "right hand" at Pizza Corner.

Life inside a church

Malik Naveed bin Rehman is greeted by church members at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme as he serves soup during the church's Maundy Thursday soup dinner, Thursday, March 29, 2018. Malik and his wife Zahida Altaf must stay inside the church while they challenge the deportation order. (Tim Cook/The Day)
I just miss my home. I want to go and sleep in my bed. I want to sit on my couch and relax. Everything, I miss every single thing.

"I just miss my home. I want to go and sleep in my bed," Altaf said, thinking of her two-bedroom apartment in New Britain. "I want to sit on my couch and relax. Everything, I miss every single thing. My cup, where I make tea. When you live in the same place, you don't feel attached to too many things, (but) when you leave ..."

Rehman and Altaf now wake up in a converted Sunday school room with pale yellow walls, outfitted with two beds, a couch, a nightstand and shelves. Their sleep schedule reflects the later hours they were accustomed to working at Pizza Corner.

"My daddy wakes up the latest. He's the latest wake-upper," Roniya explains with a teasing smile.

They eat breakfast in a small room across the hall that has a microwave, mini fridge and sink. But if they want to use the stove, they go to the main kitchen in the church.

On Monday afternoon, Altaf sauteed vegetables with red chili, cumin seeds, garam masala, salt and pepper, part of a dinner she was preparing for her new church friends that evening. Overhead ran the ventilator, emitting a sound like a cross between the chirping of crickets and the galloping of miniature horses.

She realized the previous week that the aroma of a chicken dish lingered, and she felt it inappropriate for the church to smell like a restaurant — especially with so many visitors during Holy Week.

Church members make grocery runs, pre-ordering halal meat from ShopRite in New London. They also take Rehman and Altaf's laundry home to wash on Saturdays. A setup of PVC pipe and a Splash Time kiddie pool acts as a makeshift shower.

When Roniya is at the church, activities might include reading Dr. Seuss books or "Mouse Cookies & More," or playing a game on her mother's phone or tag with senior minister Steven Jungkeit's kids, or giving a classroom lesson to her parents.

Rehman spends some of his free hours on his phone watching his favorite sport: cricket.

Sanctuary has meant busier days and an added sense of purpose for church members eager to volunteer their time, but the inverse has been true for Rehman and Altaf, who have found themselves with ample time to think and wait.

So church members planned special activities. Drumming on April 3. Embroidery on April 4. Pottery on April 5.

Drumming was Altaf's idea. When she was 10 or 11 and her brother was getting married, she played the dohal and loved the sound. She wanted to learn to play drums but her father refused, finding it an inappropriate undertaking for a girl.

Rehman thinks about the things he'd like to do at Pizza Corner in the future, like adding an ice cream machine and painting a pizza in the window.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on March 30 held a news conference at Pizza Corner in support of Rehman and Altaf. He characterized them as "a Pakistani couple in New Britain serving Italian food to the Polish community, and seeking sanctuary in a church started by New England Yankees. That's America."

Rehman's friend Luis Torres has taken over management of Pizza Corner. Torres owns a landscaping business but is now putting his life on hold to help his friend of more than a decade.

Torres was "disgusted" when he heard about the deportation order. He said he voted for Donald Trump because of his business sense and thinks the president has accomplished a lot, but he disagrees with Trump on immigration.

"On the immigration side, he needs to back off, and he needs to stop hating," Torres said. He added, "I don't think he has any compassion for them."

"We've been waiting for you"

Malik Naveed bin Rehman kisses his daughter Roniya, 5, as they play during Roniya's visit at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme Friday, March 30, 2018. The couple must stay inside the church while they challenge the deportation order. Roniya is an American citizen and is living in New Britain with extended family members. (Tim Cook/The Day)
I mean, it's a nice jail, but it's jail. It's a velvet prison.

"I mean, it's a nice jail, but it's jail," Senior Minister Steven Jungkeit said of church confinement. He paused. "It's a velvet prison."

He began talking about the idea of becoming a sanctuary church last February and got the deacons on board.

There were, he said, a lot of questions: "Is this breaking the law? Are you putting the church at risk? Are you in personal danger?"

Jungkeit pushes back on the idea that the church is taking an illegal action, saying, "We understand it as upholding the law, taking the best parts of our legal system and letting them unfold."

From a biblical standpoint, he cites verses stating, "But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you" (Leviticus 19:34) and "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me" (Matthew 25:45).

In the fall, church members converted a Sunday school room, taking out a glitter-glue-covered table and putting in furniture. In December, the church for one night held Mariano Cardoso, who was granted a last-minute stay the next day.

Jungkeit said at that time, he got a call basically saying, "I got a couple parking tickets. Can I take sanctuary in your church?" He found it to be a "cruel question" that "fails to imagine what people are going through."

The minister has found most members of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, a church with a long history of social engagement, to be "incredibly supportive" of its sanctuary effort.

One of the first members Jungkeit approached was Lina Tuck. The combination of her passion for the issue and the hyper-organized instincts she honed working as an organ-transplant coordinator made her the perfect person to help.

"We cannot in good conscience accept that humans are being treated this way," said Tuck, who is now chairwoman of the church's immigrant services committee.

Tuck said Rehman and Altaf were worried about putting people out but she stressed, "We've been waiting for you for over a year."

The church arranges shifts so that someone is there every night to sleep over. In the nursery — beyond the chalkboard, and the train table, and the rainbow painted on the wall — is an air mattress.

Mary Tomassetti, for example, stayed at the church from 5 a.m. on Wednesday, March 21, to 6 p.m. the following day.

She started off doing some work for her job as executive director of Tree of Life Educational Fund, a nonprofit the church established. About 8 a.m., she got a call from Tuck saying the couple's attorney was on the way.

After that, Tomassetti spent a lot of time chatting with Rehman and Altaf, just getting to know them. They taught her a few words in Urdu, and she heard some pizza delivery stories from Rehman.

"I didn't hear them say any trouble about their situation but rather constant gratitude for the space we have," Tomassetti said.

Would Jungkeit opt to provide sanctuary in the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme in the future, if the situation were to arise? "Totally."

e.moser@theday.com

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