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Old Lyme church holds service as family approaches 100th day in sanctuary

Old Lyme — It’s been nearly 100 days since Malik Naveed bin Rehman and his wife Zahida Altaf have seen their home in New Britain.

That's 100 days apart from the comfort of their own bed, 100 days without working at the pizza restaurant they proudly own and 100 days in which they have been unable to see their 5-year-old daughter anywhere outside of the confines of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, where the Pakistani couple has been living in sanctuary for three months.

“Today is the 97th day of Malik, Zahida and Roniya’s residence with us here in Old Lyme and Wednesday will mark the 100th day,” said Steve Jungkeit, senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme on Sunday during the church’s worship service. “That’s 100 days of what marks in reality captivity.”

Those 97 days have been trying on the family to say the least, but on Sunday hundreds of people attended an interfaith service at the church to show their support for them. Laughs, tears, and readings and prayers from the Bible and Quran were shared, as well as a poem, songs and even a group “Kumbaya My Lord.” It was all part of a service intended to celebrate the church’s sanctuary work and the friendships the congregation has developed through it.

The hope was also to call attention to the ongoing struggle of Rehman, Zahida and their daughter Roniya, as the couple lives in sanctuary at the church hoping for a stay of deportation.

Although Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, the New Britain City Council, and human rights organizations have all advocated on behalf of the family asking federal authorities to grant the family a stay of deportation. Meanwhile, progress on the family’s case has been limited and the road forward for them remains unclear.

“In some ways things haven’t changed, they’re all too similar … Malik and Zahida are still here, they are still confined,” said Jungkeit, adding that the couple continues to try and find ways to keep themselves busy, a challenging transition for a duo that is accustomed to working seven days a week at their Pizza Corner restaurant in New Britain and spending the rest of the time with their daughter.

“It’s not easy to live that life, but they [the church members] help us a lot planning activities for us … sometimes we cook dinner,” Altaf said. “We have a good time with them, but still we don’t have freedom.”

Rehman and Altaf, who came to the U.S. in 2000 and have lived in New Britain since their arrival, have been taking sanctuary at the church since March 19, the date that was set for their deportation. And while in sanctuary at the church, their daughter — who is an American citizen — continued to attend school in Hartford while living with their extended family in Wethersfield. Rehman, 50, and Altaf, 42, would only see their daughter on weekends, that is until two weeks ago because with school finishing for the summer, Roniya is now living with them at the church and will be attending some summer camps in the Old Lyme area over the summer.

Rehman said that being able to see their daughter regularly again was excellent and helped them remain hopeful.

Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement hasn’t taken any action to forcibly remove the couple — ICE policy generally is that enforcement actions are not to occur at places of worship — Rehman and Altaf have virtually been left in limbo as they wait to see if the Board of Immigration Appeals will approve a motion to reopen their case and grant them a stay of deportation.

The couple and their advocates remain optimistic though, especially given the outpouring of support Rehman and Altaf have received.

"More and more people are being supportive of Malik and Zahida and are more aware about the ways in which immigrants are being treated," Jungkeit said. "I think more and more people are realizing we have a moral obligation to step up."

Advocates also believe that given the opportunity, a immigration judge would find Rehman and Altaf’s case to be a strong one.

According to ICE, Rehman and Altaf originally arrived in the U.S. on nonimmigrant visas in 2000, but did not depart the country in accordance with their visas. They were also enrolled in ICE's Alternatives to Detention program.

During their time in the U.S. Rehman and Altaf have tried to gain legal status, and on two occasions have had poor experiences with attorneys.

The first attorney they hired in in 2001, Earl Seth David of Manhattan, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2013 after he and his co-conspirators used phony claims to apply for “the legal status of tens of thousands of illegal aliens” according to the office of then U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Then their next attorney, Jose del Castillo, 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.

And throughout all of this they continued to work to lay down their roots. They paid taxes and Rehman got an Individual Tax Identification Number with sponsorship from the owner of East Side Pizza, and in 2015 they started making regular visits to immigration officials in Hartford, which allowed them to get temporary work authorization and then social security numbers.

Then last fall they took over the ownership of Pizza Corner in New Britain.

“We just want to ask them and request that we get a chance to fight our case in court,” Altaf said.

c.clark@theday.com

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