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Iraqi man leaves church sanctuary after two years

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Iraqi refugee Kadhim Albumohammed at the First Congregation United Church of Christ, where he has lived the for the past two years. A recent appeal decision has canceled a deportation order against him. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Kadhim Albumohammed passed the time over the past two years reading the Quran and other books in an Albuquerque church’s basement where he sought refuge.

On Wednesday evening, he returned to his Albuquerque home as a result of a Board of Immigration Appeals decision earlier this month that essentially vacated an order of deportation against the 66-year-old Iraqi man, who earned numerous medals working as a contractor for the U.S. military from 2004 to 2009 advising troops on culture and familiarization, according to a news release from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

“I just want to see every corner of my house,” Albumohammed said hours before leaving the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 2801 Lomas NE, where he has resided to avoid deportation.

What did he plan to do the first night of his release?

“Everything.”

What would it be like walking into his home for the first time in two years?

“I can’t imagine.”

Despite the immigration appeals board’s ruling, Albumohammed is still in removal proceedings and needs to apply for the next step in permanent residency, said Rebecca Kitson, his attorney.

Albumohammed came to America in 1994 as a refugee from Iraq. He first lived in California, married an American citizen and started a family while he worked on a military base.

Two years after arriving in the U.S., Albumohammed was convicted of two counts of misdemeanor domestic violence, which triggered immigration proceedings that ultimately led in 2010 to an order to deport him.

But Iraq wasn’t accepting deportees, so he was allowed to stay as long as he checked in annually.

Iraqi refugee Kadhim Albumohammed, center, his wife, Reham Majeed, left, and daughter, Courtney Albumohammed, right, celebrate a Board of Immigration Appeal’s decision to allow Kadhim Albumohammed to leave the First Congregation United Church of Christ, where he has claimed sanctuary for the past two years. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

That changed in 2017 when Iraq agreed to accept deportees in exchange for being taken off the list of countries on President Trump’s travel ban. The deal triggered an ICE roundup of more than 1,000 Iraqi immigrants who have criminal records. Albumohammed was one of those immigrants.

He was ordered to turn himself in to a federal immigration office in Albuquerque in the summer of 2017. The day he was supposed to surrender, hundreds of his supporters showed up at the office, and clapped and cheered as his attorney announced over a megaphone that he would be claiming sanctuary at a church in Albuquerque.

The supporters and his family pleaded against deportation, saying he would be killed if he returned to Iraq, because of the work he had done for the U.S.

Missed milestones

The New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, which has advocated for Albumohammed, provided volunteers to stay at the church for hours at a time so there would be witnesses if ICE agents entered to take Albumohammed into custody.

Albumohammed said it was tough to say goodbye to those volunteers.

“At the same time, I’m sad,” Albumohammed said of leaving the church for his home. “It’s hard (because of) the people I’m leaving behind.”

Albumohammed speaks softly and walks with a cane. He was bald with stubble on his face when he entered the church, but his wiry, white hair and beard have grown long during his time in sanctuary.

Iraqi refugee Kadhim Albumohammed plays with his two dogs, Milo, left, and Rocky at the First Congregation United Church of Christ. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

While in the church, he read books, watched television and slept to pass the time. He received frequent visits from his family. He occasionally made a trip to the church’s courtyard, where his two dogs, Milo and Rocky, were busy at play on Wednesday afternoon.

The hardest part of the past two years, he said, was not knowing when his sentence of sorts would end. Prisoners get to count down the days until they are released from custody, but he didn’t know when he could join his wife, Reham Majeed, and the rest of his family outside the church walls.

During his time in the church’s basement, he missed major family milestones. His son, Jafar, died and Albumohammed missed the funeral. Another son, Ali, was married. His daughter, Courtney, graduated from high school.

He said he holds no anger or ill will toward ICE agents or immigration officials seeking to have him deported, who Albumohammed said are just following orders. A spokeswoman for ICE couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Courtney Albumohammed, who just finished her first year at Central New Mexico Community College, expects her dad to have a period of recovery after his release. He hasn’t done everyday tasks, such as drive a car or go shopping, for two years, she said.

For that reason, Albumohammed said a part of him is afraid to rejoin the community.

“I’m scared to go home,” he said. “Not about ICE. No, I’m scared for life.”

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