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Haven of Hope: When deportation looms, church can be a sanctuary

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When deportation looms, the church can become a sanctuary. (WWMT/Denise Schermerhorn)

For more than 60 days, a woman has been living inside a Kalamazoo church, to avoid deportation.

“I love this place, Kalamazoo and I don't want to leave from here,” Saheeda Nadeem said in an exclusive interview with the Newschannel 3 I-Team. “I don't want to go, this is like my family here now.”

Nadeem is from Pakistan and moved to the U.S. years ago. Now, she is staying in what’s being called a sanctuary church.

“If Jesus came today to Kalamazoo and they tried to deport him, he would have sanctuary with us in his house,” said the Rev. Nathan Dannison, the senior minister at the First Congregation Church of Kalamazoo, where Nadeem is living.

As Nadeem shows visitors the room inside the church that she now calls home, she takes out her Qur'ran.

"This is a gift from my brother from Pakistan," she said.

Although she was born in Pakistan, Saheeda moved to the U.S. with her then-husband and two young children in 2005. Prior to that, she lived in Kuwait.

She never sought U.S. citizenship, staying in the country with an undocumented status while working as a caregiver for refugees and those with disabilities. Now, amid an increase in immigration law enforcement, she faces possible deportation.

"I really feel connected to Kalamazoo ... to the community," she said. "I don't want to leave."

But the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency recently denied her request for a stay of deportation.

That's where Dannison comes into the picture. He considers his church, First Congregational, a sanctuary, allowing Nadeem to stay and avoid deportation.

"The church has to protect vulnerable people; it doesn't matter who is coming after them, " Dannison said.

Dannison also asked for those who frown upon his actions to take a bigger look at the situation.

"What we're hoping for is a stay of deportation so that she can go back to work, continuing to live, continuing to pay taxes and continuing to serve her clientele," he said, adding that Nadeem had for years been allowed to stay by checking in with ICE yearly. That was before immigration enforcement efforts were increased.

Dannison also spoke to what he described as an unfair and backlogged legal system.

"In some courts, there are judges who deny 80 percent of the applications, and in that same court there are judges who approve 80 percent of the applications," Dannison said. "That shows that justice is not blind."

Although taking sanctuary in a church is likely a safe bet to avoid deportation, if Nadeem were to step foot outside the church, she could be vulnerable to apprehension by ICE.

Dannison acknowledged the frustrating reality of having to stay inside the church, but he pointed out the ways the church community is helping to give Nadeem the comforts of home, including a refrigerator, cards of encouragement, books and visitors to keep her company.

"You won't find many people who hate immigrants or hate outsiders," he said. "That's not part of our values and it's contrarian to the scripture."

As of the writing of this article, Nadeem had spent 67 days inside the church while she waits for a possible deportation stay to be granted.

Among her regular visitors is her son, Samad, a Kalamazoo Promise Scholar and a Western Michigan University student. At 20 years old, Samad is protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, commonly known as DACA -- until 2019.

“More and more she needs me not only as her loving son but as a caretaker. To her, I’m her only companion," Samad said.

“America is the only home I know and remember,” Samad said. If his mother is deported, Samad said, he will be forced to move to Pakistan, a country where he's never been, so that he can care for his mom.

“Not only does she consider Kalamazoo her home but ... she contributes to it many times over,” Samad said. “This deportation would be not only a great personal loss but a huge blow to our community as a whole.”


Read more: Inside the sanctuary movement


Listen to Nadeem’s story — and learn why some area churches are opening their doors to those facing deportation — in this special report on Newschannel 3 and on WWMT.com.


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