Doctor's Immigration Ills

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By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Russom Ghebrai walks the corridors of Greater Southeast Community Hospital with quiet authority. Seventy hours a week, he dons the white coat of his profession and attends to patients on the fringes of medical care.

On the eighth floor is a 36-year-old man with HIV and kidney failure. Next door to him, a parolee with heart problems. Patient after patient, typically indigent, uninsured and suffering a tangle of diseases and complications.

"We are blessed to see you," he tells them.

In the eyes of his colleagues, Ghebrai is a physician of dedication and skill. But to the U.S. government, he is a deportable alien. Having denied a claim for asylum, it has ordered him and his wife to return to their native Eritrea. They must provide proof to officials by Monday that they have applied for Eritrean passports and begun arranging their travel.

Ghebrai's case skews the images often invoked in the debate over immigration. He is a doctor serving some of the most medically needy residents of the nation's capital. At a hospital that almost closed last year, in part because of its inability to attract doctors to care for this population, there is amazement.

"We have somebody who wants to stay in this for the long term," said Wietske Moore, a family nurse practitioner, "and we're then going to kick him out?"

It was Ghebrai's wife, Minya, who filed for asylum, recounting her arrest, detention and torture at 19 by soldiers for the authorities who then controlled Eritrea. Ghebrai arrived several months later and his name was added to her request, as sometimes occurs with spouses. Both were allowed to remain while the case was pending.

But repeatedly the government deemed her story not credible, based on discrepancies in their testimony and issues with documents their attorneys submitted. One judge questioned the couple's identities and marriage.

Haunted by nightmares and flashbacks dating back two decades, Minya is a changed person today. With every denial, she has become more despairing.

In the rare moments when her husband lets down his guard at work, the strain shadows his face. "Help me, God," he prays daily.

'Chain of . . . Failures'

Both entered the United States on legitimate visas: she as a business visitor, he as an exchange visitor.

Minya fled Eritrea in 1994, not long after being pulled from her workplace by security forces, interrogated about her past political activities and warned to watch her step. Her husband says that was when he learned she had been imprisoned a half-dozen years earlier.


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