Immigrant yearns to leave the shadows

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

Sam is staying in the shadows.

He used to be the guy you'd say good morning to at the bank and the dad who came to school with his daughter, greeting everyone along the way.

After years of living in the bright light of hope, of building a life in the United States with a wife he met in Montgomery County and girls who were born and raised in a neighborhood between the Beltway and a shopping mall, the immigrant from Sierra Leone melted into the darkness, because his presence in this country suddenly became illegal.

His temporary protected status was yanked in 2005 by the U.S. government after the war in his homeland ended. What also ended: Sam's American dream.

Never mind that he had a good job with D.C. prisons and a side job at a Wachovia bank branch and was part of the fabric of his community.

And forget that his family's home in Sierra Leone was burned down and that forcing him to rebuild life in a war-ravaged country he has been away from for 18 years is inhumane.

"Now, to me, it appears that I have no place here and no place to go back to. I cannot get a driver's license. I cannot work legally. I have to live in the shadows," Sam said. "I am not asking our government for a handout. I just want to be a law-abiding person."

Gone are his tax dollars and his dignity. He went from being a tax-paying resident to being relegated to the crowd of 11 million undocumented immigrants living a dodgy existence in this country. These are the people President Obama was speaking about when he vowed to take on immigration reform during his campaign.

Sam told his story last week to more than 500 people crowded into Bethel World Outreach Church on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. There were Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Jews and many more -- a new coalition of immigration reform supporters emerging from the region's houses of worship and their increasingly diverse services, church dinners and Bible studies.

These churches are often where immigrants who need help and comfort are opening up, telling their stories, explaining the torn-apart lives that hide behind the smiling fronts of waitresses, nannies, landscapers, construction workers -- the people who keep our everyday world running, but are scrambling to survive once the table is cleared and the azaleas have been planted.

As the child of immigrants myself, these are difficult stories to hear.

Not because I remember when my parents' village was burned down or because my family members were executed in the town square or because there was no food in the motherland.

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