(Names in this article have been changed for the individuals’ protection.)
Irwan arrived at work at 7:00 a.m., a car workshop where he has worked for more than 10 years. He grabbed the work orders for his first car of the day and immediately got to work. Without knowing it, his hands and clothes were getting dirty in the first 90 minutes he worked. Irwan continued his work. Suddenly, he heard a voice calling “Irwan!” When he turned his head, he saw three people with jackets that had across them the letters “ICE,” for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The three people approached him and his face turned pale, his legs became weak and his hands trembled. Irwan replied, “Yes, I am Irwan.” Two ICE officers immediately took him to their car. Irwan’s colleagues and supervisor were shocked and could do nothing. They were silent and witnessed the sadness on Irwan’s face, as if to say “help me, help me.” In the car, Irwan immediately grabbed his cell phone and texted his wife: “I was arrested by ICE officers. You and the children leave the house now.” After sending the text, he immediately turned off his cell phone.
A few hours later, Irwan was in York County Prison in Pennsylvania wearing an orange uniform. The first thing he wanted to do was contact his wife and his daughters. Irwan tried to contact his wife by making a collect call from the prison, but they were always disconnected because both Irwan and his wife did not understand that in order to receive the phone they had to pre-pay. Irwan did not despair. He tried up to 45 times to be able to talk to his wife, always failing to reach her until finally he cried because he could not bear the events that separated him from his wife and children. While he was crying alone on the wall someone approached him. “Hi, I am a social worker in this prison. Why are you crying? How can I help you?” they asked. Irwan replied, “I tried to call my family. I tried more than 40 times and always failed. I miss them.” The social worker answered, “Come, follow me. You can use a phone from my office.” For Irwan, this social worker was like an angel sent by God. After he got to the office of the social worker, he contacted his wife and immediately connected. Irwan said, “Hello,” and the next thing he heard was his wife’s cry. For the first five minutes they just cried on the phone. Then his wife said, “The children and I are sad. Papa, you need to stay strong. We do not know what God’s plan is from this incident. I have contacted Pastor Aldo and some other friends. They will help our families. They also advised us to prepare for the worst, for deportation to Indonesia. There will be many people who will pray for our families.”
For two weeks, the social worker gave an opportunity for Irwan to contact his wife for 10 minutes every day. On the 13th day, Irwan said to his wife, “I have been told that tomorrow I will be deported. You need to renew your Indonesian passport. Go apply for an American passport and Indonesian passport for our children. After all the affairs are finished, we will gather as a family again in Indonesia. Prepare our children for entry into new environments in Indonesia and new languages of Bahasa Indonesia. I love you all.”
This is the true story of a person I was asked to help. It is an all-too-common story these days for anyone not born in the United States. Franconia Mennonite Conference is full of immigrant stories. Franconia Conference is a story of faith and migration. This has helped shape us as a community, sensitive to the struggle of others who were also seeking a place of peace and flourishing like we have found rooted in southeastern Pennsylvania for 300 years. The Gospel of Christ’s peace has reminded us that “to whom much is given, much is also required.” If you are interested in learning more about the more recent immigrant stories in our Conference, the stories of your brothers and sisters, contact the Franconia Conference office and request the immigration stories. You will receive in the mail a DVD including a discussion guide you can use in your congregation. Irwan’s story and all the stories of our brothers and sisters is our story together — past, present and future as God’s people.
Aldo Siahaan is pastor of Philadelphia Praise Center and leadership minister for Franconia Mennonite Conference. This article originally appeared in the conference’s publication Intersectings.