Facing a nightmare every day
Taimur Hussain and Sabiha Hussain moved from Bangladesh 17 years ago to New York City. Taimur worked as a chef and the couple raised two American-born children, Sabreena and Sanjana, who are now 13 and 8 years old.
When Taimur went to immigration officials to try to resolve his legal status, he ended up in a New Jersey detention center for over nine months, while Sabiha and her daughters fell into destitution.
Friends and family of the Hussain family called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release Taimur on the basis of President Obama's announced policy shift away from pursuing immigrants without criminal records, like Taimur. After a campaign that received media coverage and support from elected officials, Taimur was released in late December.
Taimur and Sabiha talked withas another family member translated the interview.
HOW DOES it feel to be home?
Taimur: I'm very grateful and happy to be back home. If it wasn't for the media and government officials, then I wouldn't be here today. I'm very happy to be here with my family and all the people who supported me these whole nine months.
WHAT LED you to move to the U.S. in 1995?
Taimur: Before I came to this country, I had a clothing business. Since Bangladesh was a poor country and the government was not well, I was a part of politics to improve the government and lift up the country. But I was in one of the opposing parties. They started threatening me, tried to break down his house and harassed my family. So I had no other way but to get out of the country.
WHAT CHANGES have you experienced as Muslim immigrants in your 17 years in this country?
Taimur: During the Clinton era, things were pretty good, even though I didn't have status. When I first entered the country, I was working at an Indian restaurant. I was mentioned in the New York Times as a top chef, so if I had status, I could have had my own restaurant by now.
But after 9/11, everything changed. Things have gotten harder.
First of all, I never had a proper job, so every day was a struggle how to go to work, support the family, make sure the kids are on the right path--every day was hand-to-mouth work. The two kids were premature so I had to stay on top of their health, be on top of them more than anything.
DID YOU experience anti-Muslim hostility?
Taimur: Even though 9/11 was based on a religious thing, I never fell in that situation where someone came up to me because of that. The neighbors knew what kind of family we were. They were asking, "Do you guys need any help? Is everything okay? How is your job doing?"
We didn't expect that, because we're a Muslim family and people had so much biased knowledge about Islam. But they knew what kind of people we are.
Sabiha: Even now, the neighbors that know about [Taimur's detention]--they might be from different religions, but they would go to their church or synagogue and pray for Taimur.
YOU VOLUNTARILY went to ICE to resolve your status. Was it unexpected when you were detained?
Taimur: The first time I went, the lawyer said everything should be okay, and it was done within 10 minutes. The next time I went, I was expecting it would be the same thing, because the lawyer was dealing with the case, so everything should have gone as it did before. But from the moment when the officer on the case said they had to keep me in custody, I was extremely shocked. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack.
WHAT WAS life like inside the detention center?
Taimur: Mentally, I was very broken down, thinking about how my family is. The conditions were okay. I pray five times a day, and it was situated there so that I could do that. I'm not accustomed to eating their kind of food, so it was a bit troubling for me to eat, but otherwise I was fine. I didn't have trouble with the officers or anything.
WERE OTHER inmates in similar situations?
Taimur: All they can think about is what's going to happen next. "If I have to go back to my country, what's going to happen to my kids and my wife?" Most of the detainees there have families and are in the same situation. When they have free time, that's all they discuss.
ARE YOU surprised by the level of support that your family received?
Taimur: Within those nine months, I lost every hope I had. I didn't know if I would ever get out of that situation. But when I found out that the media and government officials and everyone was involved, I was overwhelmed to see that someone was there to support me and bring out my voice. As long as I live, I'm never going to forget how much support I have gotten from people.
When someone doesn't have legal status, they're looked down on, and they don't have a voice that people can hear, so I'm very grateful toward everyone. I don't have the capacity to give anything to anyone, but all I can do is pray for everyone's well-being.
HOW HAS this experience affected your family?
Taimur: Within a period of nine months, a lot has happened with my kids and my wife. In terms of education and finances, everything has been affected. Whatever I had established over 17 years has crashed down, so I have to start from the beginning again.
SABIHA, YOU couldn't visit Taimur in detention because of your own immigration status. What was that like?
Sabiha: It was like an emptiness. The only thing I could do was call him. To cover for that, I sent the little ones as much as I could, so at least they could get the connection, and through them, I could get the support in knowing he was okay.
To give him comfort, I would say on the phone that we're okay. I would give him hope and strength through the phone.
WHAT HAS this experience been like for your daughters Sabreena and Sanjana?
Sabiha: From the beginning, since they're at a tender age, I didn't want them to be exposed to things like that because how much could their little minds take, putting pressure on the kids. But I had no other choice.
The kids have a capacity for understanding and coping with it. All I could do is thank god that I have these kids. In a way, they are wiser than I am. They understand more than I do. Whatever I had to say, they understood and supported me. I am very thankful to have kids like these.
IS THERE anything you think people should know about the immigration system or immigrants that people don't?
Sabiha: In the nine months, every night was a sleepless night--a nightmare I had to face every day. I don't want that to happen to anyone in my position. If other people are in our position, they should be helped. This is a horrible situation to be in.
Taimur: All I wanted was to raise my kids in the way I hadn't had the chance to. I don't want to be dependent on the government for anything. I had the capacity to work for 17 years, but due to my status, people didn't want to pay me the right amount. But I still have the strength and courage to raise my kids, keep working and pay taxes. I want my kids to be the next generation of leaders and do something good for their country.