Dear friends, family members, and people we don't know yet,
I'm Suzanne Luchs, and I represent the immigrant advocacy facebook group called 6000 MOMS. I have a story to share ~ I pray you'll take the time to read it.
The woman in this photo, Drey (for safety purposes, we are not using her real name or showing her face) came to the United States from the Congo on a student visa in 2016, an opportunity that gave her much needed refuge and hope for her future, immediately following a period of violence and political oppression in her country, which radically affected her family.
I invite you to take a moment to read Drey's harrowing tale of courage in the face of extreme adversity. There could not be a better word than ‘brave’ to describe Drey's decision to share her story here: she wrestled for quite some time with the emotional challenge of this. I feel honored to bear witness to her story, and I think you will, too. Here, then, is Drey's story in her own voice:
"I am an international student living in Chicago. I am from the Republic of Congo, where I lived with my father, mother, brothers and sisters. My family was very happy and tightly knit. We used to sit around the table for dinner every night and talk about our days, and we all attended church together. I was loved.
Republic of Congo is a de facto dictatorship. Opposition parties have minimal power, mainly for show, but they’re fighting for more freedom.
My father worked in commerce and one of his customers was a popular opposition party member. After the result of the presidential elections, the police arrested all the members of the opposition parties and anyone who worked with them, even if their work was not in any way political: my own father was one of those who was arrested in this way.
After the election’s results were published, armed military men came to our house in a military truck early one morning and took my father away. When we tried to ask why and where they were taking him, they threatened our lives and left. As soon as we were able, my mother and I spent two days looking for him at different police stations, but he was nowhere to be found. Soon after we returned home, the same military officers who took my father came and took my mom and me by force.
The officers brought us to a police station and then separated us by taking me alone to a different police station where I was detained for one month. During that month I was abused, tortured and raped because they thought I would tell them things that would help them incriminate my father, and through that, his customer from the opposition party. But I didn’t know anything, and I would not lie to hurt my father, no matter what happened to me.
After I was released and my father was found, I came to Chicago. My father thought it was best for me to leave Congo so they wouldn’t use me to get to him since they knew my face and name. We decided I would go to school so that I could stay busy and work towards a better future for our family. Once I was safely here in the states, my dad was able to pay for my studies with his business income.
Things started to change around the beginning of May last year. There is a certain grass roots movement in Congo which was formed to challenge the dictatorship. They were protesting against the trials of leaders of the opposition. They were also asking authorities for the release of opposition leaders.
Some members of that group were arrested in Congo, in front of a courthouse while they were protesting. My father knew one those activists who was arrested because he was friends with that activist’s dad: my father used to visit that man’s dad on Sundays. As it happened, the group meeting was also held on Sundays, so my father witnessed them having their meetings, although he was not a member of their group.
When those activists were arrested, it led to other arrests of people who attended their meetings, and because my father had been observed near the meetings on Sundays, he was one of those who was targeted and arrested. Thus, my father was arrested yet a second time because of political issues he was not involved in. (Note from Drey’s attorney: In asylum law, we call this “imputed political opinion." It’s a phenomenon in many parts of the world where someone is believed by the government to be politically active, even if they’re not, and persecuted for it.) This time he spent 6 months in jail. I’m certain he was tortured again while there.
My father was released temporarily on bail due to lack of information and proof connecting him to that movement, but he was soon subpoenaed to come to the police station again. He had already been detained and tortured twice so we knew what was coming, regardless of his innocence. Thus, after analyzing everything that was happening, we concluded that the best situation for my father and our family was for him to flee. Sure enough, some of the people who were arrested in 2016 when we were arrested are now being sentenced. In fact, one of the leaders of the opposition got sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Once my father fled, he was no longer able to pay for my school fees and because of that my student visa got terminated. In February, I was devastated to learn I was being asked to leave school.
I’m going to ask my attorney, Renae Yoo, to speak more fully to the legal repercussions of my visa being terminated, and why we are asking for help through this GoFundMe campaign.
Writing this was not easy: the memories are painful to dredge up. While I am able to leave parts out of the telling of my story, I must still face and process those parts in order to heal. My hope and dream is that school can again be part of that process.
Thank you so much for reading my story."
A word from Drey's immigration attorney:
"Thank you for reading Drey's story! My name is Renae Yoo, and I am the immigration attorney handling Drey's case pro bono, which means as an unpaid volunteer. The following is a summary of how current immigration laws prevent Drey from overcoming the trauma of her past:
When Drey got an F-1 international student visa, it was a chance to heal and overcome what she had been through, as well as escape the threat of further detention and torture at the same time. She could study in the U.S., where she would be safe, and likewise pursue a U.S. degree. She could go home to her family once it was safe, better positioned for a successful career.
Still, international students have it hard. They're rarely authorized to work. They're not allowed to receive financial assistance or pay in-state tuition. They have to prove they have the funds to pay their way through school at the highest price, without working. For middle-class students, it's an incredibly difficult visa to budget, and if anything unforeseen happens, simply not having the access to such funding can derail your entire immigration status.
Drey's father owned his own business, enabling him to arrange for and finance an education in America for Drey, in order to keep her safe. A U.S. degree would give Drey opportunities to pursue a future, anywhere in the world, where she would be safe. But because her father had to flee for his life, and Drey was prohibited from both working and from getting help, she was kicked out of school for nonpayment, and her student visa was terminated because she wasn't going to school. Because her student visa was terminated, she is truly out of good options for her future.
Asylum is not an "easy answer." She has been in the U.S. more than a year, and asylum must be filed within the first year. Something called "withholding of removal" is still available, but it involves first having a deportation (now called 'removal') order issued against Drey. It would limit her future tremendously, she would never be able to travel, and she would not ever be able to have her family come join her. The government could also take this protection away the moment they think it's safe for her to return home, and immediately deport her.
I'm filing a difficult kind of case for Drey, where we try to reinstate her student visa, because that will be the safest option that still gives her a future with opportunities, and doesn't condemn her to lifetime separated from her family as a condition of keeping her safe.
In a surprise twist, we are surprised and thrilled that Drey was actually allowed back into school this week , after her school administrators learned there was a legitimate organization willing to help her raise funds! With this infusion of hope, Drey is already brightening. When I saw her last, she seemed so much happier than I've ever seen her. She's passionate about pursuing a degree, and frankly, distracted by the course load. It's a wonderful and important endeavor for her. Drey has goals of using her degree here to work in HR in international organizations. She has a history of volunteering with very purposeful groups, and hopes to find a similar one where she can help connect people to the communities where they can do their best work.
Drey doesn't just need a good lawyer: she needs help. Nothing I can achieve with Drey's case will mean anything if she doesn't have a means of staying in school. As soon as I took her case I recognized I was going to have to get creative. I didn't really know where to turn... until I thought about the immigrant advocacy facebook group I am in: 6000 MOMS. I reached out to the admin staff to see if they thought they could help, and if they were willing to take on this challenge. I'm grateful they said yes. I hope you will too: this may be Drey's last hope for safety and a future. Thank you."
Our desire at 6000 MOMS is to rally tuition aid and compassionate support for this beautiful and brave young woman, so that she can remain here, safely in school. We understand how easy it is to get burned out on GFM's, so we want to create other ways for people to be involved as well. To be perfectly honest, Drey's living situation is not ideal. She has a place to lay her head, and food, but no real emotional care. She would be open to a new arrangement, if by some miracle one presented itself. She has no spending money for essentials, no means of choosing what she eats.
I am creating a special FB group for people who want to come together to help Drey in any number of different ways. Drey won't be in the group: it will be a place where anyone interested in her case can discuss together ways to help her; perhaps form teams with different care focuses. Please go here (Deliverance and Dignity for Drey ~ Planning Group) if you are interested in that.
Make no mistake: this campaign isn't simply about helping someone get a degree: it's about saving a life: no avenue of care will bear fruit if we can't raise the funds to pay Drey's past and current tuition fees. Thank you for joining us in this endeavor.
Please help Drey by sharing this story on your own social media platforms. God bless you all!