The feds want to deport three Duluthians. Their friends say, 'No way'

When Denfeld High School teacher John Bergum asked a popular student last March what was making her so despondent, her astounding response provoked a community effort to help keep her family together.

Family faces deportation
Sakina Hjerpe (left) and Thomas Hjerpe (right) talk about Zakina's struggles against being deported Friday afternoon at their home in Duluth. (Derek Montgomery / News Tribune)

When Denfeld High School teacher John Bergum asked a popular student last March what was making her so despondent, her astounding response provoked a community effort to help keep her family together.

Sharon Osicho, a cheerleader, homecoming queen candidate and immigrant from Kenya, replied that she and her mother and brother were under the looming threat of deportation despite her mother's marriage to a Duluth man and the recent birth of a baby sister.

The conversation sparked a volunteer effort to provide basic needs, fix up their dilapidated Duluth home, ask politicians for support and file legal paperwork.

Bergum spoke with the girl's mother, Sakina Hjerpe, to help him understand the legal situation. After arriving legally in the U.S. in 1998, immigration officials said in December 2007 that their time was up, and that they had to be out of the country by April.

It was less than two weeks before the deadline when Bergum found out, and he acted as fast as he could. He frantically contacted politicians and attorneys to request assistance or guidance. He and LaVonne Fones of the Salvation Army filed a court motion to delay the deportation order past the April deadline. So far, their efforts have been successful, but the threat of deportation still looms.


"What I did was nothing special," Bergum said. "What would you do if a kid came to you?"

The Denfeld community stepped up to help cover the family's legal costs. Students and faculty initially raised $1,100 and about $3,500 total.

"That tells you something about this community," Bergum said.


From a small village in Kenya -- and with Sharon and her brother, Nestor, from the same tribe as President Obama's family -- the three sought safety and opportunity in the U.S. in 1998. They left Kenya because Sakina's Kenyan husband needed to seek political refuge.

"The reason was that their father was involved in democracy and there wasn't democracy in Kenya," Sakina said. "People were coming to hurt us in our home. We were going to take off."

After obtaining visas, Sakina brought her children to Topeka, Kan., to join their father.

"I wanted the opportunity as a woman," said Sakina, 36. "I wanted to go to college. I wanted to be an all-American woman."


After the visas expired in 2003, the husband, who Sakina wanted to remain nameless, sought political asylum. But he also was becoming abusive to her and the children, so Sakina filed for divorce and moved her children to Duluth in 2004. The divorce terminated their political asylum status, Sakina said.

"I came by faith, and I wanted the best for my children," Sakina said of why she picked Duluth. "I heard that up here was a good place to raise children."

'A good village'

Four years later, the Rev. Mark Osthus of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Proctor felt compelled to help the family after a September phone conversation with Sakina's new husband, Thomas Hjerpe of Duluth.

"He said two things: 'We need help' and 'I don't want to lose my family,' " Osthus said. "I was very moved by that. Put yourself in his place."

The family needed more than legal help. With a family income of $1,500 a month to support five people, they didn't have the necessities. Their home didn't have reliable heat or many appliances and was littered with junk when Osthus stepped in.

"When you don't have anything, you hold onto everything," Osthus explained. "We gave them permission to let go."

Osthus began cleaning out their home; he took eight truckloads to the dump. He then provided toys for the new baby, Sasha, and a coffee pot and other appliances for the family. Workers, including brothers Dan and Bill Saker, fixed up the home with fresh plaster and paint.


"It has been nice watching their attitudes grow more positively," Dan Saker said of the family. "To see their house being improved, I've seen them grow."

Sakina said asking for help wasn't easy.

"I felt like a needy person in the community," she said. "I had no networking, and you lose a part of yourself. You want to stay in bed, but then you meet people like Mark, he is my favorite, and they give you hope. They pick you up and tell you to get a grip on yourself."

As the work transformed the house, Sakina told Osthus, "It finally feels like I live in America."

Dentist Melanie Meier, optometrist Teresa Theobald, plumber Jerome Aule and the Rev. Tom Anderson also have contributed volunteer work.

Meier helped Sharon, 17, with four root canals. Theobald provided Nestor, 13, with glasses. Fones, from the Salvation Army, helped Sakina through her pregnancy with Sasha, now 1.

"With the support I've gotten from everyone, that shows me it's a good village," Sakina said of her Duluth home.



Sakina met Thomas, a disabled Navy veteran, through a mutual friend in 2005. They fell in love and were married in 2006.

Their vows, however, didn't alleviate the immigration issue as officials said they still needed a financial sponsor, Sakina said.

"Basically, it's a messy case that is so complex," Bergum said. "With immigration, there is so much paperwork to wade through that someone not from the U.S. isn't going to understand. I tried to wade through that, and I got confused."

As a result, Sakina, Sharon and Nestor were given an order of voluntary deportation in December 2007. Voluntary deportation is an order to leave the country within 120 days and still have an opportunity to return in the future. The family was under that deadline when Sharon reached out to Bergum for assistance.

"They said I had to go home, me and my children," Sakina said. "I had just [given birth to] Sasha, and I asked about Sasha. They said she had to stay with her dad. Her dad can't take care of her."

Bergum contacted Jeff Larson, an immigration attorney, who believes the remaining legal avenues for the family are nearly exhausted. Larson said one of the few remaining hopes is for a judge to reopen the case in what's called a "sua sponte" action.

"The judge reopens the case not because of the law, but for a humanitarian reason that these people were ground up and spit out of the legal system," Larson said.

To combat the deportation order, Sakina and Thomas appeared at an immigration hearing in August to prove their marriage was legitimate. The questions pertained to everything about their living situation, from the color of their shower curtain to what time the children leave for school. They aced the test, Larson said.


"That is the basis of our argument: This is not a marriage of convenience. They own their own home and have a child together," Bergum said. "What we are asking for is that they look at the situation in the last three years and what the damage to the family would be."

The deportation fears of Sakina and her children were heightened Jan. 13 when three Homeland Security Department officials came to their home as Nestor left for school.

"It was scary," Sakina said. "They said, 'Sit down. Be quiet. We are going to talk to you.' ... I thought my son did something wrong. I said, 'Who are you people? Who sent you?' "

The officials gave Sakina an order of supervision that says she must register the first work day of every month at an immigration office in Bloomington, Minn. The requirement is difficult to fulfill because the family doesn't have a reliable vehicle.

Repeated calls to the immigration office in Bloomington were not returned.


For a judge to reopen the case, there must be a sponsor to provide financial stability to the family at 125 percent of the poverty line, but with Thomas' part-time janitor job as the main source of income, the family lives well below the poverty line.

The Northeast Minnesota Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church in America looked into sponsoring the family, but according to legal guidelines, the sponsor must be an individual. Bergum also looked into being the sponsor, but the financial obligation of five years to cover living expenses and possible medical costs was too much of a commitment for him and his wife, Jean.


Sakina's uncertain legal status impairs her from finding a job. She is a few classes short of an Associate in Arts degree from Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College. She one day hopes to be a probation officer.

"She is a lovely person," said Darlene Munneke, who has tried to help the family through the synod's task force. "She appears willing to work and is waiting for a chance to work. Until she gets her green card, she can't work. It's a Catch 22. She wants to work but can't."

In the meantime the church and community keep pulling for the family.

"I'm frightened to think about what might happen if we fail," Osthus said.

Want to help?

To assist Sakina and Thomas Hjerpe, contact the Rev. Mark Osthus at Immanuel Lutheran Church at (218) 624-3019 or Major LaVonne Fones at the Salvation Army at (218) 722-7934.

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