MERIDEN — Members of the Unitarian Universalist Church and Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance hosted a birthday party Wednesday evening for SujitnoSajuti, an immigrant from Indonesia who took sanctuary at the church just over two months ago.
About 20 people came to celebrate Sajuti’s69th birthday, which is officially at the end of the week, and to mark his two-month stay at the church.
“It’s another milestone— just over two months,” the Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull said. “It seemed like a natural thing to do to celebrate.”
Sajuti first came to the United States in 1981 on a Fulbright Scholarship, earning advanced degrees from Columbia University and the University of Connecticut. After overstaying his student visa, Sajuti chose to remain in the United States. He registered with immigrations officials in 2001. After being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a period in 2011, had been granted stays of removal since 2013. He was living in West Hartford until Oct. 9, when his last request for stay had been denied and ICE moved forward with deportation orders.
The Unitarian Universalist Church took him in that Monday, Oct. 9, the night before his scheduled flight the next morning.
The church had only a few hours to decide to take Sajuti in. Their board had recently voted to open their doors as a sanctuary to those facing deportation, but had only just started preparing a spare room upstairs as a shelter. Carlsson-Bull said they’ve been learning along the way.
“We jumped in the water and looked for the life preserver later,” said Nancy Burton, the church’s chancel sanctuary coordinator. “We do have people from the larger faith community that are helping now. That makes a big difference.”
Carlsson-Bull and Burton agreed that there have been obstacles with sheltering Sajuti, but they have figured them out together with him.
“Some of (the obstacles) are cultural, some of them are definitely linguistic, and some of them are just practical,” Carlsson-Bull said. They’ve had to figure out how he can do laundry and make sure he has food, but also learn things like how to properly hold a birthday celebration given his Indonesian heritage.
Sajuti is still looking into ways he can remain in the United States, outside of sanctuary. AlokBhatt, community defense coordinator for the rights alliance and a friend of Sajuti, said he has an attorney of record and they’ve been getting legal assistance from New Haven Legal Aid.
“We recently had a very, very encouraging conversation,” Bhatt said. “It looks like there could be a path forward.”
Bhatt said Sajuti has a visa certification pending with the Hartford Police Department and he expects a decision by the end of this week. The visa is available to individuals that have been victims of crimes and suffered substantial mental or physical abuse as a result of the crime. Since Sajuti was the victim of an armed robbery while working at a convenience store in 1995, they are hoping Hartford police are willing to certify that it happened so a form can be submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“That would be really, really awesome if that’s a positive decision,” Bhatt said.
If the police certify the visa, Sajuti will be granted several years of stay and a judge, instead of ICE, will determine whether to extend his stay further. It also means he will have a better chance of getting a green card for permanent stay, Bhatt said.
Bhatt said Sujati has typically kept a positive disposition through the process.
“He confides in his spirituality, in his faith, and that’s kind of been his guiding light through a really traumatic experience,” Bhatt said. “It’s not easy to rearrange your whole life and then be essentially dependent on the kindness of some friends and strangers to live your daily life … but he understands that there’s a lot of different people doing a lot of different things to support him … and he’s really grateful for that.”
At his birthday celebration, Sujati thanked everyone who came and everyone who has supported him so far. “I know it’s tough, but we have to work hard. We work as a team and I hope get through everything,” he said.
“This life, we don’t know what (will) happen. You keep positive, keep working, you don’t know what (will) happen,” he said. “I hope justice comes to me while I’m alive.”