MERIDEN — Sujitno Sajuti, a 68-year-old former Fullbright scholar and undocumented West Hartford resident, disobeyed orders from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to board a plane to Indonesia Tuesday, a country he has not seen in three decades, instead taking sanctuary at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Paddock Avenue while lawyers explore his legal options.
“Most of my life I live here,” Sajuti said. “If I (go to Indonesia) I’d be a stranger.”
Sajuti first came to the United States in 1981 on a Fullbright 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 and after being detained by ICE for a period in 2011, had been granted stays of removal since 2013. Sajuti learned in August his request for a stay had been denied and ICE would be moving forward with deportation orders.
Sajuti’s flight from JFK International Airport to Indonesia was scheduled for 11:15 a.m. Tuesday. Unitarian Universalist Church the Rev. Jan Carlsson-Bull said she received a call Monday night informing her of Sajuti’s situation. Church leaders had already decided to open the church as a sanctuary and readied an unused office space for shelter.
“The immediacy of Sujitno’s needs came to our attention yesterday, so we acted quickly,” Carlsson-Bull said. “It’s a gift to us that we are able and willing to offer sanctuary.”
Alok Bhatt, an organizer for the Connecticut Immigration Rights Alliance, described Sajuti’s contributions to the community at a press conference at the church Tuesday morning.
“He’s a cherished member of this community as a cultural ambassador, as an educator, as an activist, he’s built so much respect for himself,” Bhatt said. “This is his home. It’s where he’s established his life. It’s where his community engagement lies. This is where Sujitno belongs.”
Unidad Latina en Accion Organizer Jesus Morales criticized immigration authorities for “sending this elder back to a place he has not seen in over 30 years,”
“This is inhumane,” Morales said. “There is no words to describe the pain that the community feels right now as this man is in need of seeking refuge in a search to avoid being separated from his family, community and loved ones.”
Although Meriden is not a sanctuary city, Mayor Kevin Scarpati said area churches have been organizing to offer shelter for those facing deportation. An estimated 1,800 undocumented people reside in Meriden.
“Yes, they are here illegally but are they an active criminal? Are they committing crimes? Are they not paying taxes? Are they not working? And it’s obviously a very sensitive situation, but it’s a shame that churches have to step up to offer shelter to these people who otherwise would be deported,” Scarpati said. “I don’t agree with what Washington is doing — I don’t agree with how they are handling their deportation policies ... Its unfortunate that many families are still fighting this.”
Sajuti is the third in the state to seek sanctuary to avoid deportation. It has been nine weeks since Meriden resident Marco Reyes took refuge in a New Haven church to avoid deportation to Ecuador. Reyes is a father of three children who came to the United States in 1997 and is the sole caretaker of his wife, children and other family members, and has been for 20 years. He received a deportation order in 2009, but was given stays of leave since. Nury Chavarria, a single mother of four from Norwalk who entered the country illegally in 1993, took sanctuary in a New Haven church in July to avoid deportation to Guatemala. She was granted an emergency stay a week later that allowed her to remain in the U.S. while her lawyers fight to keep her in the country permanently.
It is unclear how long Sajuti will stay in the church.
“This is something that may last a week, this is something that may last months,” Morales said.
Sajuti hoped legal proceedings could be handled quickly so he can return to his work in the community.
“This work I do is for helping people, the most important thing in my life,” Sajuti said.
A practicing Muslim, Sajuti spent most of the day in prayer. He expressed gratitude to church officials for taking him and placed faith in God to decide his fate.
“Thank you very much. This is a good thing for me. I get the blessing from God whoever is helping, could be church, could be synagogue, could be mosque,” Sajuti said. “This is still part of God’s process, hes got to the make the decision, not me.”
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