African immigrant thankful for freedom
Glenwood Springs Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” Locked up and biding his time in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility, Henry Akim Gama sometimes climbed onto a chair to get a glimpse out the window.
“There was really nothing to look at,” he said. “But just knowing that life was out there …”
Gama, of Zimbabwe, spent more than eight months incarcerated after ICE arrested him in September in Glenwood Springs. He arrived in the United States in 2000 to escape political persecution. He accidentally filed for asylum late and showed up for a court date about 11 days late.
He spent most of the time since his arrest in a contract detention facility in Aurora thinking he’d be deported any day.
“The worst was not knowing when I was getting out of that place,” he said.
A low point came in December when he was served with papers saying his travel documents were in place for his deportation.
“I was ready,” he said. “I was like, ‘It’s all in God’s hands.’ I thought I was done.”
Gama, 29, had a lot of time on his hands. So much so that he and some of the 52 people sharing his pod at the detention facility would make sure no guards were looking, then set up a chair underneath the pod’s high windows and take turns climbing up and looking out, he said.
There was also the television.
“I wasn’t much of a TV person before I went in there, but I was forced to watch Jerry Springer, Judge Judy, Judge Alex,” Gama said.
He said a person can only take so many naps in one day. It was the lack of many little things, like fresh air, that made being locked up so tough. He said he’s been catching up on life and appreciating those things even more since his asylum case was reopened and he was released on $2,000 bond May 15.
Mark Barr, of the Lichter and Associates law firm, filed a successful second motion to reopen Gama’s asylum case after a failed motion by a previous attorney. It argued violence and human rights conditions under President Robert Mugabe’s rule have gotten worse in Zimbabwe recently, and Gama, a member of the country’s opposition party, would be in danger were he to return.
“Everything can just be taken away, just like that,” Gama said, snapping his fingers on the deck at the Rivers Restaurant, where he used to work and said he will work again. “In a way, just like everyone else, I was taking some small things for granted.”
The weekend of his release, he watched a marathon of the first three Indiana Jones movies and played round of golf, one of his favorite hobbies.
Gama said being allowed outside the ICE facility was “pretty much a luxury that didn’t exist.” He said the food was “pretty bad,” and he and other detainees had to get creative. Improvised meals involved anything from cheese in a tube and Doritos to Top Ramen noodles and other random ingredients thrown into a plastic bag with hot water and shaken around.
“I ate a lot of Ramen noodles in there, man,” Gama said.
Privacy and pleasant smells didn’t always exist while sharing a pod with 52 others.
“Privacy ” you can forget about privacy,” Gama said.
Gama said the 400-bed ICE facility seemed overcrowded and at times additional detainees were placed in the pod with bedding on the floor. Officials proposed last year to expand the facility to house over three times as many ICE detainees.
He was unable to contact his family while he was in the detention facility, he said, and he later found out they were really worried about him. The other detainees were his main source of hope.
“That’s the only thing that kept me going,” he said. “There were real human beings in there.”
Most were Latino, he said, but he met people from all over the world. He said most of their situations were sad and didn’t make sense to him.
There was a man from Poland whose parents brought him to the U.S. at four months old. He was “as American as you can get,” but was deported at 39 after a drug arrest, Gama said. He described getting to know another man who was deported after spending seven years at the Aurora facility. He said it’s unfortunate the law must see things in black and white.
“I guess I should see things in black and white, but there’s always going to be that rainbow in my world,” he said.
Gama’s friends, including general manager of the Rivers Restaurant, Anita Wan, City Councilor Dave Sturges and other Glenwood Rotarians, raised and spent over $16,000 toward Gama’s legal fees and also mounted a letter-writing campaign to politicians. They believe Gama is a model citizen who was unfairly written off by the government for accidentally making procedural mistakes in his asylum case.
“Aw, man, I’m still feeling the love,” Gama said. “I have a lot of people to thank. … It’s still sinking in.”
Gama has a hearing to schedule a court date on July 30. He then must prepare his asylum case, which is expected to be heard a year from now or more. Gama joked he would tattoo the court date on his arm after his late showing for the August 2006 court date led to his arrest.
Gama remains optimistic, but said, “If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. Life goes on.”
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