By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
“We can use the bodies, voices, gifts, time, and talents God gave us to help Constantin and his family,” exhorted Pastor Laurel Mathewson at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in North Park on a Sunday morning in July.
The church is calling on its congregation and other San Diego interfaith activists to organize for the release of Congolese father Constantin Bakala on parole while he awaits his asylum hearing. His wife and seven children spoke at the press conference to explain why they were pushing to be reunited with Bakala, who has been in immigration detention since November 2017.
“This makes us feel real sad because my dad is not here with us. I have to do everything by myself. I have to help my mom with some translation, documents. It’s the first time for me to do stuff like that. I am getting stronger but it’s not enough because I need my father back to support my mom and help her with everything that she will need. I’m doing my best to be more independent but it’s not so [easy] because I miss my dad,” said Bakala’s teen daughter Marie-Louise. “I hope that he will be here and we will be a family again.”
Mathewson said although those gathered cannot move Washington to take action on immigration reform, they can work to change the minds of two people: the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) assistant field office director for the Atlanta field office and Bakala’s deportation officer Michael Morris.
Since St. Luke’s first met the family and started helping their asylum cases, Constantin has already had a few new victories. He was granted an emergency stay of removal and won the right to a new hearing — the first one he will have with a lawyer.
The last time the family was together was 20 months ago in Tijuana when they presented themselves at the San Ysidro Port of Entry for asylum. While the rest of the family was eventually released in San Diego pending their court dates, Bakala was separated from his family — a common practice at the time. He has been transferred to jails throughout the nation while trying to prove he will be murdered if he is returned to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Mathewson’s husband and fellow pastor Colin Mathewson said it is important to reunite the family, as Annie Bwetu Kapongo has been a single mother throughout this time while facing her own trauma from her experience in the DRC.
“They’re struggling financially, emotionally, psychologically. It would just really be good for the whole family’s well-being if he was with them,” Colin Mathewson said.
According to a Feb. 27, 2019 article published by the San Diego Union-Tribune, when her husband was kidnapped for his work teaching youth how to peacefully demonstrate, Bwetu Kapongo went to the police for help. While locked in a room smelling of urine, three policemen reportedly beat and raped her despite her pregnant state.
She suffered a miscarriage in the aftermath of the attack.
It has been a long journey filled with more traumatic events out of the DRC and to the U.S. As the Union-Tribune reported, the family was robbed, poisoned and their dog was killed while Bakala was on the run for his advocacy in the opposition party.
“People were looking for my dad to kill him, to do some things,” 15-year-old Emanuel said in a phone interview.
The family reunited and escaped to Brazil. Then they decided to travel to the U.S. but nearly died in a shipwreck off the coast of Costa Rica. When they made it to the U.S. border, Bakala’s suffering continued as he was placed in detention.
“The whole reason that the family risked their lives, I mean they thought they were going to be killed but also they risked their lives over eight months to make it from Brazil to the United States, [was because] they thought they’d be finding a safe place to be,” Colin Mathewson said in a phone interview. “Instead it’s just been this continuing nightmare for them.”
According to Terri Mathes, who communicates with Bakala daily while he is detained, Bakala is worried the trauma of the journey here in addition to the long separation from a parent will have lasting psychological effects on his children.
Emails sent by Bakala to Mathes and in notes she has taken based on their correspondence show Bakala has dealt with more than the emotional pain of being separated from his family while in detention. He was at an Alabama facility earlier this year where inmates staged a hunger strike because the food was so inedible. In another jail, doors in need of repair were welded while inmates were inside the buildings, subjecting them to noise and heat without proper ventilation.
Since some facilities keep detainees locked in for 23 hours a day without a chance to exercise, Bakala developed high blood pressure. At one point, a nurse at a new facility refused to tell the kitchen to accommodate the low-salt diet he was prescribed at the previous detention center. Instead, the 48-year-old’s health has suffered as he has simply been put on higher doses of medication, which tests show are failing to help.
Bakala is frequently frustrated because he is treated like a criminal and housed with criminals despite committing no crime — the detention centers he has been in often serve as a county jail or federal prison as well even though he is classified as a low-level detainee.
He said, “The problem is that the guards confuse the jail and the detention center, and worst of all, we are not criminals, we are immigrants. This is an error of ICE for mixing immigrants in the same place as criminals.”
Colin Mathewson said Bakala’s story of real persecution illustrates why international laws of asylum were set up originally and why the U.S. has followed them for decades.
“If we can’t grant a family like Constantin’s asylum, there’s something seriously wrong with the way that we’re living out the values that the country is founded upon,” he said.
Bakala wrote on June 11, “Without liberty, there is no value in even the greatest treasure. I was imprisoned in the Congo and now I find myself imprisoned in another country where human rights should be respected.”
– Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.