Ageth Okeny fled war in Sudan with her four children. In Egypt, she says she applied for refugee resettlement.
“They asked me in interview: ‘You have specific place to go?’ I said no, I just want to leave with my kid[s], I need the safety place to be safe with my children,” Okeny says.
“So they brought me here to Manchester,” she says.
That was eighteen years ago, and Okeny’s been in Manchester ever since.
In that time, she’s seen her three daughters off to college. One of them is now training to be an airplane pilot. Another is serving in the Peace Corps. Okeny also has a son, Haitham Bol, who she says was nine years old when he arrived in the U.S.
“Haitham was doing very good, he went to high school here,” says Haitham’s stepfather, Chris Okeny, who also came to the U.S. as a refugee from Sudan. “He had a job, he played football. He was a couple of time in the newspaper, you know, doing good in the community.”
But, his family says, Bol began to run with the wrong crowd.
In 2015, Bol pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled drug and receiving stolen property. He was sentenced to serve time in New Hampshire State Prison.
This past December, Ageth Okeny says he was released from prison in Berlin, New Hampshire. Bol had gotten into a lot of trouble but was hoping to start anew.
But shortly after getting out of prison, Okeny says her son was arrested by ICE officials, held at a jail in Dover and told he would be deported. She says Bol does not have U.S. citizenship.
“So I try to contact [someone] to find a way to get help,” Okeny says. “Nowhere to get help, I’m still running to find a way to help my son.”
Okeny says she has been trying to get her son legal help but has struggled to afford an immigration attorney. This became even more difficult when Bol was moved to a different facility halfway across the country.
I reached Bol by phone at an ICE holding facility in Sierra Blanca, Texas.
His voice was scratchy, he says, because ICE officers used pepper spray on him and others. He also says detainees are resisting deportation.
“We are all people who really shouldn’t deserve this treatment or the way that they’re forcing us,” Bol says. “But it’s really the first time I have ever witnessed anything like this, and it’s very rough, it’s rough.”
But the story for Bol gets more complicated.
“I was told I’m going to be deported to South Sudan,” Bol says.
Bol and other detainees interviewed on the phone say they are worried that they will be put on a flight to South Sudan, a country that has been engrossed in war for more than four years. Detainees say ICE officers have verbally given them this information.
“I have never in my life been to South Sudan, I have no idea what South Sudan look like,” Bol says.
Bol was born in Khartoum in the north, he says, during a time when north and south were one country. Since then, South Sudan has gained its independence and is now among the world’s most dangerous places, with reports of child soldiers, rape and other atrocities. And the risk of famine is now severe, according to the United Nations.
ICE says it does not give out deportation schedules, but a spokesperson provided that, in general: “removals of aliens who are under a final order of removal from an immigration judge are done only to the individual’s nation of origin, not to third countries.”
It’s impossible to know for sure where ICE plans on deporting Bol or others. Or whether or not they will be transported elsewhere after a possible initial landing in South Sudan.
Elissa Steglich is a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. She says concerned family members of individuals in detention with Bol have reached out to her.
“We remain concerned about access to council and conditions in general,” Steglich says.
Steglich thinks this may be the second attempt to deport dozens of people to unstable countries in Africa.
“So it certainly raises concerns that, not only are we pushing ahead with deportations, we’re doing so in a way that does not respect the dignity and basic human rights of those who are being deported and doing so in a way that does not allow for new protection concerns to be heard,” Steglich says.
One detainee reached by phone says he was originally from Gambia and lawyers in Minnesota are working to block deportation of a group of Somalis believed to be in the same group as Bol.
Bol says he’s being held with 28 like him, people who he says are worried they too will soon board a flight to South Sudan.
For now, Bol’s mother Ageth Okeny, who is now in contact with a lawyer, says she’s left in the dark and worried her son will be sent to a highly dangerous country he has no connection to.
“[He has] no home, no safety,” Okeny says. “My big problem is where [are] they taking them?”
Husband Chris Okeny says he feels like he and his family, who came here legally as refugees, are being treated unfairly.
“This is not the America that I know,” Okeny says. “All of us here, we came, we did our best, we became part of the community... He’s fearing for his life. We fear for his life.”
Immigration experts say the deportation process isn’t exactly transparent and extremely difficult to fight without good legal help.
So for now, Okeny waits for the next phone call from her son hoping he will have more information for her.
“No one is listening to me,” Ageth Okeny says. “I feel now like I’m still in Sudan... We have our citizen[ship], so we have a right to say something and somebody can listen," she says.
Okeny says she understands her son has broken the law and may be deported to South Sudan or elsewhere. But she wants people to know her story in the hopes it will save others from the same fear and frustration.