Sometimes stories need to be told over and over again, stories in which bad things happen to good people but they persevere, they stay strong, and they keep the faith — and in the end, they win.
If you can call being driven from the country you love “winning.
Make no mistake, Omar Rogel and Alena Orwin love the United States. Or did. I’m not sure how they feel now.
Alena was born in the U.S. Omar was not. But it is really the only country he has ever known.
You knew this was coming. Omar was brought to the U.S. when he was three years old.
He grew up there. He was educated there. He earned an honest living there. He made friends. He married Alena there and they were raising three beautiful children.
Behind all this, Omar tried hard to become an actual citizen, not just a de facto one.
Last September, Omar was called in by ICE for a “meeting.” He and Alena were excited. At last, they thought, citizenship. Immigration put Omar in cuffs and deported him to Mexico. He barely got to say goodbye to his wife and children, or friends or family.
According to Atlanta’s TV station 11Alive an ICE spokesperson said, “Mr. Rogel-Brito was ordered removed from the U.S. by a federal immigration judge in 2016, and the courts subsequently denied two appeals in January 2017 and December 2017.”
ICE also pointed out that Omar also has misdemeanor convictions for trespass, disorderly conduct, and obstruction of an officer.
As if some misdemeanors justified ripping a good family apart. In the U.S. we elect felony perverts to high office and give them daytime privileges while they do vacation time in resort prisons.
Omar had, I think, the good fortune to end up in San Miguel de Allende. I say “good fortune” because when you grow up in the U.S., San Miguel is about the friendliest halfway house to assimilation back into the Mexican culture that you can hope to find.
Omar found a home in San Miguel and employment as a teacher of English to young students.
Alena, meanwhile, kept the family together in Atlanta. She tried to get her husband’s deportation overruled. They shared birthdays and special events over Skype and Facetime and other social media.
Eventually, a hard choice was made — family is more important than country. Alena and the kids decided to move to Mexico to be with the husband and father they all love.
Alena had never been to Mexico and her children can not speak Spanish.
How terrifying that must be.
They arrived Wednesday in Queretaro. The airport was filled with hugs and tears and screams of joy, according to my friend John Bohnel, who was there.
Somewhere, John had heard about Omar and his story and decided, as John often does, that he would make a positive difference in this family’s life. John’s a guy from Jersey with a big heart and a well-defined sense of indignation when he sees injustice.
John immediately saw the inherent cruelty in Omar’s and Alena’s story. He felt shame for his own country, as does everyone who has heard this story.
Wednesday was also John’s birthday but he’d postponed the celebration for a day. On Thursday, John threw a “surprise party” at the house of his friends Scott Simmons and Cathy Taylor and he insisted that Omar and Alena and the kids be there to make new friends. He wanted to turn his birthday celebration into a Welcome to SMA Party.
Which is exactly what happened. Omar and Alena damn near got hugged to death by John’s friends, Rose and myself included. They are easy to like and everybody is anxious for them to have a beautiful future in San Miguel. The kids got to play with Cathy’s pet turtle and her big fat old cuddly rabbit.
The artist Efrain Gonzalez showed up and he brought the musician Yaya Fuentes who performed on a Swiss steel drum called a Hang and sang a mesmerizing tune in Sanskrit. Efrain also brought a large painting of an angelic little girl that he just completed, inspired by a photograph taken recently by John Bohnel.
Efrain’s idea was to put the picture online and auction it off to raise money for San Miguel’s newest immigrant family. Something to help them get started.
A group at the party pooled the contents of their wallets and enough money was raised to outbid any possible contenders in an online auction. In the joy and confusion, I gathered that the painting would go to Omar and Alena, maybe go to the Biblioteca public library, or maybe even be auctioned off again.
Anyhow, generosity and love and giant slices of birthday cake were fueling an incredible high the other afternoon.
For Omar and Alena and their children, there is hard work ahead. San Miguel is pretty amazing but it is not Atlanta. There is a lot of new culture to be assimilated. And Spanish, the kids will be learning Spanish and that is a little daunting to them right now.
There are the less tangible things too — the loss of home and friends and family in Atlanta, the abuse at the hands of authority, the trauma of separation, the feeling of imbalance and displacement. All this will be dealt with in time.
As Alena has said through it all, “One step, one day at a time.”
This story was written in July 2019.
Three variations on a teaser for video documentary about Omar and Alena:
“One day you are living the American Dream — a great job, a beautiful family, a stake in the community. Suddenly you are being uncuffed by ICE agents at the Mexican border and told to keep walking. South. Omar Rogel and his family are lucky. They turned this tragedy into a beautiful new life, but one that will likely never again include the country that was the only home they ever knew.”
“Children are being ripped from the arms of their parents when they cross into the United States. But did you know that whole families in the U.S. are being ripped apart, too? Here’s what happened to one family of five when the father, a U.S. resident since he was 3 years old, was deported to Mexico. Not all stories end as well as this one.”
“Omar came to the U.S. with his family when he was three years old. For 33 years he lived the American dream — athlete, honors student, father, employee, pillar of his community. That didn’t stop ICE from arresting him like a criminal and deporting him to Mexico. “
Back in 1975 while trying to write a short story in the noisy University of Rhode Island student union, a peculiar string bean with long, long black hair under an Uncle Sam hat leaped atop a table and began to preach.
He was an “abecedarian,” a practitioner of the magical art of distilling everything in the world to the number 22. He proceeded to assign numerical values to the letters of the alphabet: A=1, B=2, C=3. Pretty simple stuff. But then he would take a word or sentence and slice and dice it by the numbers and with enough leaps of logic and poetic manipulations all that was left, in the end, was the number 22.
My short story was about a rogue CIA operative who lost a daughter named Julia to drugs at a rock concert and avenged her death by killing Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin … all with first or last names starting with a “J.”
Anyhow, I put the story aside and focused on the deranged individual who by now had the rapt and largely stoned attention of the whole student body.
His name was Love 22. Yes, legally.
He made his fortune by inventing a little thing he called two-for-one coupons. Remember those? You’d buy a book filled with “twofers” for restaurants, movies, ice cream, tons of great date-night things. It was a massive hit.
And he eventually crashed and burned and when the Phoenix arose from the ashes, he was Love 22.
He was running for governor because the RI gov’s office is No. 222 in the capital building and because the capital in Providence is the No. 22 point of interest on the official Rhode Island tourism map. These things were true. I checked them out.
In fact, a lot of things that add up to 22, well, added up.
One bogus but cherished item was the 22 dollar bills he handed out with his face on them. Those were keepers.
Once you start looking at life this way, it is very hard to turn away. Even to this day, I find myself pausing to look around when a clock hits 2:22 p.m., just to see if there is magic, whimsey or practical nonsense about.
I wrote about Love 22 for the local weekly paper, where I was working part-time.
A year and a few months later, I would find myself graduated from URI and the editor of that newspaper, The Narragansett Times.
Love 22 would drop by occasionally to announce wonderfully preposterous stunts like, he was going to set the world record for tossing a frisbee out to sea and catching it upon its return.
My favorite Love 22 stunt came around every Easter. In our neck of the woods, there were two fishing villages, Jerusalem and Galilee, divided by a wide channel. On Easter Sunday, Love 22 said, he was going to walk on top of the water from Jerusalem to Galilee.
I loved that but lacked the maturity and wit to appreciate the humor and write it up for our stodgy New England newspaper.
Did he do it? I don’t know. I had kids and Easter Sunday meant finding eggs, and refereeing chocolate-driven sibling spats, and reading the Sunday New York Times.
Not everything you love lasts forever. I moved on to a daily newspaper and Love 22 moved on to, well, god knows.
So what a shock to see that he is still alive and now running for president in 2020. Mark Patinkin, a PJB columnist I admired back in those days, recently wrote a column on Love 22.
He’s 82 and residing in a third-floor flat in an assisted living center. But he is still Love 22. And he’s gearing up a run for president in 2020 because … it is 2020. If zeros = nothing, then 2020 = 2 nothing 2 nothing = 22. It will be the Year of Love 22. Don’t you see?
As for that short story, I never finished it. Or maybe it was supposed to be a novel. Either way, Love 22 was a better story. Still is, apparently.