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. “