A woman who said she fled persecution in Russia 15 years ago, and made a life for herself in the United States where she had three children, has taken refuge in a western Massachusetts church while she fights deportation.
Irida Kakhtiranova said she decided to accept the offer of sanctuary from the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence because she feared federal immigration agents would come to her door and take her away. The 36-year-old moved into the basement of the church on Main Street in downtown Northampton last Friday night.
" Its just been a rough week and when I did get in here, the first two days I pretty much slept and rested and I finally stopped looking at the door and the window in fear," said Kakhtiranova.
The wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of three American-born children, a 10-year-old boy and 4-year-old twin girls, Kakhtiranova said she has supported her family as a restaurant worker.
"My son is old enough to understand and he has been my rock, same as my husband," said Kakhtiranova. " They think it is the best decision I could have made so I have one more chance to fight my case from somewhere I am safe and I don't have to worry about by doors being kicked-in or anything of that sort."
Kakhtiranova spoke with reporters Tuesday. She would not discuss the specifics of her immigration case, or what prompted her to leave her native Russia 15 years ago. After coming to the United States, she lived initially in Florida and in 2009 moved to western Massachusetts.
"I came to this country 15 years ago and worked very hard to provide for my family," said Kakhtiranova. "I have built a life here with the help of my husband and his family in a country I have come to love and feel it is my only true home. I can not picture it otherwise."
Reading from a prepared statement, Kakhtiranova thanked the congregation of the Unitarian Society for giving her sanctuary.
"This congregation is comprised of the most genuinely kind people I have ever met," said Kakhtiranova.
She is the third undocumented immigrant faced with the threat of imminent deportation to take up residence in a western Massachusetts church, where arrests are unlikely to occur under current policies of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Lucio Perez, who was ordered to go back to Guatemala. instead took up residence at the First Congregational Church in Amherst last October. In late March, Gisella Collazo, a native of Peru, accepted an offer of sanctuary in the South Congregational Church in Springfield.
Rev. Janet Bush, the minister at the Unitarian Society, said the congregation is grateful for the support from faith leaders and members of seven other churches, and activists from the Pioneer Valley Workers Center.
" Our congregation has taken this action in solidarity with Irida and her family and with immigrants across the country who are victims of a broken and cruel immigration system," said Bush.
Laurie Loisel, current president of the congregation at the Unitarian Society, said church members voted by an 89 percent margin last December to declare the church a physical sanctuary.
"We take this momentous step secure in the knowledge that many other congregations have declared themselves to be level-two sanctuary congregations, which means that though they can not offer physical refuge, they are with us in the other ways they can be, including moral and spiritual support , and they'll come with plates of food and offers of rides and they'll accompany our guest here within our building," explained Loisel.
Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who could not attend Tuesday’s press conference because of a scheduling conflict, issued a statement of support that pledged his administration would not interfere with the church’s action.
That is in sharp contrast to Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, who upon hearing the news that South Congregational was sheltering an undocumented immigrant ordered city inspectors to visit the church. The two-bedroom apartment inside the church passed the health and safety inspection.
Activists planned a protest in downtown Springfield Wednesday morning outside a building where there is an ICE office.
Called a “Jericho Walk” after the Biblical story of Joshua in Jericho, the participants encircle the building in a silent prayer walk and call for the walls of division to tumble down.
They also planned to deliver to the ICE office more than a thousand letters of support for Perez – the undocumented immigrant living in the Amherst church.