BURLINGTON -- As the United States cracks down on immigration in the name of national security, Emma Lazarus' words on the Statue of Liberty -- "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . ." -- are becoming ironic.
At least they must seem so to Mohamed Cherfi, a 37-year-old native of Algeria living in Burlington. The United States now considers the Muslim man a refugee, but for 18 months the government kept him locked in a jail cell near Buffalo, New York, as authorities processed his case. "We were separated from the other prisoners," Cherfi says in halting English, "but the rules were the same. It's very strict for people who have only immigration problems."
Cherfi will share his story on Thursday, August 24, at 7 p.m. during a public discussion -- entitled "In Freedom's Shadow: Asylum Seekers in Post 9/11 America" -- at the Valley Players Theater in Waitsfield, sponsored by the Green Mountain Global Forum. He'll be joined by Patrick Giantonio and Michelle Jenness from Vermont Refugee Assistance, a nonprofit that helps immigrants obtain refugee status in the United States and Canada.
They say Cherfi is just one of hundreds of asylum seekers who live in immigration limbo, trapped in a bureaucratic system that has only gotten more complicated in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Cherfi's saga began when he fled Algeria in 1998 to avoid being drafted to fight in the country's civil war. A former French teacher, he came to the U.S. on a visa and made his way to Canada. He settled in Québec, but was denied refugee status by a Canadian judge in 1999.
At the time, the Canadian government had a moratorium on deporting Algerians because of violence in the country; they lifted the ban in 2002, despite protests from human rights groups.
To avoid being deported, Cherfi and a group of roughly 1000 other Algerians organized an activist group to publicize their plight. For the most part, this tactic worked. Cherfi says 92 percent of the Algerians were eventually granted refugee status in Canada.
But Cherfi, the group's spokesman, was arrested four times while protesting Canadian policy. In February 2004, Canadian police apprehended him and deported him to the U.S.
Because of his arrests, the U.S. authorities declared Cherfi a flight risk and put him behind bars while deciding whether to allow him to stay in the country.
"I never thought that one day I would be detained for 18 months for such a small thing," he reflects. He says he can't understand why he would be imprisoned here, not knowing when he would be released, or if he would be allowed to stay.
"Maybe my name," he offers, "maybe my origin, maybe my religion? But nothing in my past shows that I can be any danger for the country."
Cherfi would like to return to Canada -- his girlfriend lives in Montréal -- but his new application for refugee status is proceeding slowly, he says.
As a way of recovering from his imprisonment, he has joined the board of directors of VRA, and has begun speaking out about his ordeal. "I have too much anger inside," he says. "I want this anger to help me serve other people."
For more information about the Green Mountain Global Forum event, call 496-7556.