Siham Byah was stolen away from her family

January 8, 2018

N. Montalvo and Kay Sweeney report on the cruel deportation of Siham Byah after she stood up for justice for herself and others. Also included in this special are excerpts from Shiham's letters describing the inhumane treatment she endured while in detention and a heartbreaking appeal from her son Naseem.

SIHAM BYAH, a 40-year-old single mother and longtime activist who has called the U.S. home for two decades, was deported to Morocco without warning shortly after Christmas, in defiance of her courageous struggle to demand her rights and a solidarity campaign organized among her community and fellow activists in Boston.

Siham was detained during a routine check-in at ICE headquarters on November 7. She endured inhumane conditions at several detention facilities in Massachusetts. Authorities frequently denied her medications and basic hygiene supplies like soap, a toothbrush, and toothpaste--and the heat was "broken" in her cell for days on end.

On the day his mother was detained, Siham's 8-year-old son Naseem was picked up after school and taken into the custody by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. DCF refused to place Naseem with the family of Siham's choosing, and barred Siham's partner Aziz from being able to visit Naseem, saying it was a "waste of time" to facilitate their visits.

Students and teachers rally against the deportation of Siham Byah in Boston
Students and teachers rally against the deportation of Siham Byah in Boston

December seemed to bring some hope--Siham opened a new legal appeal that she is confident would have allowed her to stay in the U.S. with her family, and ICE sent her an official letter saying her status had changed, and she was not up for deportation until the completion of her case.

And then, before dawn, on the day after Christmas, Siham Byah was taken away in secret.

AT 5 a.m. on December 26, three officers removed Siham from her cell, put her in a van and drove her to a detention facility in Virginia, eight-plus hours away.

The officers told her she was going to a "better facility." They refused to allow her to make a phone call, so her partner, lawyer and activists didn't find out she had been relocated until five hours later, when another detainee was able to make a phone call on her behalf.

Siham's supporters immediately organized a call-in to flood the phone lines of the local ICE headquarters and the offices of Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey to demand to know where she was going and what was happening.

Back in Virginia, the next day, ICE officers told Siham that she was going on a plane back to Boston and refused to allow her to make a phone call about the transfer. Siham says the officers handcuffed and shackled her wrists and ankles extremely tightly and transported her to an airport.

She realized at the airport that she was being put on a non-U.S. airline and that she was being deported. She refused to get on, and the ICE officers threw her to the ground, brutalized her, and dragged her onto the plane.

Her family, partner, and lawyer didn't find out that she was deported until after she arrived in Casablanca and called them. Siham was robbed of the due process to complete her legal case--and even the opportunity to hug her son goodbye.

Throughout these past two months, Siham was lied to repeatedly about where she was being taken in an attempt to minimize her resistance and prevent her family and supporters from advocating for her. Agents used a combination of fake promises, coercion and violence.

One week after her deportation, she still bears dark bruises on her arms from the assault by ICE officers, along with bruises and swelling on her ankles and wrists from the handcuffs and shackles.

Siham is now with family in Morocco, many hours and an ocean away from her son, with whom she has been denied contact by DCF. The agency is reportedly claiming that finding out she was deported would be "harmful" to his well-being.

So Naseem has been left to wonder why his mom has not called him in a week. If DCF doesn't allow Siham to talk to Naseem, he will find out from someone else that his mom has been deported and won't have his mother's support to make sense of the news, adding to the trauma.

This is an abhorrent attitude that reveals the callousness of the collaboration between DCF and ICE in separating undocumented parents from their U.S.-born children.

Siham says DCF responded to her request for a passport for Naseem with the statement that this would be complicated. Siham hopes that Naseem can visit her and reunite with her soon, but she fears DCF's threats to have him adopted by someone else, taking away her very right to be a parent.

SINCE NOVEMBER, opponents of injustice in Boston have rallied together in defense of the freedom fighter taken from their midst. Three demonstrations organized by activists and friends of Siham drew between 50 and 100 people each time.

Then, on December 14, the Boston branch of the International Socialist Organization hosted a panel discussion about Siham's case. The 60 people in attendance listened to presentations by Siham's partner, her lawyer and other activists. Siham called in from the ICE detention center in Bristol County, and her 8-year old son wrote a letter for the panel to read.

Aziz described his partner Siham's activism through the years to advocate for human rights here and abroad--as well as the effects that her detention had on 8-year old son Naseem. Because DCF's and ICE's cruelty, Siham's son has been increasingly cut off not only from his mother, but his family, community and the people he trusts most.

Siham's lawyer, Matt Cameron, talked about how the immigration system is designed to traumatize and terrorize the undocumented. "Some people say this isn't what our country is about," he said, "but this is exactly what our country is about."

Cameron pointed out that the U.S. turned away refugees fleeing the Holocaust during the Second World War, and he also described how the Obama and Clinton administrations set the stage for the intensified raids and attacks of the Trump administration.

The lawyer also pointed out that the JFK Federal Building in Boston is the center of deportation hearings for undocumented people throughout New England, exposing the lie of Mayor Marty Walsh that Boston is a safe place for immigrants.

Siham's call-in was the highlight of the panel discussion. In her phone call, as in the letters she wrote while in detention, she described the inhumane conditions at the various facilities where she was held.

She said she and other detainees shivered with cold because of inadequate clothing, and tried to endure by filling empty shampoo bottles with hot water and hugging them for warmth. Something about the low-quality food caused severe stomach cramping that left Siham curled up on the floor of "medical" in tears on multiple occasions.

Guards repeatedly woke Siham and other detainees in the wee hours of the morning to ask harassing questions or move them to different places without explanation. There was a blatant lack of privacy--Siham said a nurse brought up things she told her partner over the phone in a previous conversation, making it obvious that ICE was listening in.

True to her long record as an activist, Siham did everything possible to advocate for herself and others, helping detainees connect with people outside prison to provide legal support and tell their stories.

The stories Siham told made it obvious that the abuse of detainees wasn't confined to her.

One woman Siham met was detained shortly after giving birth, and after more than five months in ICE detention, her baby didn't recognize her. Another woman was in a car accident while being transported from one detention facility to another. She was taken to the hospital and bandaged for a broken nose, but then returned to Bristol County House of Corrections, where she received no further medical care.

THE PANEL discussion was followed by a December 20 organizing meeting attended by more than two dozen left activists who began to plan protests and set up a rapid-response network. But then, Siham was deported right after Christmas.

Siham's case is just one example of how the immigration system destroys communities and families, targeting activists for special treatment. Under the Trump administration, ICE has been emboldened in its terrorizing of the undocumented.

Meanwhile, the U.S. portrays itself as a defender of law and human rights worldwide. That image depends on keeping the experiences of people like Siham in the shadows. But this is an opening for activists--we gain power when we expose what ICE has done to Siham and her family and countless other immigrants.

Our struggle for Siham is not over. She must be allowed to return to the U.S. immediately to present her case to immigration authorities. DCF must allow Siham to freely communicate with Naseem, whenever and however they wish. The agency must help him get a passport so he can be reunited with his mother in case she is not able to come back to the U.S.

Although the campaign for Siham was not able to stop her deportation, we aren't finished. Exposing the terrible injustice that was done to a freedom fighter from Boston can expose the cruel reality of the deportation machine and build the wider movement to stop all deportations.

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