By Anne Kniggendorf
Kansas City Star
Abdoulie Fatajo, a philanthropist and community leader from Gambia, resident in Shawnee, Kansas, USA was arrested and detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on November 9. He’s being held at the Morgan County Detention Center in Versailles, Missouri.
He’s had limited access to a phone and has relied on a friend to spread the word of his arrest, though his family is being careful about who hears.
“They don’t want my mom to know about it right now because it would just traumatise her. It’s like a humiliation,” Fatajo told reporters in a phone call from the jail.
Fatajo’s Shawnee-based business, Hy-5 Traders, began as a small bicycle repair and consignment clothing business in 2012. He repaired bicycles at low cost, and donated bikes to children whose parents couldn’t afford one.
Shortly after an article about him appeared in the Kansas City Star in 2015, Hy-5 Traders blossomed into a multi-warehouse shipping operation. Fatajo now has dozens of American employees and ships not only bicycles, but cars, clothing, food, and household goods to the people of The Gambia.
Fatajo arrived on a student visa in November 1999. He was enrolled at Penn Valley and then Johnson County Community College until 2003, when he began working full time to care for his infant son, who was born in the United States.
That same year, he was involved in an altercation with a man who forced his way into Fatajo’s apartment. Fatajo was arrested but quickly released, and was not charged in the incident.
Immigration agents, however, saw that he was no longer in school and told him he would be deported as soon as travel documents arrived from The Gambia.
Immigration attorney Michael Sharma-Crawford said this situation isn’t unusual, and that sometimes an immigrant’s country of origin withholds travel documents for years.
Sharma-Crawford’s firm handled the case of Lawrence chemist Syed Jamal, who faced deportation to his native Bangladesh until an immigration appeals board halted Jamal’s deportation earlier this year. Jamal is scheduled to appear in immigration court later in November, Sharma-Crawford said.
“The new administration came in and started threatening to withhold funding, and suddenly travel documents became available,” Sharma-Crawford said.
The documents can take the form of a passport or a statement on official government letterhead with a photo of the immigrant attached that will allow him to pass through customs.
For 15 years, Fatajo regularly checked in with immigration officials, fearful of those documents.
“They put me under orders of supervision. You go there and they check that you didn’t commit any crimes or you didn’t do anything, and they will let you go, and they will renew your work card, that’s what I have been doing,” Fatajo said.
Two weeks ago when he checked in, the official he spoke with announced that his travel documents had arrived.
Fatajo said he hasn’t seen the documents and has no idea how long he’ll be held. Meanwhile, he’s concerned about his family and employees.
“Bicycles are the main transportation for people in Gambia. Ninety percent rely on bicycles,” he said.
Bicycles and bike repairs in Gambia are extremely expensive. Because a new bike in Gambia costs a year’s wages, Fatajo saw an opportunity to make a big difference. His sister and cousin opened a shop similar to Hy-5 Traders in Banjul, and he sent them a shipping container of bikes and other things he collected from garage sales or thrift stores every few months.
Gambians all over the United States contact him to send items to their families back home, and he ended up sending a 40-foot long container every week.
“Today, the whole family is employed because of me over there. Because of these shipments that I’m shipping to them, both my brothers’ kids, my nephews and me, my sister’s kids, even my cousins, all of them are working because of this business I’m doing here. So that’s why this is so painful,” he said.
“Even my employees, most of them, their entire lives depend on this business. And back home, the entire family, their survival is based on this business,” he added. “I am their only shipper that ships their stuff to Gambia. I am the only one.”
On Tuesday morning, Fatajo began working with an Overland Park immigration attorney who was not immediately available for comment.
Sharma-Crawford said he sees these cases often.
“You have somebody who’s been involved in the community and is doing all these things, and been out in the open and cooperating with immigration for the past 10 years,” he said, “and then suddenly they’re just taken into custody.”
He said that while that’s jarring, he understands that ICE operates with the element of surprise to keep immigrants from hiding. And for someone like Fatajo, who is not interested in hiding, this treatment has been most jarring of all.
“These past nine years I was doing so well,” Fatajo said. “I told them, ‘What can I do just to be out of this situation?’ Because every year when you go there, the feeling that you get, it’s like I don’t know what kind of crime did I do to be in that situation? Just not going to school.”
Syed Jamal’s case, meanwhile, drew attention from US Rep Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri and Jamal’s Congresswoman, Rep Lynn Jenkins, who sponsored a private bill that would have granted him permanent residence. Fatajo is in Kevin Yoder’s district, but Yoder has not responded to reporter’s attempt to reach him.