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Rescuing Regina: The Battle to Save a Friend from Deportation and Death

Rescuing Regina: The Battle to Save a Friend from Deportation and Death

by Josephe Marie Flynn, Helen Prejean (Foreword by)

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Named a Wisconsin Writers Award Honorable Mention

What is it like to be a young mother threatened with deportation to the country whose government has imprisoned you and whose soldiers have raped and tortured you? You don’t want to leave your children behind, but how can you take them with you, knowing that your homeland, ruled by chaos and violence


Named a Wisconsin Writers Award Honorable Mention

What is it like to be a young mother threatened with deportation to the country whose government has imprisoned you and whose soldiers have raped and tortured you? You don’t want to leave your children behind, but how can you take them with you, knowing that your homeland, ruled by chaos and violence, is notorious for murdering failed asylum seekers?

Regina Bakala found herself in just this situation ten years after escaping the Congo and settling in the United States. Upon arrival, Regina had worked with an immigration lawyer, then joyfully reunited with her husband, also a Congolese torture survivor, and had two children. Life was challenging but full of hope until the night there was a knock at the door and immigration agents burst in. They forced Regina from her home as her family watched, then locked her in prison to await deportation to certain death.

In Rescuing Regina, author Josephe Marie Flynn tells Regina’s powerful story—and how her husband, a pit-bull lawyer, a group of volunteers, and a feisty nun set aside political differences to galvanize a movement to save her. Revealing what she uncovered about US immigration policies and the dangers faced by those escaping war crimes, Flynn exposes an America most never see: a vast underbelly of injustice, a harsh detention and deportation system, and a frighteningly arbitrary asylum process. In their battle for justice, Regina and Josephe not only confronted dangerous obstacles but also reawakened emotions and traumas from the past. A compelling story of a quest for justice, Rescuing Regina is also a tale of friendship, faith, hope, and the transformative journey of two friends.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This may be the rare book that the staunchest progressive and the most devout Catholic could read together. Arresting and inspiring—a must-read for people of faith, immigration activists and anyone concerned with social justice." —Kirkus Reviews

"Flynn's eye-opening and detailed account of what it took to win asylum for Regina Bakala . . . offers an inside look at the formidable and convoluted system faced by asylum seekers in the U.S." —Publishers Weekly

“[Sister Josephe] unfolds Regina’s story and her own story of friendship and faith within the broader context of the desperate need for immigration reform.”


“A story about inner strength, community power, and healing through selfless bravery. Sister Josephe . . . leaves her readers with outrage, courage, and the dignity to dig deep, take risks, and fight for human rights.” —Sarnata Reynolds, Advocacy and Policy Director, Refugee and Migrants’ Rights, Amnesty International USA

"Rescuing Regina is moving, informative, and clearly written. It makes the complex US immigration system understandable. The Bakalas’ story is the story of so many others in our country, and it brought me to tears. Sister Josephe inspires us to fight the impossible fight. She makes us realize that a community fighting for justice can and does make a huge difference. By saving one family, she and the Save Regina team provide a model for us all." —Anna Marie Gallagher, immigration attorney, Maggio + Kattar, and President, International Detention Coalition

"Some books simply tell a story, but Rescuing Regina can change lives."  —The United Church Observer

"This book should be made into a movie . . . it reads like a novel even as it raises troubling questions of social justice."  —The Christian Century

"Gripping . . . [Sr. Josephe Marie Flynn] writes of [Regina's] ordeal with passion, clarity, and tenderness."  —The Bay State Banner

Publishers Weekly
Flynn's eye-opening and detailed account of what it took to win asylum for Regina Bakala, who fled Mobuto's regime in Congo in 2005 "after being tortured for advocating democracy," offers an inside look at the formidable and convoluted system faced by asylum seekers in the U.S. Regina and David Bakala and their two American-born children were feeling safe, well-settled in their Milwaukee home and church as the asylum process proceeded, when Regina was taken from her home and thrust into a nightmare. Bureaucratic and juridical traps abound; it took a village (media attention, a dedicated lawyer, St. Mary's parishioners, the Milwaukee community) to secure asylum. Flynn, the Catholic nun who organized the "Save Regina" campaign, which raised funds, created public awareness, and found political support, plays a major role, but her remarkable achievement is the telling of Regina's and David's stories, while relaying her own political education and spiritual engagement. Flynn packs in all the drama of a riveting escape tale; nevertheless, the story provides an instructive account of escaping a maze built by competing jurisdictions, derelict lawyers, and harsh judges. (July)
Kirkus Reviews

A powerful account of the long and painful journey toward asylum for two Congolese refugees.

Regina Bakala, a former political activist in the Democratic Republic of Congo who suffered terrible consequences for her activism, narrowly escaped almost certain death in 1995 and made it to the United States—but not to safety. After living in America for a decade—during which time she reunited with her husband and had two children—immigration officials took Bakala one evening in 2005. A victim of poor legal representation and a cruel immigration system, she faced an extraordinarily difficult and complex case with few avenues for legal action. Yet an entire congregation, led by Sister Flynn, came together and generated an overwhelming amount of financial, emotional, legal and logistical support for her and her family—the result is truly uplifting. The book makes intensely personal two problems that are, to most Americans, impossibly abstract: the political turmoil in the Congo and the U.S. immigration system. Flynn explains the situation in a way that makes the plight of all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers clear and understandable. Though the torture both Bakala and her husband endured in the Congo is horrific, Flynn handles their stories in a sensitive, compassionate way. In addition to their stories, a cogent overview of immigration policy, a rough primer for activism and the details of their legal process toward asylum, Flynn explores her own personal history as a survivor of abuse. As might be expected from a book written by a nun, the Catholic faith of both the author and the Bakala family are absolutely central to the story; however, this may be the rare book that the staunchest progressive and the most devout Catholic could read together.

Arresting and inspiring—a must-read for people of faith, immigration activists and anyone concerned with social justice.

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Rescuing Regina

The Battle to Save a Friend from Deportation and Death

By Josephe Marie Flynn

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2011 Josephe Marie Flynn, SSND
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-912-6


"They Took Regina!"

"Sister, we have a problem."

"Hi, David. What's the problem?" David rarely calls. I cradle the phone between my cheek and shoulder and continue unpacking my groceries.

"They took Regina!"

"What?" I stop. "What do you mean 'took Regina'? Who took Regina?"


"No!" I grasp the phone with both hands.

"Yes! At six thirty tonight. Two policemen with guns."

I glance at my watch. An hour ago? But Regina's done everything right. This makes no sense. Pacing back and forth, I struggle to wrap my mind around what he's saying.

David and Regina Bakala's home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in sub-Saharan central Africa, is one of the most dangerous and unstable in the world. Each of them fled after being tortured for advocating democracy. Regina was beaten, raped, and imprisoned. If sent back to Congo, she faces grave danger, even death.

I freeze. O God, what if they've already taken her to Milwaukee's Mitchell International? What flashes to mind is another case, that of a local immigration lawyer awakened in the dead of night two years ago by a panicky client calling from an airport in Paris. She had been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and promptly put on a plane back to Pakistan. They took her newborn to the father who had tipped them off — an abusive alcoholic against whom she had a restraining order. ICE did not know her asylum petition was pending with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Nor did it matter anymore. I know from working with other immigrant families that once deported, the person has no legal standing in our system, so all pending petitions are simply dropped — an all-too frequent occurrence.

"I'll be right over, David!" Their house is less than three miles from my upper flat, the unit I rent in a two-family house. I grab my winter jacket from the clothes tree, toss the carrots into the refrigerator, slip on boots and gloves, scoop up my purse, and fly down the stairs.

As I pull away from the curb, a wave of depression engulfs me. O God, how can I deal with this now? It's Tuesday of Holy Week, my busiest time of year, and these six weeks of Lent have been full of tears. Longstanding digestive problems are forcing me to retire. Probable cause — childhood abuse. I'm more than tired, I'm emotionally exhausted. Writing the autobiography required for next fall's sabbatical has dredged up years of unresolved psychological pain. I stop at the red light, feeling shaky and unsettled. Gone is the private retreat I had been banking on for Easter week.

My tires crunch over an ice-crusted patch. As I turn onto the parkway, my worry leaps to Regina: Where is she? How is she? I tighten my grip on the steering wheel.

* * *

David and Regina had come to St. Mary's five years before, in early 2000, to have baby Lydia baptized. Regina had asked Sister Martha at her workplace to recommend a parish they could join. "We tried a church called St. Jacobi's," she told Sister Martha, "but then we found out that it is Lutheran, not Catholic."

Sister had gestured across the street. "Just go there, Regina. It's close to work and to your apartment."

I was not there the day the Bakalas registered, but several women on staff delighted in the baby girl and at the prospect of a young African couple joining our suburban congregation. Regina and David never asked for help and, in fact, kept their circumstances quite private. No one knew what the new members had endured.

Regina said later about that day, "When we come outside, David and me, we say to each other, 'See how they love us? This is our church home God give to us.'"

I remember how happy she was when we first met a short time later. To her delight, David, baptized an Evangelical Christian, had decided to join the Catholic Church. It was late April 2000 when they arrived in St. Mary's front office for his initial interview for RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). Regina, a short, sturdy woman in a yellow turtleneck, cradled their baby in her arms like a spray of flowers. Lydia's tiny ponytails in multicolored clips bobbed about as she squirmed to see everybody and everything in our front office. Regina feigned annoyance, but I caught flashes of delight in her eyes. Her quick smile and silky complexion were clouded only by weariness. "Sorry we a little late," she said, bowing her head slightly. After her shift as a nurse's aide, she had to drive home to change clothes and pick up David and Lydia.

I ooh-ed and ahh-ed the baby while giving Regina a sideways hug.

Behind her stood David, broad-shouldered and handsome, with tight-cropped hair, the baby's diaper bag dangling from one hand. He looked older than his wife, his forehead marked by worry lines.

I extended my hand, using a bit of French remembered from college days. "Bonjour, monsieur! Je m'apelle Soeur Josèphe Marie." David's wide face, staid and stoic, suddenly came to life. I had to confess, "Mais non, monsieur. Je ne parle pas le français" — I held my index finger and thumb a pinch apart — "mais seulement un tout petit peu." I introduced Bob Roesler, the gentle young man I had invited to be David's translator and RCIA sponsor.

Meeting weekly over the summer months, we quickly became friends.

* * *

In early June, as our fifth RCIA session closed, Regina handed the baby to David and asked to speak to me privately. With head bowed and smile slight and tentative, she said, "Sister, I am pregnant."

"How wonderful!" I gave her a spontaneous hug, but her return hug was flat. I pulled back a bit but did not let go. Her eloquent eyes would always tell me more, not only of hard-won courage but also of a persistent fear. This time I saw her fear.

"David is very worry, Sister. Lydia is just now eight months." She teared up. "What we gonna do? We cannot pay for a second baby."

I knew that David, preparing his asylum petition with immigration attorney Hal Block, would not be eligible for a work permit for many months. Regina was the sole breadwinner. Somehow she had managed through a difficult pregnancy back in North Carolina, but here she worked sixty-four-hour weeks juggling two nurse's aide jobs, first shift at one facility and second shift three times a week at another. In a role reversal unusual for Congolese, David cared for their infant daughter while Regina ached for time with her little one.

"Regina, you can welcome this new baby," I said. "The parish will help you."

"Sister, last night I had a dream. Everything is dark, dangerous. I see our little family — David, me, and Lydia — all close together like this." She curled her shoulders and arms into a huddle. "We are outdoors. Nothing around to protect us. The sky is black and" — she swirled her palms above her head — "is like a big storm coming. We are very scare, but God come. He say not to worry. He put a big blanket around our family."

"See?" I smiled. "God is reassuring you."

She looked straight at me, her eyes flashing from worry to faith to worry and back again. "God said the blanket is St. Mary's."

St. Mary's? Suddenly I realized the blanket was me — me and my big mouth. There was no way I could take on more responsibilities. I forced myself to keep smiling as I hugged her.

That night I told myself, Just start. Do what you can. If you help one immigrant family, you help generations.

The next morning, our pastor, Father Art Heinze, offered rent assistance and suggested I ask the St. Vincent de Paul Society for groceries. I began scouring ads for a desk job for Regina. Within weeks, the Development Office of the Sacred Heart Fathers hired her as a donations processor. After we introduced them at weekend Masses, more folks got involved. One idea spurred another — household goods, car repairs, baby shower — and for David, English classes and driver's lessons. When David got his work permit, Sacred Heart School of Theology hired him for maintenance, a half mile from Regina's workplace.

* * *

Over these first six months, I learned bits and pieces of their stories.

About six weeks after Regina and David's wedding on August 30, 1994, two of President Mobutu's soldiers had raped then imprisoned Regina for teaching democracy in the villages around Idiofa, her hometown. Nine months later, she was again beaten and raped by his soldiers on her way to Kinshasa, the capital city, to help organize a democracy rally. After the second incident, she fled Congo by night, forbidding her helpers to mention anything to David or other family members lest they, too, be endangered.

For two and a half years, neither she nor David knew what had happened to the other.

In June 1997, David was arrested by the regime of Laurent Kabila, the man credited with overthrowing Mobutu. I remember David's face contorting as he told of awaiting execution in a small, filthy underground cell. While Bob translated, David had pointed to his badly chipped frontteeth, then demonstrated how a prison guard had used the butt of a Kalashnikov to smash them.

"They did unspeakable things to me — too terrible to tell."

Laurent Kabila had turned against the coalition of military/political parties responsible for his speedy victory, unleashing the far greater, more vicious 1997 war. With an estimated four million lives lost, the Democratic Republic of Congo is still locked in conflict.

The West acts as if the Congo war were an African implosion that has nothing to do with us, but four UN reports (1998-2003) held that it was endorsed, fueled, and funded by Western economic interests, its bloody spoils in our cell phones, laptops, and PlayStations.

The problem is, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with a land mass the size of Western Europe, is richer in resources than almost any place on the planet, holding vast stores of gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, cassiterite, and 80 percent of the world's coltan (vital to electronic circuit boards). Fighting to control this treasure trove, warlords and military leaders, both foreign and national, have created a self-sustaining war economy, lining their own pockets while destroying Congo. Proceeds do not reach the working people. In 2000, when I met David and Regina, the DRC's people ranked poorest in the world — annual GDP, $86.03 per capita.

In January 2001, Laurent Kabila was assassinated in a failed coup. Regime power-brokers named his inexperienced twenty-nine-year-old son, Joseph Kabila, president. The younger Kabila won a UN-brokered peace agreement in 2003, but the slaughter shows no sign of ending. In the deadliest war since Hitler's massacres, 31,250 civilians are dying each month from violence or war-related causes. Perhaps even worse are the ongoing atrocities — rape, torture, and genital mutilation of hundreds of thousands of women and little girls. In this war, rape is the weapon of choice.

How dare America return any woman to that fate?


"Never In America"

Windows are dark, shades drawn, heavy drapes tightly closed. David once told me how frightened he was when he first saw windows in American homes so close to the ground. I park my car under the amber streetlight and pick my way over icy patches and up the concrete steps.

As he fumbles with the pesky lock on the storm door, through the foggy glass I see tonight's agony etched in his face. I wonder what specters lurched into consciousness when he faced armed men coming for his wife.

He offers a weak smile. "Ah, Sister Josephe." His jaw line and thick shoulders suggest strength, but he battles diabetes and a sharp ulcer.

"Oh, David, I'm so sorry." I glance around. "Where are the children?"

"They are sleeping." His face creases in pain. "All of us were crying. But I told them, 'We eat now, then go to sleep. Tomorrow we gonna get Mommy home.' But I could not eat." He gestures for me to sit on the couch and takes his place next to me. "What we gonna do now?"

"We're going to call an immigration attorney, but first I need more information. Who actually took her?"

"Immigration. Three policemen, two came in the house, one stays outside."

I'm confused. Policemen? This does not sound like Immigration.

"Were they wearing uniforms? Did they show you any I.D.?"

"No I.D. They say they gonna deport her. No uniforms, but they have big letters, P-O-L-I-C-E, on their" — he runs his big hand across his chest — "I don't know how you say in English."

"Vests? Bulletproof vests?"

"I don't know. They wear shirts, pants, like everyday clothes. But on top of their jackets ... black with big white letters, POLICE." He gestures again.

"Did they have guns?"

His eyebrows lift. He nods, raises his pitch. "Yes! Yes!"

The story comes tumbling out. In the Bakala home, because work schedules have the whole family on the road by 5:20 A.M., bedtimes are early. Before dinner, everyone gets cleaned up and ready for bed. Regina was in the shower, their meal was in the oven, the kids were playing upstairs, and David was watching French cable news. Doorbell rang. Kids came running. David opened the front door. His eyes locked on the word "POLICE."

"The big one, he asks me" — David puffs out his chest and turns down the corners of his mouth — "'Does Andes Imwa live here?'"

Andes is Regina's official first name; Imwa is her paternal surname. Her middle name, Aboy, is her maternal surname. When she was eight, Mobutu had ordered Western-sounding baptismal names — hers is Regina Elizabeth — replaced with names of family ancestors. His campaign for authenticity tried to restore African pride after decades of colonialism, but it quickly deteriorated into a personality cult broadly derided as Mobutuism. Regina insists on using her "Christian" name.

"I say, 'Yes, she is here. She is in the shower.'" His voice turns gruff. "The big man — the main one — has a clipboard with many papers. He cannot find Regina's name. He go like this." David rifles through an imaginary stack. He shakes his head. "I think, how many people is this guy looking for? He does not know what he is doing — too many papers, nothing in order."

With typical African hospitality, David invited them inside to sit down, but neither did.

He demonstrates how the chief officer drew himself up to full height and muscled his way close to his face. "You got a gun?" David said no, backing into the children. "Knives? Weapons of any kind?"

David blurts, "No. No," showing me how he hiked his shoulders and opened his arms, palms up, fingers spread wide, his hands moving in tight circles. "Nothing. Knives for kitchen, that's all. No weapons."

Both agents moved quickly through the living room, examining shelves, and the kitchen, opening cupboards and drawers, then checking the back entryway. They searched the hallway linen closet, headed into the children's room and closet, and, last, the master bedroom — closet, drawers. When they returned to the living room, the hefty officer drew close to David's face. "You better not be lying!"

"The children — are they seeing all this?" I ask.

"Yes! Lydia, she push close to my leg, crying."

I imagine the kindergartner, her almond-shaped eyes staring at the big man's black gun inches from her face.

"Christopher was not shy. He say to the mean one, 'Stop talking to my daddy like that!'"

My eyes widen. "Little Christopher?"

David grins. "Yes, Christopher!" The grin disappears. "This man, he is not happy. When the kids start to cry, he says, 'Take them to their room and shut the door.'" He winces. "So I do."

Last spring, the Bakalas had been thrilled to put a down payment on their first home, a tiny bungalow with four small rooms and a bath that opens into a small hub — the hallway. With the children's bedroom kitty-corner from the living room, everything could be heard clearly on either side of the hollow door — the gruff questions, the fear in Daddy's answers, their wailing.

"Then this guy, he gets close and points at me. 'You!'" David jabs his index finger at me. "'You are not from this country. You are not a citizen, are you? Show me your papers.'"

David hurried into the master bedroom, the agents right on his heels. Taking his briefcase from the closet, he opened it and paged through the top papers, quickly finding the judge's decision. He pointed to the words "withholding of removal."

"That means I cannot be deported," David says. "But the agent, he say to me, 'Do not be so sure.'" He snaps his jaw up, imitating the officer. "'Next time we come, it will be for you!'"

I put my hand on his shoulder. "No, David. No one can force you to leave America."

He does not look convinced.

What David did not know, what I did not know, and what many others do not know is that all David needed to say was I want to speak to my lawyer. Nothing more.


Excerpted from Rescuing Regina by Josephe Marie Flynn. Copyright © 2011 Josephe Marie Flynn, SSND. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Leader of the Save Regina Campaign, Sister Josephe Marie Flynn is cofounder and chair of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Justice for Immigrants Committee and a member of the Global Justice and Peace Commission of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. A retired teacher, she lives in Milwaukee, where she is a spiritual director and an advocate for immigration reform. Sister Helen Prejean is the author of Dead Man WalkingA sister of the Congregation of St. Joseph, she counsels death row inmates and families of murder victims.

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