Thursday, November 22, 2007

Kambo grateful for life on the outside

Imagine being taken from your family, with no warning, and thrown behind bars without being able way to fight back.

That's what happened to Sam Kambo, a native of the West African country of Sierra Leone. But his detention happened here in Central Texas.

Kambo, a University of Texas graduate and employee of the Lower Colorado River Authority, is caught in an immigration battle that divides the country.

Before coming to the U.S. in 1994, Kambo was Sierra Leone's minister of energy. During his service, his party killed 29 people. A U.N. investigation found Kambo had nothing to do with it. But more than a decade later, a letter from the U.S. State Department claimed Kambo was involved, and his green card was denied in October 2006.

"I've been a peaceful citizen, a taxpayer, I've never committed any crime. I volunteer in the society. I teach math to underprivileged kids. I'm a model citizen," he said.

Kambo was considered a public enemy, according to the government, and placed in a cell alone in the Department of Homeland Security office in San Antonio. He was scheduled to be deported. Twice, a judge ordered he be released on bond. But both times, the government refused.

"Our hopes were just raising and falling. Every time we'd go there and pay, and we'd come back empty handed. It was hard," wife Hannan said.

The U.S. government has offered no direct link between Kambo and the execution of 29 prisoners in Sierra Leone. At an immigration hearing, the government offered a witness who testified that Kambo was the bodyguard of the leader of the coup in which the atrocities occurred. His attorney argued it's unfair to accuse him based on guilt by association.

Kambo spent almost a year jailed cell at the detention center in San Antonio.

"Every day, with the exception of weekends, I was thinking 'This is the day.' It was a hopeless place, but my friends gave me hope," Kambo said.

"It's incredible to be accused of ordering the killing of these people. Then you have to look into your heart and ask if Sam Kambo is capable, and no. It's impossible," friend Robert Cullick said.

Letters of support filled Kambo's cell, while generosity filled his home.
"Every day, I would say 'How would I pay the mortgage? Then you open the mailbox and there would be checks. And they just kept coming," Hanaan said.

Just nine days shy of Kambo's one-year anniversary in detention, a federal judge ruled the government had violated Kambo's right to due process.

"I just stood there for a few seconds. I didn't know what he was saying. I turned around, and his supporters said, 'he's free, he's free,'" Hanaan said.

That same day, Kambo walked out of detention and into the arms of his wife and children.

"It was one of the best days of my life. That day, freedom actually had resonance. Until you go what I went through, 356 days in a cage," he said.

But that freedom still has its conditions. He must check in with Department of Homeland Security in San Antonio every other week. There's also a pending appeal to put him back in detention. He's also awaiting word from the Board of Immigration Appeals whether he can stay in the United States.

"There's something very wrong when as the police, you also get to be the judge and the jury and you can keep the man in detention. That is the system we have in this country now, unfortunately," attorney Simon Azar-Farr said.

But the Kambos say they'll continue to fight to remain in the United States.

"People are doing everything in the world to send their kids to the U.S. It would have been selfish of me to go through the pains of detention and then to give up now. I think my kids would blame me when they grow up. It's a wonderful country. Look at all the wonderful things people have done for me," Sam said.

News 8 Austin | 24 Hour Local News | LOCAL NEWS | Kambo grateful for life on the outside