A Shawnee man known for shipping bicycles and other goods to grateful people in his native Gambia is now sitting in an Ozarks jail cell, waiting to be told when he is going to be booted out of the United States.
Meanwhile, friends and family of Abdoulie Fatajo both here and in the west African country are left wondering what they would do without him.
Fatajo came to the United States on a student visa in 1999 and started a business that now includes warehouses and several full-time and temporary employees. He has a teenage son who was born here and is currently with his mother. Fatajo also has a fiancee here.
But now he is caught in the grip of immigration enforcement.
“When things like this happen, you don’t know your fate,” said Fatajo’s friend, Malcolm Goswell. “One day they wake you up and say, ‘O.K., it’s time to go.’”
Fatajo on Tuesday retained Overland Park immigration lawyer J. Bradley Pace, who said he would apply for a stay of removal. That would not trigger a hearing but it would lead to a review by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“It is sometimes granted for humanitarian reasons,” Pace said Wednesday of a stay. “It isn’t something ICE routinely grants. But I think Abdoulie is a special case. He really is a charitable army of one and he helps needy folks not just in the United States but in Gambia as well.”
Fatajo was featured in a 2015 story in The Star that described how he repaired bicycles and sent them to his homeland, where they are a primary means of transportation but are very expensive. Fatajo is also generous here, giving away a bike to a boy with autism and then offering a reward when it was stolen.
Fatajo’s business, Hy5 Traders, has grown to a point where other members of the Gambian community in the U.S. rely on him to regularly send shipping containers — as many as two or three a month — full of bikes, household goods, clothing and even automobiles to Gambians and Senegalese back home.
There, Fatajo’s work supports two discount stores that employ his sister and several members of his extended family as well as a larger community of people whose lives are made easier by the imports.
“The magnitude of help he does, nobody can even put their finger on it,” Goswell said. “In Gambia it’s huge. The amount of people who depend on him on a daily basis is huge.”
That came to a halt earlier this month when Fatajo made his annual check-in at the ICE office near KCI airport. Instead of being sent on his way, as was usual, he was arrested and sent to the Morgan County jail in Versailles. It is among the detention centers contracted by ICE.
Fatajo had been a student at Johnson County Community College until he dropped out for financial reasons in the early 2000s. That made him “out of status” on his student visa, which eventually expired.
That came to the attention of ICE and in 2003, an order of removal was issued to send Fatajo back to Gambia. He appealed that decision but lost in 2005.
Since then, Fatajo’s ability to avoid deportation has depended on the fact that immigration did not have the necessary citizenship documentation from Gambia indicating that nation would receive him. Fatajo has been on supervised release, hence the annual check-in.
“In order to remove somebody there has to be some cooperation from the home country,” Pace said.
On Nov. 9, Fatajo was informed by ICE that the documentation had arrived. Fatajo could no longer avoid deportation.
“Fatajo has a history that includes misdemeanor criminal convictions,” ICE said in a statement Wednesday. “He will remain in ICE custody pending his removal to The Gambia.”
Goswell acknowledges it’s a difficult case. It is reminiscent of the one Lawrence professor Syed Jamal faced when he was arrested by ICE and nearly deported to Bangladesh before his case caught international attention. Jamal had also been under supervisory orders. In August, an immigration appeals board granted him another hearing, allowing Jamal to stay until then.
“The only thing he (Pace) can do is try,” Goswell said of his friend’s case. “Hopefully, some kind of arrangement will happen and they will let him stay.”
Pace said preparing an application for a stay will be a race before ICE deports Fatajo.
“We’re going to need to gather up written statements and evidence of the good works that he has done,” Pace said. “We would like to find a way to keep him here.”
In the meantime, Goswell has visited his friend in jail and speaks to him on the phone.
“Considering the circumstances, he is coping.”