Family's return a miracle
ORANGE - Anna Sak is too numb to cry.
That wasn't always so.
She cried while watching her then 19-year-old son, Arek, placed in handcuffs and shackles by federal immigration agents and called a criminal during the family's sudden deportation back to its native Poland 26 months ago.
She cried when her daughter Joanne, then a 17-year-old senior at Amity Regional High School, begged those same agents not to place her in handcuffs in the family's living room on that Dec. 3, 2002 morning.
The agents did it anyway.
And she cried for days - or was it weeks - she can't remember anymore, after the family was mistakenly deported after 12 years seeking political asylum and awaiting green cards through a sister's application in 1992, a sister who was already an American citizen.
In Poland, living in a tiny, cramped apartment with relatives in the small city of Elk, hours from Warsaw, she cried for her husband, Dariusz, who walked the streets of his native country day after day looking for a job - any job - only to be turned away because of his age (mid-40's), uncertain residential status.
"They told me if I was older than 35, forget it," said Dariusz, who returned to his job as a machine operator at Dekarz Engineering in Seymour two days after arriving back in Orange.
Anna Sak wanted to cry for joy when against extraordinary odds and likely facing a 10-year ban to re-enter this country, the family's Hartford attorney Anthony Collins finally found a way, with intervention by U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, to get the family back to their Orange home.
But no tears came, just relief that the ordeal was over.
She expected the tears to flow when the family was greeted by 30 close family and friends who gathered two weeks ago in the Derby Avenue house they helped the Saks to keep during their deportation.
But, sitting on the same white leather sofa where she once loved entertaining guests, or just spending time with her family and cuddling her pet dog Cindy, Anna now has a blank stare and says she is too numb to cry,mthat the tears just won't come.
"Why did they do this to us? We love America. That's the question that will always haunt me," Anna Sak said, sitting in the same living room where federal agents burst into the family's home early on that cold December morning, telling them, while still half-asleep, to pack their bags in five minutes.
At the time INS officials insisted the agents were doing their job, that such practices were routine when people stayed in the country after the courts denied the request for political asylum, even though the Saks and their former attorney insisted they were never notified of that court ruling.
The Saks were told they would either board a plane that day to Poland and likely never return to the United States, or go straight to prison - their kids too.
Arek, donning the torn jeans and tank top of a typical-looking young American, said while the family chose the plane over the terror of jail "it felt like prison anyway. Waking up in the morning and expecting to go to class like any other day, and ending up in handcuffs and shackles, and then forced to a completely alien country, the feeling of being out of control, well, it's not something you can even describe."
During an exclusive interview with the New Haven Register, all four members of the Sak family did, however, describe their torment at being literally dragged away from their home, the only home Arek and Joanne ever remembered, while being taunted by federal agents that they were criminals.
Arek even suffered the indignity of being arrested as he was entering a class at the University of Connecticut, at Storrs, where he was a sophomore majoring in art.
"It was a total shock, I had no idea something like that could even happen," said Arek. "Even though I had done nothing wrong, I felt so ashamed I couldn't even look up at the crowd of friends, students and professors who couldn't believe what was happening either."
While his mother can't find her tears anymore, Arek describes crying himself to sleep every night in a country where he and his sister didn't know the language, or customs, and had virtually nothing to do - only a bleak future ahead in a place with few jobs and ever fewer kids who could understand them.
Arek was eight and Joanne six when they left their homeland, and recall little of it.
"It's no so much that it's such a terrible place, or that the people are so bad - it's just that all of a sudden we're in this barren, cold country we don't know, that seems like another planet," said Arek. "It felt like being trapped in a nightmare."
But, after days, weeks and then months dreaming of a quick return, their plight became all too real as their hopes rose and fell like a roller-coaster ride with each court denial, or rejection by the American Embassy in Poland.
Joanne said both the "big and little things we (Americans) take for granted were suddenly so far away.
"Being able to talk to people, have real conversations, that's what I missed the most," said Joanne, who was in the middle of her senior year and looking forward to a prom, graduation and celebrating with her friends before going to college.
"I know I can't ever get those things back," she said sadly, though she was able to earn her degree over the Internet. "But putting it into perspective now, I'm just glad we ever got back at all."
Indeed, Collins, an attorney hired by family members here once the Saks left the country, said their chances of returning were slim, describing how bureaucratic snafus, miscommunications among agencies and wrongly interpreted legal rulings result in numerous deportations every year.
Most, he said, never make it back, while real illegal aliens are often never discovered.
"The irony is that people like the Saks tried to do it the right way, the legal way, and look what happened to them," said Sak. "That makes others even more reluctant to work through the system."
The siblings agreed they had lost faith in that system, and never could have made it at all if they weren't there together.
"At least we had each other to talk to and share our mutual frustrations with," said Arek. "The worst part was not knowing when and if we would get back, that's a lot different than being a tourist. I think I would be dead if my sister weren't there with me."
Both Arek and his mother, in fact, were hospitalized for exhaustion and fatigue during their stay in Poland.
"Sometimes I would just shake with fear," said Anna. "Other times I couldn't stop blaming myself for being so stupid to let something like this happen - our former lawyers should have been replaced, maybe I could have found a way to avoid the whole mess."
Then, on the lighter side, Arek and Joanne talked about how much they missed just being able to turn on the tube and watch shows in English, talk to their friends on the phone, and go to the mall. They managed to laugh a little watching reruns of Friends dubbed in Polish.
They hated the Polish food — craving pizza, Chinese food, bagels and even fast food.
"It's really sad and funny at the same time that we had to take a bus for four hours just to get to a McDonald's," said Joanne, then pausing, looking out her living room window directly across the road to the familiar golden arches all lit up.
The siblings said they realized the irony that, while at home, they could walk across the street any time for a Big Mac, and rarely did, while in Poland they took a day-long ride to relieve their craving for anything American.
Mostly, the family stayed together, watching CNN, the only English speaking show on Polish television, and eventually ventured out for brief periods - their spirits temporarily uplifted by an occasional visit by a family friend or relative.
While the family is reluctant to criticize the American government, mostly out of fear they could be dragged away again at any time, other relatives and friends insist the Saks were deported during the hysteria of the post-Sept. 11 period when there was increased pressure to rid the country of as many foreigners as possible.
Anna Sak said the family is "extremely grateful to all the people who helped us back here," and at least content, despite mounting debts and an uncertain future, to see her children smile and laugh again.
"Listen," she said softly, as Arek laughed in his room with a friend watching a basketball game, and Joanne rushed to the door to greet a friend.
"Those are the sounds I lived to hear again, just my kids doing the things they like and not walking around depressed all the time."
But then, still without a tear, Anna Sak looked around her living room and said she hated sitting there.
"All I can see are those agents standing right over there," she said pointing to the middle of the room, "putting handcuffs on Joanne as she pleaded that they stop. Can a mother ever forget such things?