More than two decades after arriving in this country from their native Indonesia, a couple from St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in South Philadelphia finally heard the long-awaited words of an immigration judge: ” Welcome to the United States”
Last week, Yulius and Ellyana – who asked to be identified only by their first names – were officially granted permanent legal residency on June 29 in Philadelphia immigration court.
The declaration ended years of attempts to gain asylum from religious persecution, a journey marked by fear, frustration and nearly six months of imprisonment that separated the husband and wife and their two daughters, both US citizens.
But every step of the way to their green cards, the couple have been guided by a deep-rooted faith.
“This all happened through the power of prayer,” Ellyana said.
“I never felt safe”
As Chinese-Catholics, she and Yulius found their beliefs tested at an early age in Indonesia, home to nearly 13% of the world’s Muslims. Religious freedom is guaranteed to some extent, but subject to restrictions and, according to several rights organizations, increasingly repressed.
Extremist groups have carried out such attacks, with suspected members of a terrorist organization arrested in May 2022 for an alleged plot to kill Archbishop Petrus Canisius Mandagi of Merauke. In March 2021, a suicide bombing took place outside the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the couple’s town of Makassar during Palm Sunday Mass, injuring around 20 people. Shia and Ahmadi Muslims, minorities among their predominantly Sunni fellow citizens, also reported being victims of intolerance.
Tensions date back decades: Indonesia’s predominantly Christian Chinese population was the target of numerous attacks throughout the late 20th century. In 1998, the fall of longtime President Suharto and his New Order regime – which collapsed after around 30 years due to corruption and economic crisis – was marked by riots in the Chinatowns of several cities, including Jakarta, the national capital. Some 1,000 people were killed when buildings were looted and burned. Organized campaigns of sexual violence against ethnic Chinese women have also been cited by aid workers.
Yulius and Ellyana were familiar with ethnic and religious persecution long before the Jakarta riots in 1998. Islamic extremists regularly churned out loud music as they and their fellow Catholics attended mass in Makassar; houses that hosted prayer groups were pelted with stones. Throughout her school years, Ellyana had been continually bullied for being Chinese and Catholic.
In a previous interview with CatholicPhilly.com, Ellyana said she “never felt safe” in her native country.
Yulius’ family lost their home and restaurant in a firebombing in 1997. He was assaulted; the police refused to help, he said.
Amid the turmoil, the couple married in May 1999 and honeymooned in the United States, arriving on a tourist visa that allowed them to stay for up to six months to visit friends.
But in December 1999, after his only brother was beaten to death by a mob on his way to church, Yulius knew they could never go back, not even for his brother’s funeral.
“I had a family of my own now,” he said in a previous interview. “I couldn’t risk our lives.”
Building a family in faith
This decision was confirmed a month later, when the couple learned that he was pregnant. They applied for asylum, but with limited English fell prey to a con man posing as a lawyer. A second asylum application, filed by a legitimate lawyer, was rejected.
Needing to support themselves and their baby, Yulius and Ellyana found work in local cafes and delis, relying on what immigration attorney Christopher Casazza, who now represents the couple , called “the very robust, underground economy of migrant workers. that we all rely on.
And all the while, Yulius and Ellyana immersed themselves in parish life, eventually becoming active members of the Archdiocese’s Indonesian Catholic community, based at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and led by Vincentian Chaplain, Father Kurniawan Diputra. Ellyana is a member of the entire Indonesian Catholic liturgical movement; Yulius is a reader at mass and sings in the choir.
“This parish is like our home,” Ellyana said.
Those ties became even more apparent when — after 20 years building a quiet, unassuming life in South Philadelphia — she and her husband were arrested on July 2, 2019, by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. ) as they headed to work at local restaurants. . Yulius was sent to Pike County Correctional Center, Ellyana, at York County Jail, about 170 miles away. The couple, whose younger daughter was still in high school, were not allowed to have contact with each other.
Amid the anxiety and uncertainty of incarceration, faith sustained them, said the couple, who regularly prayed the rosary and meditated on the scriptures behind bars, supported by the intercession of family, friends. friends and members of the community.
“If people didn’t pray for us, it would have been impossible for us to stay strong,” said Ellyana, who even shared her faith with other inmates, some of whom were atheists.
“I told them, ‘If you believe in God, you can drop everything and then God will work in your life,'” she said.
‘It’s your way’
A few days before Christmas 2019, the pair were released, with an earlier deportation order overturned and a previously filed motion to reopen their deportation proceedings granted. Last week’s order approving permanent lawful residency (which came almost three years after the day the couple were arrested) was ultimately not based on asylum, but on the federal government’s green card program for immediate relatives of US citizens – in this case, the eldest of the girl couple, who had reached the required age of 21.
This path is more promising, Fr. Diputra said.
“A lot of people are trying to (find) a future here through asylum, but for five years now I haven’t heard good news from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement),” he said. declared. “We try to show … our goodwill, that we work very hard here and that we support the city, we support the government, we try to be good people here. But asylum is a long process. That’s why another hope (of immigrants) comes from their children, but they have to wait 21 years.
The waiting season was divinely ordained, said the couple, who hope to obtain full US citizenship after completing a five-year mandatory permanent residency.
“It’s a long journey to become a citizen,” Yulius said. “God had a plan for us to get a green card, even the hard way. We had tough times, but we kept praying and trusting God.
“We don’t have ‘luck’ in our lives,” Ellyana said. “I feel like God had it all planned out, and I think, ‘Oh, this is your way.’ Just believe in God, miracles will happen.