Updated, 5:07 p.m. Nov. 21: This story as been updated to include comments from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official and Abdoulie Fatajo's attorney.
Abdoulie Fatajo, a Shawnee, Kansas, philanthropist and community leader from Gambia, was arrested and detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on November 9. He’s being held at the Morgan County Detention Center in Versailles, Missouri.
He’s had limited access to a phone and has relied on a friend to spread the word of his arrest, though his family is being careful about who hears.
“They don’t want my mom to know about it right now because it would just traumatize her. It’s like a humiliation,” Fatajo told KCUR in a phone call from the jail.
Fatajo's Shawnee-based business, Hy-5 Traders, began as a small bicycle repair and consignment clothing business in 2012. He repaired bicycles at low cost, and donated bikes to children whose parents couldn’t afford one.
Shortly after an article about him appeared in the Kansas City Star in 2015, Hy-5 Traders blossomed into a multi-warehouse shipping operation. Fatajo now has dozens of American employees and ships not only bicycles, but cars, clothing, food, and household goods to the people of Gambia.
Fatajo arrived on a student visa in November 1999. He said he was enrolled at Penn Valley and then Johnson County Community College until 2003, when he said he began working full time to care for his infant son, who was born in the United States.
That same year, he was involved in an altercation with a man who forced his way into Fatajo’s apartment. Fatajo was arrested but quickly released, and was not charged in the incident.
Shawn Neudauer, ICE spokesman for Kansas/Missouri, said that even though charges were dropped in that altercation, Fatajo did not operate entirely within the law, garnering a few other misdemeanors that immigration officials continue to take into account.
Neudauer also questioned whether Fatajo ever enrolled in school after he arrived on his student visa, saying government records do not show that he was enrolled at Penn Valley. Neudauer said that it’s not unheard of for immigrants to pay for classes with cash and to enroll under alternate names.
Seeing that he was not in school, immigration agents told him he would be deported as soon as travel documents arrived from Gambia.
Immigration attorney Michael Sharma-Crawford said this situation isn’t unusual, and that sometimes an immigrant’s country of origin withholds travel documents for years.
Sharma-Crawford's firm handled the case of Lawrence chemist Syed Jamal, who faced deportation to his native Bangladesh until an immigration appeals board halted Jamal's deportation earlier this year. Jamal is scheduled to appear in immigration court later in November, Sharma-Crawford said.
“The new administration came in and started threatening to withhold funding, and suddenly travel documents became available,” Sharma-Crawford said.
The documents can take the form of a passport or a statement on official government letterhead with a photo of the immigrant attached that will allow him to pass through customs.
For 15 years, Fatajo regularly checked in with immigration officials, fearful of those documents.
“They put me under orders of supervision. You go there and they check that you didn’t commit any crimes or you didn’t do anything, and they will let you go, and they will renew your work card, that’s what I have been doing,” Fatajo said.
But Neudauer said that in 2005, the Board of Immigration denied Fatajo’s appeal to continue living in the United States, and that Fatajo did nothing more to legally extend his stay here.
Two weeks ago when Fatajo checked in at immigration, the official he spoke with announced that the travel documents the government had been waiting on since 2003 had arrived.
Fatajo said he hasn’t seen the documents and has no idea how long he’ll be held. Meanwhile, he’s concerned about his family and employees.
“Bicycles are the main transportation for people in Gambia. Ninety percent rely on bicycles,” he said.
Bicycles and bike repairs in Gambia are extremely expensive. Because a new bike in Gambia costs a year’s wages, Fatajo saw an opportunity to make a big difference. His sister and cousin opened a shop similar to Hy-5 Traders in Banjul, Gambia’s capitol, and he sent them a shipping container of bikes and other things he collected from garage sales or thrift stores every few months.
Gambians all over the United States contact him to send items to their families back home, and he ended up sending a 40-foot long container every week.
“Today, the whole family is employed because of me over there. Because of these shipments that I’m shipping to them, both my brothers’ kids, my nephews and me, my sister’s kids, even my cousins, all of them are working because of this business I’m doing here. So that’s why this is so painful,” he said.
“Even my employees, most of them, their entire lives depend on this business. And back home, the entire family, their survival is based on this business," he added. "I am their only shipper that ships their stuff to Gambia. I am the only one.”
On Tuesday morning, Fatajo began working with Overland Park immigration attorney J. Bradley Pace, who told KCUR he is considering filing a stay on humanitarian grounds. He said Fatajo is a special case because of all the charitable work he does.
Sharma-Crawford said he sees these cases often.
“You have somebody who’s been involved in the community and is doing all these things, and been out in the open and cooperating with immigration for the past 10 years,” he said, “and then suddenly they’re just taken into custody.”
He said that while that’s jarring, he understands that ICE operates with the element of surprise to keep immigrants from hiding. And for someone like Fatajo, who is not interested in hiding, this treatment has been most jarring of all.
“These past nine years I was doing so well,” Fatajo said. “I told them, 'What can I do just to be out of this situation?' Because every year when you go there, the feeling that you get, it’s like I don’t know what kind of crime did I do to be in that situation? Just not going to school.”
Syed Jamal's case, meanwhile, drew attention from U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri and Jamal's Congresswoman, Rep. Lynn Jenkins, who sponsored a private bill that would have granted him permanent residence. A federal district court judge granted Jamal’s habeas petition, which allowed him to go free while his case continues. His immigration court date is November 27.
Fatajo is in Kevin Yoder’s district, but Yoder has not responded to KCUR’s attempt to reach him.
Correction: This article originally reported that it was Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins' bill that freed Lawrence chemist Syed Jamal. It has been updated to note that Jamal was freed as a result of an immigration appeals judge's decision.