By Ken Kolker, Wood8 TV
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) – His wife fears for his life if he's deported to Ethiopia, the country he fled more than a decade ago. His seven children just want their dad back.
"My sister, I don't want her to grow up without a dad," said a tearful Gutama Abdulkarim, a fourth-grader at Forest Hills' Orchard View Elementary School. "And I don't want to grow up without a dad."
Some teachers from the Forest Hills district say they are trying to stop the deportation of Kamal Abdulkarim, 31, who has been in jail for nearly two years. They have helped the children write letters to Gov. Jennifer Granholm and President Barack Obama, and were trying to contact members of Congress.
"Kamal knows what he did was wrong, and he's done his time," Orchard View first-grade teacher Karen Heymoss said.
Kamal's wife, Jamila, said she and her husband fled Ethiopia as political refugees after they were beaten by police in their grocery store. His father, court records show, had been jailed and tortured in that country. They fled to Kenya, then sought asylum as political refugees in the United States in 2000.
"Sometimes I was saying, why God created me like this?" his wife said.
The couple was raising their children in a sparsely furnished apartment in Grand Rapids, with the five oldest attending Forest Hills schools. The five youngest were all born in the U.S., and are citizens. The two older siblings are Kenya natives.
"Their smiles just light the rooms," Heymoss said of the children. "With everything that's happened, they've never once complained or have asked for anything."
Abdulkarim was arrested in March 2009 with 108 pairs of knock-off Nikes at his Unique Fashion Wear shop on Madison Avenue SE in Grand Rapids, according to a federal indictment. He pleaded guilty in federal court and the judge sentenced him to five months in prison, well below sentencing guidelines.
An attorney said Abdulkarim agreed to help investigators, and even led them to a source of the counterfeit shoes, but the investigation went nowhere.
But, that's not the charge that led to his upcoming deportation.
Instead, it was the substance that police found while searching for those shoes. They discovered khat, a mild narcotic traditionally chewed by Muslim men that dates back almost 700 years. It is legal in many parts of the world, including Europe, but not in the United States.
He was charged in state court, leading to a conviction for narcotics possession and a 254-day sentence.
An immigration attorney told 24 Hour News 8 that an administrative judge in Cleveland recently ordered him deported after a trial.
Since his arrest almost two years ago, immigration officials have held him in jail. He's never held his youngest child, 1-year-old Sabrina. Teachers have helped raise money to help the family visit him at a jail in Ohio, but they've talked to him only through a television monitor.
Even from jail, though, he's tried to be a good father, his family says, often writing his children letters, urging them to work hard in school.
"Is there any possibility to become a physician without skill and education for it?" he wrote in one letter.
His family is planning a trip to Ohio on Saturday — with Heymoss and school counselor Stephanie Thornton — for what they expect will be one last visit.
"It's really unfair," said his son, 14-year-old Jimma Abdulkarim. "He served two years for one tiny thing. I don't think it's fair."