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Nelson Kargbo, child soldier turned refugee, detained without charges

As of August 23, Nelson Kargbo would have spent the two years of his life in jail while fighting deportation charges.

As of August 23, Nelson Kargbo would have spent the two years of his life in jail while fighting deportation charges.

Nelson Kargbo was just 11 years old when he was kidnapped from his home by the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel army waging civil war in Sierra Leone. RUF doped him up on brown-brown, a drug cocktail of cocaine and gunpowder, and forced him to fight on the front-lines. When he eventually fell ill, the army left him to die by the side of the road.

Thankfully, RUF disposed of Kargbo near a village where he had some family connections. Someone recognized him and brought him to Freetown, the capital, to reunite with an adoptive brother. The two boys then journeyed to Guinea, where the rest of the family had found shelter in a United Nations refugee camp. Kargbo got refugee status through the U.N. and soon traveled to Minnesota.

He started in the 9th grade, even though he hadn’t had schooling since his abduction at 11. The transition was rocky – Kargbo turned to weed and alcohol to quiet the voices in his mind hounding him to just jump in front a moving car. In his early 20s, he was convicted of three misdemeanors for shoplifting, possession of burglary tools, and making terroristic threats. In total, he served 14 days in jail.

Then Kargbo grew up. He found work at a signage company in Shakopee, met the mother of his children and became father and primary caretaker to four.

In 2013, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Kargbo for deportation. He’d just been charged for domestic assault in Washington County, which put him on Immigration’s radar. The mother of Kargbo’s children refutes the charges, arguing that she never called police. Nevertheless, Immigration officials insisted that Kargbo remain in jail for the duration of his deportation case without the option of posting bail.

Kargbo could no longer watch the kids during the day while their mother went to cosmetology school and worked as a beautician. The mom lost her job this summer as a result of having too many absences.

While his kids pined after the dad who used to take them to the library and to the park daily, Kargbo suffered a massive psychotic episode in jail that was triggered by his childhood PTSD.

He heard voices in his native language, Krio, and saw demons in his cell, says student attorney Nicholas Hittler, who is working on the case. Kargbo would hide under his bed and bang his head against the wall. When he was locked in solitary confinement, guards found him singing loudly on the floor. He attempted suicide by drinking a bottle of shampoo. With medication, the hallucinations stopped, but he became a "zombie," as Kargbo describes. 

"In general, inspection reports of the jail say detention is not the best place for someone with mental illness, especially someone with a traumatic past," Hittler says. "It was just incredible to see how difficult it is for someone in Mr. Karbgo's position to fight their case, and to see the emotional toll on his family, the way that detention crushed him."

Kargbo was recently diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression and bipolar affective disorder.

It was this diagnosis that would neutralize all threats of deporting Kargbo back to Sierra Leone. A coalition of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the University of Minnesota Center for New Americans and Dorsey & Whitney LLP hired psychiatrists to testify on the virtual vacuum of schizophrenia care in the West African country. There was not a single psychiatrist in Sierra Leone, the experts said. Psychosis patients were perceived as contagious and possessed by demons. They were locked up in prisons or chained to beds in psychiatric "hospitals." Sometimes, they were stoned in the street.

On July 30, Immigration judge Kristin Olmanson granted Kargbo a protective order against being sent back to Sierra Leone. For all practical purposes, he should be free to go. However, ICE still has the opportunity to explore shipping Kargbo off to any other country that would take him. Immigration insists on keeping him in jail another 90 days while they look for an alternative.

ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer says any number of other countries could be eligible as a landing spot for a deportee who can't return to his country of origin, but usually it would have to be a former residence or a parent's residence. "While it's not common, it's not uncommon either," he says.

"They can’t return him to Sierra Leone because of the protection he has and there’s no indication they can send him to anyone else," says U of M immigration attorney Katherine Evans. "He has no ties to anywhere else. They’ve done a review of his criminal history and found that there’s no basis to hold him in detention for that. In the meantime, his kids desperately miss him."

The pro-bono attorneys backing Kargbo have submitted a petition accusing the government of violating habeas corpus by holding Kargbo in jail for nearly two years without bond, even though his misdemeanors did not warrant mandatory detention. They demand that he be released immediately and reunited with his family.

"I made some very bad decisions," Kargbo wrote in an affidavit attached to the petition. "Now, when I look back on those years, I see myself as being young and stupid. I have grown up. I wish I had not broken the law. I wish I had not fought with other people. I feel deeply sorry about the bad things that I did in the past, and I just want a chance to live my life."