Deadline set for Strongs' departure, family has two weeks to leave country

16 February 2005

--by Ariel Hansen
Gazette staff writer
Sequim Gazette

Sequim, WA - There is a cloud hanging over the small blue and white single-wide on Guiles Road, and it isn't just February precipitation.

The residents of this house have just more than two weeks to pack their belongings and say goodbye to their friends of a decade and the only home their children have ever known.

"This is their home, this is their country," says Oliver Strong. "It's very hard to even think about leaving even though it's coming so close to the deadline."

The deadline Oliver speaks of was set by the federal Bureau of Immigration Appeals on Feb. 3, giving Oliver and his wife Penny 30 days to voluntarily leave the United States.

The family's history

The decision follows several years of legal wrangling with Immigration that culminated in the October arrest of Oliver and his detention at a facility in Tacoma.

Weeks later, he was released on a bond posted by a local resident, and their case was sent for review to the appeals board, which issued the departure order.

It officially only covers the husband and wife, because their four youngest children were born in the United States and are citizens, and their oldest was born in the Virgin Islands.

Penny has South African citizenship, while Oliver has a limited British passport that doesn't extend to his family members.

"It feels so vulnerable having seven people with four nationalities," says Oliver. "All we would really love to do is make sure that our family is of one nation."

Staying together is the most important thing to this family, say both Penny and Oliver, whether it is in the United States or another country.

The next two weeks

While it may seem stressful enough to be faced with either leaving in two weeks or forced deportation, the family has another worry.

Amber, their oldest daughter, had temporary passports from the United Kingdom most of her life, thanks to her birth in the Virgin Islands. However, when the Strongs applied for a permanent British passport for Amber, the embassy denied the request.

Based on Penny's citizenship, the family has applied for a South African passport for the girl, with additional pleadings for a quick decision.

Caught between a child without travel papers and a two-week deadline, Oliver and Penny refuse to even consider leaving their daughter behind, even temporarily.
"We're hoping to get all that sorted out in time," says Penny, but with the deadline fast approaching, the family may ask the government for an extension until Amber's papers are in order.

The couple is protective of their brood, and pain shows on their faces as they try to describe how difficult it has been to explain the upheaval of the children's young lives.
"We're trying to keep things as normal as possible in daily life," says Penny, lightly scolding her youngest boy for sitting on his baby sister's hands.

In fact, the packing process has hardly started, and there are no boxes in evidence in the small home.

The only clue that in three weeks' time they could be living in Great Britain are two books propped against an upright piano in their living room: an Econoguide for London and a travel book called "England for All Seasons."

Views of their departure

This apparent disregard for the immediacy of their situation is partially a reflection of the small number of things they will be bringing with them to England.

Many of the tools that Oliver uses to sculpt metal for a living will be left behind, as they can't interface with the British power system. They will also be leaving furniture, vehicles, and many of Oliver's sculptures and topiary works.

This leaves only clothing, books and personal items, and the couple learned to live very simply during the years they spent aboard a boat before arriving in the United States.
It is also a reflection of the couple's hopes that something will happen in the next few weeks that will allow them to stay in the country. They have continued petitioning the state's congressional and senatorial representatives to take up their cause, and encourage friends and well-wishers to do the same, even at this late date.

"We have come to the end of our legal opportunities, but we are still hoping," says Penny, "because we would love to stay, to gain the support of some senator or congressman somewhere, and we are asking people to please write."

Keeping the hope of a reprieve alive seems particularly important to Oliver, who feels it is a matter of faith, a faith on which the family has depended during these last few months.

"We'll try every avenue until the last minute," says Oliver. "You'll break down if you don't look at the positive side."

A different positive side is where Penny's mind has turned, and she has repositioned the family's departure in her thoughts from a tragedy into an adventure.

"It's very heart-wrenching to leave here, but on the other hand it's important for us to go with a good mindset and try to make an adventure of it," says Penny.
"When you're in the situation, sometimes you have to do a total about-face and take your best step forward and the only possible way of making a success of it is changing your attitude."

She has begun organizing the family's possessions into what will be needed immediately after the move, what will be sent for, and what will be left behind.

Though she still hasn't given up hope that a last-minute stay might be granted, she is also looking toward the future.

After the family has been outside of the country for a number of years, they can apply to reenter, and with Oliver's talent at sculpture, a visa intended specifically for artists may be one avenue for such reentry.

"The U.S. has been our sanctuary, our home," says Penny. "We've made it into a stable family base and that is something that would be devastating to lose and something we would have to work extremely hard at recreating."

Though they may be away from the United States for a while, the family plans to maintain ownership of the Guiles Road property, with the intention to return someday.
In the meantime, Oliver is working hard to finish some sculpture commissions before the deadline rolls around, and the family is trying to adjust to their new situation.
They aren't yet ready to say goodbye to the land and the community they consider their own. "We're not there yet mentally," says Penny.

"There's so many different things that must be in place before we say that," agrees Oliver. "We're still hoping for a way to stay. That's what faith is all about."



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