Regina Bakala poses for a family portrait with her husband David, daughter Lydia, and son Christopher. Bakala was threatened with deportation to her native Congo, a country she fled after being brutally raped for her pro-democracy activism. Josephe Marie Flynn, SSND, author of “Rescuing Regina,” led a yearlong campaign to reverse Bakala’s deportation order and win her asylum in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Lifetouch Church Directories and Portraits)
Regina Bakala survived the unthinkable.
A victim of rape in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo and a political enemy of the country’s brutal regime, the former school teacher fled her home to the United States, where she hoped to receive asylum.
But the United States proved cruel in its own right. After years of wading through complex immigration bureaucracy, she was taken from her home one night and threatened with deportation back to Congo — a virtual death sentence.
In a gripping new book, “Rescuing Regina: The Battle to Save a Friend from Deportation and Death,” Josephe Marie Flynn, SSND, tells the story of Regina Bakala — her torture in Congo, escape to the United States and battle against American immigration policy.
Flynn, a nun at Regina’s Catholic church in Milwaukee, led the effort to reverse Regina’s deportation order, and writes of the ordeal with passion, clarity and tenderness. Weaving together Regina’s story with research on the American detention and deportation practices, Flynn’s work is a scathing condemnation of what she calls an inhumane and unjust system.
Shortly after marrying David Bakala, Regina set out as a pro-democracy activist in villages around Congo. But the oppressive Mobutu regime didn’t approve of her activities, and accused her of subverting its rule. Mobutu’s private militia then brutally raped Regina. She temporarily stopped her activism, but months later resumed her work, and again was raped.
Regina was a member of the Parti Lumumbiste Unife (PALU), a party named after Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first elected leader who was assassinated in 1965. After Lumumba’s death, Colonel Joseph Mobutu seized power. Mobutu renamed the country Zaire and stood against communism, gaining the support of Western nations.
Although in 1990 he promised multiparty elections, Mobutu remained in power, and unleashed paramilitary forces to terrorize the people. By 1996, violence from the Rwandan genocide also spilled into the Central African nation.
Soon, a new military coalition comprised of foreign and domestic factions ousted Mobutu. Laurent-Desire Kabila came to power and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Kabila failed to live up to his promise, proving to be just as bad as his predecessor. The Great War of Africa broke out, becoming the largest war in modern African history and the deadliest conflict across the globe since World War II.
In 2008, the International Rescue Committee reported that 5.4 million people had died in Congo since 1998. A new study in The American Journal of Public Health also estimates that nearly 2 million women have been raped in the country — a rate of nearly one each minute.
Facing imminent danger, Regina decided to flee Congo immediately — without even telling her husband, David. Humiliated by the rape and fearing for his safety, Regina said she felt it would be better if David never knew where she went. With the help of her family in Belgium, Regina slipped out of the country and arrived safely in the United States.
Meanwhile, David was also politically active. Outraged by the Mobutu regime, he joined an opposition military party as a spy. But like his wife, David was caught. He was dragged to prison and tortured — beaten, electrocuted and starved for nearly two months. Somehow, David was able to escape, and without knowing the fate of his wife, decided to flee to the United States.
The two miraculously re-connected in the United States, then held a formal church wedding and started their lives together anew in Greensboro, N. C., and later relocated to Milwaukee. Regina soon gave birth to a daughter, Lydia, and a year later, to a son, Christopher. The couple secured jobs, was active in their church community, and purchased their own home — it seemed as though the horrors of the past were behind them.
But one night, policemen barged into the Bakalas’ home and snatched Regina while she was in the middle of a shower. Problems in her paperwork meant that she would be deported — back to the Congo.
David called Flynn for help, and the feisty nun began an elaborate, yearlong campaign to release Regina from detention and to reverse her deportation order. Flynn, who had been friends with the couple for years before the ordeal started, enlisted fellow church members to cook meals and raise money for Regina’s legal defense. She also secured a lawyer, set up press conferences, contacted local politicians and visited Regina at the Kenosha County Detention Center outside Chicago.
“They took hold of my heart,” Flynn said in an interview with the Banner about why she became so involved with the Bakalas.
When Regina and David first revealed the trauma they went through in Congo, Flynn was “stunned ... just stunned.” But the nun knew that her parish could care for the family — and that the Bakalas had much to teach them. The church community is very white and suburban, she explained, and Milwaukee can be very racist — the Bakalas, she thought, could give them some much-needed perspective. Soon, “our parish began to love them,” she said.
As Flynn immersed herself in Regina’s case, the injustice of America’s immigration system quickly came to light. The reasons cited for deportation were not based on any wrongdoing on Regina’s part, but on administrative mistakes made by her former attorneys. In addition, Regina’s trauma, cultural differences and weak English skills left inconsistencies and missing details in her testimony, leading judges to claim her story was fraudulent.
Not only was deportation a death sentence for Regina, but it would also break apart her family, leaving two children without a mother and a husband without a wife. “We are just left and right ignoring human rights, violating human rights, causing havoc in families, in communities,” Flynn said.
According to statistics in her book, the United States held 22,000 immigrant detainees every day in 2005, and for every two adults detained by Immigration Customs Enforcement, one American child is left behind.
“The system has way too much injustice in it,” she continued. “If they were coming from Ireland ... we wouldn’t even bat an eyelash … ‘Illegal’ … is the most inhumane thing to call someone.”
In writing her book, Flynn said, she hopes “to put a beautiful face on immigration” and to educate Americans about the immigration system. But perhaps most importantly, Flynn wrote the book for Regina’s children, Lydia and Christopher, “so they would know what their parents went through.”
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