It was 6:30 on a Saturday morning in mid-October when they knocked on the door of the small, second-floor apartment he shared with his beloved cat, Tiger.
Edward Mensah is usually up then because he meets a group of guys every Saturday morning just past 8 a.m. — a lawyer, a factory worker, a UD professor, some retirees, a doctor; they call themselves the Kilimanjaro Running Club — and they run the bike trail along the Great Miami River.
But they congregate near the corner of Perry and Monument, not at his Forest Park apartment off North Main Street.
“I looked out through the keyhole and saw two tall officers so I opened up,” he said. “That’s when one said,
‘Are you Mensah?’
“I said I was and he said, ‘The judge has ordered us to take you. You are a fugitive from immigration.’ ”
The words were as foreign to him as they were frightening.
The 41-year-old Mensah has lived in Dayton for 18 years. Abandoned as a toddler and placed in an
Ethiopian sanitarium for the disabled, incompetent and homeless even though he was a healthy, if under-nourished, child, he was later sent to Ghana as something of a child slave and finally found footing in the United States.
He was listed in the phone book, worked at the Meijer store in Englewood for a dozen years, has been a student at Sinclair Community College, was a mechanic of note and though rail thin at 5-feet-11 and 122 pounds — “when you first see him, you just want to feed him,” his friend Frank Ghand said with a smile — he is one of the Miami Valley’s best distance runners.
In September, he’d come in 18th among the 1,798 finishers of the U.S. Air Force Marathon at Wright Patterson AFB. His time of 2 hours, 54.5 seconds was fifth best among Miami Valley runners.
Just six days before his Oct. 18 arrest, he finished second in the Dayton River Corridor Classic 5K, an event he’d won in 2007.
The day after the two Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers came to his door, he was supposed to run in the Columbus Marathon.
“The one officer happened to be a runner himself and when he saw my race pictures on the wall, the medals and trophies, he said he was sorry he had to cuff me,” Mensah said.
As the officers took his passport, wallet and keys, Mensah begged them for one consideration.
“I asked them to let me feed my cat and open the bedroom window so at least he could get out,” he said quietly. “Tiger is very affectionate. I bought him from an Englewood pet shop and trained him so he knows his name. It was heart-breaking to just leave him.”
Mensah was taken to the Butler County Jail — which has a contract to house ICE detainees — where he remains today as a few of his Dayton friends try to rally support for him.
With Ghand and his wife Becky taking the lead, they collected $1,500 to retain Dayton attorney Karen Denise Bradley.
While the government contends it sent Mensah a registered letter about his immigration hearing 18 years ago, he said he never saw it, nor knew his status was in jeopardy. And now that deportation looms unless a judge reopens the case, there is the question of where he would be sent.
As happened to many orphaned Ethiopian children, the country has no record of his birth and does not consider him a citizen. He has only naturalized status in Ghana, where he lived as a child.
“It’s a real sad case,” said Mensah’s friend and fellow Ethiopian Teddy Abraham, who lives near the Dayton Art Institute. “He’s never been in trouble, he’s just a decent person with no place to go.”
Dr. Julius Amin, the chairperson of the University of Dayton history department and another of Mensah’s friends, agreed:
“He loves this country and he’s a positive member of this community. His story is just such a painful one.
We’re all just stunned. We just say, ‘My God, why? Why Edward?’ ”
ICE officer David DeWeese, who has been involved in this detainment, offered no details: “I cannot give out any information on this case.”
Asked the questions Mensah’s friends are asking — “Why is he locked up? What did he do?” — DeWeese quickly concluded the conversation with:
“That should not even be a part of this.”
From Ethiopia to Ghana
According to adoption papers Ghand obtained when he returned to his native Ghana a few years ago and visited the village where Mensah had been raised, Edward was “a male child of unknown parents … found abandoned.”
Mensah said he doesn’t know what happened to his mom and dad: “Maybe they were killed in the war (with Eritrea) or in the famine. Or maybe one is still alive. I just don’t know.
“Sometimes I have a vision that I have a small Ethiopian sister, but maybe I’m just dreaming.”
He clearly does remember the so-called orphanage he was put into: “I was the only small child there. The rest were the sick, the blind and deaf and crippled and homeless.”
He ended up adopted by a United Nations diplomat from Ghana — Dr. Joseph Annan-Mensah — who was stationed in Ethiopia. “For a year, he brought me to Addis Ababa to the Little Angels Kindergarten in Haile Selassie’s palace,” Edward said. “But then I got sent to Ghana to live with his wife and her children.”
Not knowing the language, culture or anyone in the country, he said he was treated as an outsider by the woman: “My dad was not there and she did not accept me. It was miserable.”
Bradley said he’s told her he was basically “a child slave.” Abraham said Mensah told him he was stricken with malaria and an Australian doctor there saved his life.
Reunited years later back in Ethiopia with his adoptive father, Mensah said he took several courses at a National Cash Register technical school in Addis Ababa.
He ended up coming to Dayton and was married a few years to a woman from Boston, who helped him fill out the paperwork to obtain a green card.
When his father took ill — the elder Mensah now suffers from dementia, said Ghand, who tried unsuccessfully to visit him — Mensah went back to Africa in 1990 to see him.
Returning to Ethiopia to find out about his past, Mensah soon was deported because he’s not considered a citizen in his birth country. He was permitted re-entry into the U.S., Bradley said, because he was in the process of gaining his green card.
Believing he had an open-ended visa, Mensah went about living a public life in Dayton, a city where — working, paying taxes, doing volunteer work — he felt very much a part of the fabric.
“Dayton is where my life is,” he said. “Everybody who cares about me is here.”
Just like family
“This is his seat,” Frank Ghand said as he sat in the living room of his modest East Dayton home and pointed to an over-stuffed chair next to the Christmas tree. “When he comes over, he sits there with his plate of food, his coffee and he talks.”
Becky Ghand nodded: “He’s part of our family.”
The four Ghand children all are college educated. The eldest daughter works for the FDA in Washington, D.C.
The two sons graduated from the University of Cincinnati with one getting a master’s from Wright State and the other from DePaul. The youngest daughter is attending Ohio State.
“Our children said the holidays aren’t the same without Edward.” Becky said. “Every Thanksgiving and Christmas he’s here. We give him a Christmas gift.”
Dr. Julius Amin remembers when he first came to Dayton after getting his Ph.D at Texas Tech. He went to DeWeese Park with a soccer ball:
“I was new here and I thought if I showed up with that soccer ball someone would come up and want to play and I’d meet people. Finally, Edward walked up and said it would be difficult because not many people played soccer here. But he told me about the running group they had and invited me to join them:
The patriarch of the Kilimanjaro runners is 72-year-old Louis Wright, now retired from a civilian job at Wright-Patterson.
“He’s an awful swift runner and he usually leaves us behind,” Wright said. “But two to three times a week, a few of us meet at McDonald’s to drink coffee and shoot the bull, and he’s a regular.
“He always has a book with him. He’s very quiet, but I can’t say enough about him. He’s just the best. And that’s what bothers us. All of us fellas were just kicking it around about the way they just snatched him up and now his life is devastated.”
John Danso — who’s originally from Ghana and worked with Edward in the grocery department at Meijer — said none of Mensah’s friends knew there was an immigration problem:
“Maybe he made a mistake with his green card status when he re-entered the country after seeing his dad long ago. I don’t know, but he never said anything about it. I don’t think he knew. He wasn’t hiding or anything. He was just living his life like everybody else.”
Twice a week — for 30 minutes on Thursday and Sunday — Mensah is allowed visitors from a pre-approved list. This past Thursday I got to talk to him, although not in person.
You go into a room with banks of television screens, some 35 in all, sit down in front of the one you are assigned, pick up a telephone receiver close to a camera lens that’s pointed at you and eventually the inmate’s image from the chest up flickers onto the screen, a telephone receiver in his hand.
Mensah was wearing a yellow and white prison shirt with a white T-shirt beneath it. He held a pencil in his hand — he’d taken notes for this visit — and there was an intensity about him. He had just 30 minutes to talk about his life and his predicament before the screen — with a countdown clock in the corner — would simply go blank.
When the Ghands visited him the day he was jailed, Becky said they all ended up in tears.
“In the beginning, I did cry a lot,” Mensah said. “There are a lot of people with real emotional distress in here. But my first cell mate was a Venezuelan jockey and he comforted me. He told me it’s not the end of life.”
But it is dramatically different than the one he’d been living in Dayton. He now has lost his apartment and many of the belongings — including all his furniture and cookware — that his friends didn’t have room to store.
Someone turned his cat loose, but for a few weeks the abandoned animal was seen near the apartment’s door just waiting for Edward.
Meanwhile, Mensah was sitting in a jail cell “about the size of a large bathroom. … We’re kind of sealed away from everybody and have no access to the outside, no fresh air.
“I’ve never been in anything quite like this, at least not as an adult. It’s kind of bringing back those memories I’d forgotten — how it was in that place they put me in as a little boy back in Ethiopia.”
A heartfelt poem about his plight that he wrote and sent me this week includes the line: “So do free me my captor and my lonely companion and you will soon find me to be St. Paul-hearted.”
More pragmatic than poetic, his lawyer said Mensah’s return to Dayton “is a long shot, but it’s definitely worth the effort because he is not a bad person, committed no crimes here, didn’t try to hide and there is some question if he was properly served notice of that court hearing back in 1990.”
Rather than immediately deport Mensah, Bradley is hoping a judge will reopen the case or, at the least, give him a supervised release so he can “wrap up everything here if he does have to go somewhere, which we’re hoping he does not.”
And if he should get a release, Edward knows what he’ll attend to first.
“I’ve got to go back to my apartment and look for Tiger,” he said in a wavering voice. “They told me he didn’t want to leave, that he kept waiting for me. And I know it’s bad for him now. He doesn’t like the cold. One time I took him out in it and he started sneezing. I love him so much and I have to find him and take him in.
“He shouldn’t be treated like that just because he has nowhere to go.”
Credit: By Tom Archdeacon
Source: Dayton Daily News