Oregon's foster care system has grabbed a lot of headlines in the past few months. None of them has been positive, thanks to the lax oversight of some providers.
But foster mother Jeska Dalizu's extraordinary advocacy on behalf of children and others in need—including refugees and people with serious mental illness—deserves our praise.
Back in June, WW brought readers the story of Billal, a refugee boy from Somalia who arrived alone in the U.S. in 2015 with no family to turn to. Federal officials welcomed him as an unaccompanied refugee child and sent him to live in Oregon with Dalizu. Within months of arriving, however, federal officials tossed the teenager into lock up on the allegation he was 18, not 17. Their evidence? Dental records that examined the growth of his wisdom teeth (See "Pulling Teeth," WW, June 15, 2016).
At that point, Dalizu's role as foster mom ended. Technically, at least: She no longer received any financial support for helping Billal.
But Dalizu knew intimately what it was like to be on one's own in a foreign country. She moved to the U.S. from Kenya in the '70s at age 15, and after her brother returned to her birth country two years later, she was left here alone. But she persevered, working odd jobs to put herself through college and eventually graduating from Portland State University on her way to a long career in banking and financial services. But she still remembered what it was like to be on her own.
"I was the only person he knew," she says of Billal. "How do you leave a child to just sit in prison?"
Dalizu didn't. She relentlessly worked the phones, calling and emailing U.S. senators and the governor's office. Eventually, she found the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a nonprofit legal services group in Washington that works with detainees at the federal immigration detention center in Tacoma.
Tim Warden-Hertz, a lawyer with the group, says about 6,000 detainees pass through the detention center every year. About 70 to 75 percent of those immigrants facing deportation never get a lawyer, he estimates. And it's possible Billal would have been part of that statistic if it hadn't been for Dalizu. Warden-Hertz had already reviewed Billal's case by the time Dalizu reached him by phone, but her anger helped cement his commitment.
"Talking to her made me even more outraged," he says.
Two months later, after the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a lawsuit, federal officials finally released Billal to Dalizu's care.
"I can describe what she's done," Billal says, "but that would not be enough. I've never met such a good person like her in my life."