Federal immigration officials deported yesterday a popular Fenway High School teacher, whose fight against a final deportation order had garnered the support of his passionate students and the state's top political leaders over the last several years.
Obain Attouoman, who is in his mid-40s, was expected to board an airplane in New York last night, destined to return to his homeland, Ivory Coast.
Family, friends, and colleagues fear for his safety. Attouoman's involvement in a politically active teachers union in Ivory Coast and an insurgent opposition political party almost cost him his life, prompting him to flee in the early 1990s.
"The deportation has caught us all by surprise," said Peggy Kemp, headmaster at Fenway High School. "We are worried about him."
Federal immigration officials took custody of Attouoman Tuesday morning during a routine check-in with immigration officials at their offices in Burlington.
Paula Grenier, a spokeswoman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that as a matter of policy she could not discuss details of a deportation case. However, she added, "That individual is in ICE custody and has a final order of removal that was issued by an impartial federal immigration judge, and it's ICE's job to enforce the judicial order."
Attouoman's departure last night was much more subdued than his near-deportation in March 2005. Students, colleagues, and other supporters held several rallies that gained news media attention. In response, US Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry filed legislation that would have made Attouoman a resident. The pending legislation delayed Attouoman's departure.
However, the bill expired last year because Congress never acted on it, said Attouoman's lawyer, Susan Cohen.
"He knew the deportation could happen any time," Cohen said last night.
Nevertheless, "it's still terrible," she added. "He handed me his wallet and car keys. They took him away, and they didn't let me speak to him."
Attouoman came to America on an exchange visa in the early 1990s and sought political asylum. Along the way, though, he misread a notice in which he was given a court hearing date to argue his case, leading a judge to order his deportation.
A math and special education teacher, Attouoman had a bond with his students. He was known around the school for his dark pinstripe suits, prompting students to coin a word for dressing sharply, Obaining.
Many of the students, who are either immigrants or the children of immigrants, could empathize with his deportation plight, and Attouoman considered them to be angels for helping him stave off the initial deportation.
Attouoman also taught at the Mary Lyon K-8 School in Brighton.
"He's very well respected and is a very good teacher," Kemp said. "He is a very warm, likable human being."
Kemp said it was difficult delivering the news to students and staff, especially on a day students began taking state standardized tests in math. Passing those MCAS tests is a state graduation requirement and Attouoman worked tirelessly to help his students succeed.
During his extended stay in the United States, Attouoman married a US citizen about a year-and-a-half ago, his lawyer said. His wife filed paperwork with federal authorities so Attouoman could receive a residency status that is typically granted to foreigners married to US residents, but the government has not yet acted on the request, Cohen said. "We will fight to bring him back," she said.
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com.