Las Vegas Sun

April 18, 2014

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Lost in America

A writer recalls a Las Vegas family ripped apart by the immigration system - and, ultimately, violence

Image

Leila Navidi

Anoush Sarkisian, center, celebrates being back home in Las Vegas with her daughters, from left, Emma, 22; Patricia, 15; Michelle, 17; and Elizabeth, 16, after spending nearly two months in jail in this file photo from April 2009. Anoush, and her other daughter, Mariam (not pictured), were shot and killed at home last week.

Sarkisian

Anoush Sarkisian, 50, who faces deportation next week, rests Thursday at St. Rose Dominican Hospital's San Martin Campus after being admitted with heart problems. Launch slideshow »

The first time I saw her, I was ordering a pizza.

Mariam Sarkisian was a teenager helping her father, who owned the place, a typical pizzeria in a mall in the suburbs of Henderson five or six years ago, when new houses dropped onto streets at an assembly-line rate, transforming the desert into what was supposed to be the future of America.

Months later, in my role as a Las Vegas Sun reporter, I found myself on the phone with Mariam and her sister, Emma, calling me from a Los Angeles jail. Federal immigration authorities were trying to deport them to Armenia, the place they were born but whose language they had only heard relatives speak, a place the two teens had no clear memory of after spending most of their young lives in the United States.

The phone call was the start of the unusual type of long-term relationship a newspaper reporter sometimes develops with his subjects. For the next five years, I entered their lives and they mine: stress and relief, anger and fear, utter panic, near-death. Many times, I felt the embrace of the family’s five sisters, the father, the mother, the aunts, the Russian and Armenian expatriate friends. They baked me cookies, handed me pizza, passed me cups of thick coffee. They cried to me. I cried, too.

That’s all over.

Mariam and her mother, Anoush — the matriarch, the planet around which five moons, her daughters, revolved — are dead.

They were cast as the victims last week in the sort of crime of passion that makes for a feast on the evening news in the metropolis of Las Vegas 2010, with all its problems.

When I heard a distraught boyfriend had shot them after breaking into their home, apparently upset over not seeing the infant daughter he had with Mariam, I flashed back on Emma’s phone call from jail. She told me that the only thing propping up her spirits was Mariam’s imitations of “bad ‘American Idol’ singers.”

They were, after all, typical suburban U.S. teenagers.

Mariam was the creative, artistic performer among the sisters. All of them possessed a haunting, dark-eyed beauty that somehow spoke of times and places long ago and far away from all this.

Mariam came to the phone in jail that day and confided that she didn’t know how to pray, but that her sister was teaching her. “I’m trying to keep a level head,” the 16-year-old said.

What happened afterward is mostly in the public record: my stories for the Sun, television news coverage, stories in other publications, public outcry.

The result was an unprecedented, cinematic last-minute phone call from Sen. Harry Reid to then-Homeland Security Department chief Tom Ridge, who called off the deportation flight.

Someone said the incident’s only parallel in recent history was the Elian Gonzalez case in Miami in 2000.

The family celebrated the return of the girls, the adults drinking and dancing and everyone eating Anoush’s cooking, but years of equally impossible contortions followed, including Anoush getting jailed for two months, then hospitalized, near death, and saved, at the last minute, from deportation. I was told, off the record, by more than one person close to the case that immigration officials were growing to hate this family.

I had met Anoush before her former husband and father of the girls, Rouben, sold his pizzeria, one of those days when it was unclear whether Mariam and Emma were being sent to Armenia. The pizzeria had been converted into an Armenian/Ukrainian/Russian outpost/media circus, as American suburbanites streamed through at all hours to wish the family well and rage against the idea of teenagers, high school students like their own sons and daughters, being kept behind bars over some paperwork.

Anoush only came through the pizzeria once or twice. Her own immigration status was still in question and she knew appearing in public was risky.

She looked drawn, nearly drained. Her energy came from her family, and her family was at risk of being broken apart.

The Sarkisians were living a story that had been seen before: A family comes to the United States, attempts to obtain a way of remaining in the country from immigration authorities — in this case, through a political asylum application filed more than a decade ago — and is denied, only to appeal, which places them squarely in limbo, while they continue building lives, including having children — in this case, the three younger daughters ­— only to receive, one day, a dry order of deportation. And then that is rescinded, other appeals are made.

Years fall away, taxpayer money is spent, both sides argue right and wrong with equal passion.

At one point, I spoke with the family about a raid they said immigration agents made on the house, seeking Anoush. Patricia, the youngest girl, barely into her teens, said agents followed her around the house while she brushed her teeth, getting ready for school.

Last February, authorities caught up with the 50-year-old mother. She spent two months in jail, including, she said, 3 a.m. visits from immigration officials attempting to get her to sign papers needed for her deportation.

She wound up in the hospital, a victim of her bad heart, of stress, mostly. The five girls lived days of panic, unable to obtain an answer from the jail or the federal government about the whereabouts of their mother.

Finally, she was released, again, it appeared, because of last-minute phone calls.

The family had gone through so many cycles of angst and celebration that I remember the hollowness — or maybe it was bitterness — in their voices that day.

I would often think of my own children at home when talking to the girls, about how I, and most parents, struggle to lay some sort of ground floor for building a life, using materials such as hope and optimism. These girls seemed to be losing that fast, focused always on the day in front of them, unsure of anything else.

Several months later, in July, the whir of anxiety repeated. Anoush got a letter telling her to pack her bags in a matter of days. The stress sent her to the hospital once again. And once again, the federal government gave her a stay.

Mariam revealed that the family had not been the same since her mother had left jail, with Anoush closing herself off in silence, staying home, leaving the phone unanswered, depressed. All the while, as always, the five girls tried to build lives, in school, at work, and, in Mariam’s case, with a baby named Soraya.

I didn’t know about Soraya. Early last year, I saw a photo of the baby in their suburban kitchen, the same one that I now imagine stained with the blood of Anoush and Mariam. Emma had waved away my questions about the infant.

Later that day, I think it was this past summer, apparently feeling the weight of her family’s bizarre journey, Mariam, who was 21 at the time, had told me, “I don’t think about the future anymore.”

And I thought: How could she?

Half of my household is from Colombia, so we have endured the immigration system, suffered the arbitrariness, the capricious abuse of power, the lack of clarity or apparent resolution behind seemingly interminable waits, while all you want is what’s best for your family.

But I have never had to explain to my two sons anything remotely resembling the idea that their mother, or their father, or one of them, may have to leave, go to another country, any day now, and never come back. We never lived through raids, jails, early-morning flights.

I could only gain a sense of it through talking to the Sarkisians, through my half-decade of reporting on the intersection of a family and the system.

Anoush sent cookies, rich in butter and dusted with white, powdered sugar, to the newsroom, to me. Everyone that day took at least one, took away a piece of her gratitude granted to me just for being someone in the vast universe of government agencies, lawyers, courts, senators and television stations who was trying to keep up with it all.

Patricia, the youngest of the daughters, was in elementary school when she wrote a letter to President George W. Bush pleading with him to let her big sisters out of jail. Now a teenager and nearly a woman, she was the only one home when Anoush and Mariam were killed. She heard the gunshots, saw her mother and sister on the floor.

She and her other sisters are moving through different houses now, somehow making a new world that doesn’t include the only thing for which they were suffering all these years — to keep the family intact.

Emma has a court date soon, involving her own immigration status.

That court date was for Anoush as well. Only hours before she was shot, Anoush left church, optimistic for the first time in months about finally finding resolve in the world of laws, finally finding peace in her house.

That day, Mariam spent some time as many young American girls do, on her MySpace page. She wrote: “livin life to the fullest ... and loveing every moment ... its a new year and a new me ...”

— This story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly

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