A hearing in the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas lasted for nearly three hours Sept. 8 over a motion to vacate a conviction for Isse Mohamed, a Louisville, Ky. man who now claims he was a minor at the time he committed a crime.
Mohamed is serving a three-year prison sentence at London Correctional Facility for two felony charges for failure to comply and receiving stolen property.
Immigration documents issued to the family of refugees allegedly gives each family member the same birthday of Jan. 1, and family members testified Tuesday that they were told by immigration case workers that they could get their birth certificates from Somalia and Kenya later and update their information in the United States.
Mohamed originally said he was 19-years-old at the time the incidents occurred, and testified during the hearing that he was using the birthday that the immigration officials put on his green card, which was allegedly an estimation of his date of birth by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
Mohamed’s mother and father testified, saying that they were forced to flee from Somalia in the late 1990s.
When asked for the birth dates of his children, Mohamed’s father, Abdullahi Jama, said he couldn’t remember.
“We were running from bullets,” said Jama, talking through a Somali interpreter who was called in on tele-conference for the hearing.
Tens of thousands of Somalis died from starvation during the Somali Civil War, a fact Jama pointed out when he was asked why he came to the United States.
“We came here so we won’t be hungry anymore,” said Jama during his testimony Tuesday.
Somalia’s civil war, considered more dangerous than Haiti, Iraq, or Afghanistan, was considered a no-go zone for aid workers and American soldiers going back to the “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993, according to reporter Jeffrey Gentleman, who won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for his coverage of Somalia in 2011.
“This leaves millions of famished Somalis with two choices, aside from fleeing the country to neighboring Kenya or Ethiopia, where there is more assistance,” wrote Gentleman Aug. 2, 2011. “They can beg for help from a weak and divided transitional government in Mogadishu, the capital. Just the other day there was a shootout between government forces at the gates of the presidential palace. ‘Things happen,’ was the response of Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, Somalia’s new prime minister. Or they can remain in territory controlled by the Shabab, who have pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda and have tried to rid their areas of anything Western — Western music, Western dress, even Western aid groups during a time of famine.”
Mohamed’s parents testified they fled from Somalia to Kenya. They lived in Kenyan refugee camps, giving birth to five of their children – Mohamed being one of their children born in the refugee camp.
Mohamed’s mother, Aliya Mohamed, said during the hearing, “I came here with my husband and five children. We came here as refugees, we went through a lot of problems there.”
As refugees, Aliya said the immigration officials didn’t ask for any birth certificates for the children when they were issued green cards to the United States. The family testified that on each of their government-issued green cards, all of their birth dates were recorded as Jan. 1 with different years approximating their ages.
“They didn’t ask for any (birth certificates) but I was told if when I get my citizenship, my cousin can send them,” said Aliya. She said an agency in Kenya would have documents and birth certificates on the children, but so far, the court has not received an official copy of those records.
And while Aliya said she doesn’t remember the year Isse Mohamed was born, Mohamed’s father testified that he also did not remember his son’s birth date and said the immigration case worker gave the family a “bag of documents” along with green cards when they came to the United States in 2004.
“We don’t celebrate birthdays. We just know what month someone was born,” said Jama.
He said they just learned about birthdays in this country.
“It’s a completely different way of doing things in the United States. That is the Somali way,” said Jama, answering a question as to how old Mohamed was when he came into the United States.
Jama said Mohamed was 6-years-old—which would have put him at 17-years-old when the incident in Clinton and Fayette counties occurred.
Mohamed’s sister, Farhiya Mohamed, testified she was born in Kenya and said her date of birth on her green card is different than the date of birth on her birth certificate. She said her birth certificate was mailed to her from Kenya a few months ago.
“When I was in high school, that’s when I realized by birth date was wrong,” said Farhiya, who said she told Mohamed’s attorneys, Mary King and Susan Wollscheid, that his birth date on his Kentucky-issued identification card was not correct.
When the family came into the United States, they said they lived in Virginia and moved to Louisville, Ky. The family testified that the state of Kentucky issued Mohamed his state identification card using the information on his green card, which had the same Jan. 1 birth date as the rest of the family with an approximate year of birth.
Law enforcement testified at the hearing that they contacted the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, who said Mohamed was 19-years-old, based on information they had recorded from Mohamed’s green card and state identification card. Mohamed has been charged as an adult on a pending case in Kentucky, according to court records.
Mohamed was arrested in 2015 after a high-speed chase with the Ohio State Highway Patrol through Clinton and Fayette counties. Mohamed was driving a stolen Subaru Legacy with a 9mm handgun found inside the vehicle, and another located behind a garage where two passengers had ran and hid, according to police reports.
Mohamed later told law enforcement that he was 17-years-old following a preliminary hearing in the Clinton County Municipal Court April 10, 2015.
He was indicted April 24, 2015 on five felony charges by a Fayette County grand jury stemming from the incident, including improperly handling a firearm in a motor vehicle and endangering children; the passengers in the Subaru were both under the age of 18. The charges in Clinton County were dismissed May 6, 2015.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Mohamed testified he doesn’t remember when he came to the United States or how old he was, nor does he remember if he received any special documents when he arrived.
He said he always used the green card he was issued with the Jan.1 birth date and did not have any other official documents that show a different birth date.
“The day the judge sentenced me, Susan (Wollscheid) told me she told the judge I was underage and the judge didn’t want to believe it,” said Mohamed. Once he was at the Corrections Reception Center (CRC) in London, Mohamed said he talked to someone with immigration there, who told him a lot of people come from other countries with the wrong age, it’s nothing new.
“The woman called my people in Kenya,” said Mohamed. He was told that the birth date on his Kenyan birth certificate is Feb. 26, 1998.
If the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas receives an official birth certificate record, not a photo copy of it as they have so far, it could prove that Mohamed was in fact 17-years-old at the time of the offense.
Mohamed said he spent six months in a room by himself separated from the adults and juveniles in the CRC detention facility while the Ohio Bureau of Rehabilitation and Corrections sent a copy of his Kenyan birth certificate to immigration. He said immigration sent a copy to his attorney at the time, Susan Wollscheid, but he said she didn’t do anything about it, so the family got another attorney from the Office of the Ohio Public Defender. A motion to vacate the conviction was filed Oct. 23, 2015.
Katherine Lazarow, the assistant public defender in the juvenile division of the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, was appointed as counsel in March to represent Mohamed’s request to vacate the conviction.
The case is scheduled to continue pending receipt of legal memorandums from both sides.
Reach Ashley at the Record-Herald (740) 313-0355 or on Twitter @ashbunton