After his village was set afire--after his wife, son and brother died, his father was arrested and disappeared and his neighbors said soldiers were looking for him--Moses Cirrilo decided it was time to leave.
He says he walked more than 300 miles from his home in southern Sudan to neighboring Ethiopia, where European aid workers got him false Ghanian papers, money to pay his way to Finland and a plane ticket from Helsinki to New York.
So began an odyssey that has ended, for now, in limbo: a tiny cell in a county jail in Vermont, a place far from home where the 30-year-old sub-Saharan African reads his Bible and watches the snow fall outside his window.
"I see it coming down from the sky," he said slowly in English as his fingers did a descending dance in the air to demonstrate. He never has felt snow in his hands, or crunching beneath his feet, or melting on his cheeks. "I would like to touch it," he said softly.
Accused of entering this country illegally, Moses Cirrilo has spent 11 months at the Lamoille County Detention Center, designed as a short-term lockup with no recreation facilities, library or regular visiting hours.
A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington said the INS has more than 5,000 aliens locked up on a typical day, many of them--though she could not say how many--scattered around the country in small, rural jails like Lamoille County's.
Groups that monitor immigration issues say dispersing detainees to rural areas frequently keeps them isolated from friends and family who have successfully entered the country, as well as from legal help.
In Vermont, about two dozen INS detainees currently are housed in Lamoille County and at the Orleans County jail in Newport, many of them sent north after they were arrested in New York and Boston, officials said.
Cirrilo says he has no money and no home he can return to safely. More than 500,000 people are reported to have died in Sudan in the last 10 years in a war of ethnic cleansing waged by the Islamic government against black Christians in the south.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas Anderson said in court papers that Cirrilo arrived at Kennedy Airport saying he was Peter Owusu, a Ghanian who had spent the previous six years in Finland.
It was only after immigration officials determined that he had an altered passport that he told them he was Moses Cirrilo, a refugee from Sudan. Anderson said in court papers that "it should be noted that the petitioner has presented no evidence, other than his say-so, that he is Moses Cirrilo or that he is from the Sudan."
Anderson is asking the federal court in Burlington to deny Cirrilo the political asylum hearing he is seeking and order him deported.
But lawyer Robert Bensing and paralegal Jean Lathrop of the Vermont Immigration Project are convinced. They have been working with Cirrilo since last summer, trying to lead him through the bureaucratic labyrinth in which many aliens deemed unfit for admission to the United States find themselves.
They argue that those fleeing oppression abroad frequently try to enter the United States with false papers. "If the government is after you, you can't very well go and ask it for the proper papers," Lathrop said.
She added: "We think Moses has a very strong case. And the bottom line--and this is what pushes us--is, we really think there's a very good chance that he would be killed if he were returned to the Sudan."
A more immediate concern is the conditions under which Cirrilo and his fellow detainees are living.
INS pays the Lamoille County Sheriff's Department $47 a day for each of the dozen detainees in the lockup, said Sheriff Gardner Manosh. The department collected $160,000 in INS payments two years ago.
The overcrowded Vermont corrections system won't send inmates to Lamoille. A corrections spokesman said that the jail is considered geographically isolated even by Vermont standards.
Norman Henry, the INS officer in charge in Vermont, acknowledged the jail's limitations. "It's designed for people to be there two or three months at best, maybe a lot less than that," he said.
The jail has no recreation aside from television, no library, no workshop or kitchen where detainees can do something useful. Food is brought in from a nearby restaurant owned by the sheriff's wife.
"The food is not my food," Cirrilo said.
During an interview in the stark, windowless room where detainees eat, Cirrilo said he had not been outside for exercise since arriving last May.
Although state corrections officials frequently let reporters tour cell blocks, Manosh would not, citing safety. Cirrilo said his cell was as long as the bunk bed that lines one wall, and also included a toilet.
Manosh said he didn't understand why there would be any complaint. "It's a warm jail, it's clean. They get three squares a day plus snacks. Their medical stuff is all met. They get emergency dental. . . . We have people living in this country who don't get that themselves."
He added: "If you were in jail in their country, you wouldn't be treated that well, I can guarantee you."
In fact, the jail has not soured Cirrilo on Vermont. If released he says he will stay here, near his friends Lathrop and Bensing, "and work and if I have a chance, to learn something in school."