Home at last: Denisenko savors first day as a free man
While federal officials kept him in a detention center, Gennady Denisenko may have lost five-and-a-half months of his life as a free man, but one thing he didn't lose was his sense of humor. To celebrate his first day at home after his ordeal, the UVA Hospital Russian interpreter and Ph.D. candidate chose to don a Cavalier-themed t-shirt emblazoned with the words "look 'hoos back..."
"I saw it in my drawer this morning," he says. "It made me smile."
Indeed, Denisenko says he's been all smiles since the federal government decided to re-open his case to remain in the United States two weeks ago. However, the paperwork took some time to process, so Wednesday was the day he finally got to reunite with his wife at Dulles Airport near Washington.
"When I got off the plane, I was so excited, I ran past her trying to find her," says Denisenko. "But she saw me and called my name, and then everything was slow motion. There's no sound anymore. And then I hug her for a long time, just to establish reality."
"It was pure disbelief," says wife, Melinda. "I didn't want to close my eyes."
But it was no dream. Denisenko was finally free from the custody of Homeland Security after Immigration and Customs Enforcement put him in handcuffs and led him away to be deported. This, despite the fact that Denisenko had lived in the United States ever since defecting from the Soviet Union in 1991 and married an American citizen in 2002, something he and his wife had tried to bring to the federal government's attention since their wedding.
As the Hook reported in September, the Denisenkos thought that they were finally going to be able offer proof of their marriage when Citizenship and Immigration Services summoned the couple to its Fairfax office on April 30, ostensibly for an interview. However, this turned out to be a ruse, and Denisenko was detained along with approximately 100 other immigrants who were there for the same kind of meeting.
Denisenko would spend the next two months in the City of Virginia Beach Jail and another three-and-a-half months at the Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas. Even though he was mere days from deportation at one point, Denisenko says he never lost hope.
"All there was to do," he says, "was read the Bible and pray for God's presence."
Denisenko is a deacon at First Baptist Church, where he will attend his first service since his detention on Sunday. His faith, he says, was also what allowed him to connect with his fellow, mostly Mexican prisoners.
"One of the first things I did," he says, "was ask the chaplain for a Bible in English and a Bible in Spanish, so we could all get together and read. I learned a little, and I hope to keep learning it."
This was not Denisenko's first time in prison. When he was in his native Russia, Denisenko spent half of the '80s in a Soviet gulag in Siberia, allegedly for taking a bribe in his capacity as an assistant district attorney– a charge he denies to this day, instead contending that it was his interest in Western democracy and culture that landed him in prison. Either way, he says, his most recent incarceration experience can’t compare with the subzero temperatures and hard labor of those days, but, he adds, life in American prison comes with a different set of challenges.
"When you think you'll never see your home again, it feels like a physical pain," he says. "You try to stay in shape by doing push-ups, sit-ups, and walking around when you have the chance, but they wake you up at 4am, they put you to bed at 11pm, and they wake you up at 2am for a bed check, so you can't sleep."
The experience was not entirely different from Siberia, however.
"My cell was right by the air conditioner," says Denisenko, "so because there are so many people, they have to blast it at 55 degrees, and all they give you to wear is this thin jumpsuit. Siberia was colder, but I had blankets and warm clothes there. Here I got kidney stones from the cold."
That's not to mention the psychological strain.
"You're not an individual anymore," Denisenko says. "Things you take for granted are taken away: choosing how to dress, when you can go to the restroom, when you sleep. You're just part of the crowd."
But Tuesday evening, Denisenko finally got his first glimpse of sunlight in some time.
"When they led me outside, I could see a 300-yard road to freedom," he says. "The sun was setting over this big, Texas plain, and the clouds were low, making a beautiful sunset. They left me at a gas station, where I was to meet a bus to go to the airport, and the first thing I did was call my wife and say, 'I'm out!'"
While he's waiting to have his hearing in front of a federal immigration judge in which he intends to prove the legitimacy of his marriage as a means of getting a green card, Denisenko says he can't wait for his life to get back to normal.
"I'm hoping to go back to work at the hospital on Monday," he says, "They can't pay me yet, because they're still working out the paperwork, but I can't wait to get back to work."
Still, it may be some time before his life is completely as it was before April 30. Yesterday morning, while standing in line at McDonald's for his first cup of coffee as a free man, he had an unusual experience.
"I heard someone say my name," says Denisenko, "and I look and it's someone I've never met before saying, 'Gennady! I read about you in the paper! You're back!'"
Should a judge grant his motion for permanent residency, Denisenko says he'll be back for good.
"I was born in Russia," he says, "but my heart is American, and this is my home."