Part 2 of our interview Khalil and Chamika Cumberbatch. Read Part 1.
Chamika: No, we were divorced…I pretty much kept tabs on him through a girl that was working in the prison. I found out that he was coming home, and I started looking him up on the Internet trying to find out where he would be and stuff like that. His number had changed, so I found out his current number when he came home.
Marlon: Were you thinking about Chamika when you first came out?
Khalil: Yeah, definitely. I mean I still had some unresolved resentment. I didn’t fully understand all of the things she had went through, largely, because she did not have the time to explain to me all of the things happening to her.
Chamika: I think the unresolved issues that he was talking about are after we separated and got divorced, I had a daughter. He used to tell me, “If you had a baby with another person, there is no way that I would be with you.” So, the fact that I had a child was very rough for him. That was a struggle. That was one of the main struggles he was having when he came home. He just could not understand, “how could you have a baby for someone else?” We struggled for a while and one day we had a disagreement about it again, and I told him, “I didn’t have that baby for someone else; I had that baby for myself.” She gave me what I felt that you took away. She gave that back to me.
Marlon: When did you find out that she had another child?
Chamika: In jail
Khalil: I was at Greenhaven.
Chamika: His friend told him, or was it when I applied for public assistance, they wrote him and it was so embarrassing. That was not the way I wanted him to find out. Especially, like, you have a baby and now you are on public assistance, this is crazy.
Piper: That’s because you were still married?
C: No, because the divorce wasn’t final.
K: I thought, “What the fuck is happening out there”? Like, really? This shit is falling apart.
M: So in your mind it didn’t really fall apart yet. Although you sent the divorce papers in your mind, there was still something there.
C: We’ve always said that though. In the end, we always said we were going to find a way back to that good place even after the divorce, I loved him so much and I know he loved me. We were going to find a way back to that place.
P: So you never lost faith?
C: No, I didn’t, but then after I had Mia, my first daughter, I just wrote that off because I knew he did not want me to have a child by someone else. He said, “when I come home, even if we are destined to be together, you have a baby and I’m not going to do it.”
K: That speaks to the realization that I had not reached full transformation. Now, that is something that I just couldn’t fathom myself saying, but that was a principle that I believed wholeheartedly. Like I believe that blue is blue.
M: So did you feel like you won? You beat the system? It was a victory at that point?
C: Yeah, I definitely felt like I won. I felt like he was like superman. When he came home, I was in a DV shelter. Literally, what he said, like “what’s going on out there”. My life was a wreck. My daughter had gotten sick and she was with her biological father and he did not take her to the hospital for four days. Not realizing that the damage that was being done. He did bring her back and she was in the hospital for 17 days after that and she had a fever and it caused loss of oxygen to the brain, so after that I had to take myself away from that situation because I was going to kill him.
Detectives came to my house to see me and my mom had told him I was out. I walked to the precinct with Mia. When I came there I was crying, I had a black eye, I had scratches all over my neck because I had gotten into a fight with him. The officer told me, I came to arrest you for stabbing him. I was like “what”. I had over 20 domestic violence cases with him and I was like “you guys have never come to defend me and here you are going to take my child away from me,” and I was crying for hours and he told me, “I am going to let you go, but I never want to see you with him ever again.”
I left the precinct and that night I went home and called the domestic violence shelter because I felt like that was my only way out. He [Mia’s father] would attack me on the street and it just got so bad between me and him where I felt like killing him was my only route and I felt like I can’t do that. I ended up going into a shelter. I was there for about a year, moving from the Bronx to Brooklyn and I wasn’t doing much.
I wasn’t making much progress. I had dropped out of school and was just working. No goals, no nothing, just paycheck to paycheck. Wandering. I just got to feed my daughter, that’s it. At that point Mia was diagnosed on the spectrum of autism because of the fever. She was nonverbal, wouldn’t say a thing. She wouldn’t go to the bathroom on her own. She had witnessed so much violence between me and her father that she literally shut down. In one of her IEPs it said that she has mastered zoning out.
P: How old was she?
C: She was two and a half. Then, when Khalil came home, I explained to him, “I am in a shelter”. There weren’t many questions about it. He never really asked about her father, or anything like that. It was just like, “let’s go on a date.”
I remember the first day we decided to go out on our first date since he’d been home and I brought Mia along. He wasn’t like “what is she doing here? Eventually, Mia began connecting with Khalil. I will never forget when she called him “daddy”. It was amazing.
Remember, she was nonverbal. The doctors are telling me she needs to be on medication and all types of stuff and here she is, the same little girl I was at 14 just needing that love. Just missing that void, that same thing that I was missing. It was just amazing, Their relationship helped her get off the spectrum of autism. She just started to blossom into who she is now. I’ve always told him, I felt like he was my hero again. He saved me when I was 14 and then he saved me again.
K: Yeah, for me, Mia represented accountability. I think it is really easy for us to go everyday and do this work and know that we do it for the greater good and know that we do it because we are fighting against systems and we know that we do it because we are trying to help people, but it is different when you come home and you look at a little person and it’s like “wow”, like, to a certain extent, it is like, I’m doing this for you. I needed that accountability and she needed someone to hold accountable. She needed someone who would bring stability to her life.
M: So now, May 2014 comes and immigration takes Khalil to detention…
C: We wake up and it literally was like a nightmare. I remember I turned to him, and the first thing I said was, “not again.
K: I think that this time was so different for both of us because we were a family at this point. We had two children; we had built this life for ourselves. To know that my wife is going to come home at night and to know that her husband is going to come home at night that is a comfort. That is something that you look forward to and May 10th just changed all of that.
During detention in immigration, there were some days just knowing the fact that we loved each other was the only thing that kept us going—the only thing. There were days that I had just given up and the only thing I knew that I had was I knew that my wife loved me.
C: I told him they are not going to take away the love we have for each other. They can’t take away all the accomplishments like our union, our family. They can put space and time in between us, but it’s not going to take away what we have built. Meaning our life, meaning our love.They are never going to take that away. It is like power. It is like knowledge. They are never going to take that away from you because they can’t take away what we have.
I constantly felt like I had to remind him sometimes because they will destroy you in there. I mean, you are in a place where you don’t even have sunlight. I have never seen him at that point. I just had to be his friend and let him vent and say whatever it is that he had to say and then be like “are you done because we need to talk about what our next plan is to get you out of there.”
K: Chamika is undoubtedly the strongest person that I know. I mean undoubtedly. She held us together. I am sitting here as a representation of all the work that she did. I have spoken to advocates, people who do this work for a living and they are like, “we need to hire her.” Her passion and her drive for fighting for me, but also for fighting against the system is ferocious. It is encouraging hearing that. One, because I know that is my partner. That is the person that is going to motivate me when I feel like I can’t go further, and because I know that it is representative of the love that she has for me.
M: The system wasn’t a worthy opponent at this time?
C: No, not at all. It was like, “okay, that’s what you’ve got. You are going to adjourn it for another 30 days. Okay, give me what you’ve got.”
K: But now, January 2015, we look back and say “wow, that was probably the toughest fight we had to fight. But, we were so well prepared and it was so different than the last time. More importantly, we had great people around us to like you prop us up.
C: Real friends this time. Seriously. Because the day that I met Marlon. I never met him in my life. Before we even get out of court the first day, he was trying to find ways and means that my children could survive. He is like, I worked out for you to get something from someone. It was money, but no one had thought of that. I mean, before I left the court, he was on it. Like he never met me, or anything like that. Like, no one knew me, I never met any of these people in my life, but they were actually there for me more than people I have known all my life, so it was like, what love can really do. I have said this before at College Initiative graduation: although I felt like I lost my husband and he wasn’t there, I gained so much love, and family and people I will carry for the rest of my life. This is something I will never, ever forget.
M: You have dealt with the criminal justice system. You have dealt with the child welfare system. You have dealt with the immigration system and none of that was able to sort of topple you and I think that is tremendous. That is bedrock.
K: These are all things we think of…how much I really love Chamika. How she tolerates me through all my shortcomings and through my flaws, but to have opportunities like this to articulate yourself where your partner can hear that and to be appreciative of that and to understand that “you mean a lot to me”.
C: And I think we are going to love each other a lot more after this.
About Khalil and Chamika:
Chamika Cumberbatch is a college student, mother of two and life-partner. Her interests in social justice comes from her personal experiences with the systems that interact with one another resulting in mass criminalization, incarceration, and marginalization. She aims to continue to be involved in the movements that seek to bring about change for the betterment of society.
Khalil A. Cumberbatch is a formerly incarcerated advocate for social justice movements within the NYC area. He has worked within the re-entry community in NYC since 2010 when he was released after serving almost seven years in the NYS prison system. Since his release Khalil has worked with various non-profits as a service provider, policy analytic, advisor, board member, collaborator, and consultant.