The opera singer draws her breathe, and exhales. Then, a powerful voice bursts from her core.
“You now sue and you now win on my son’s broken back.”
It’s a voice she inherited from her grandmother who encouraged her to sing while they worked in the fields of Lesotho in southern Africa.
She sings for herself. To heal the wounds from her past and present. She sings to cope with her most recent loss. The deportation of her son, the one she had hoped would lead a better life in the United States.
“Here is your share and where is his share on my son’s broken back.”
She sings for her son, whose mind and body she says was injured. She sings for the gulf between them.
“Bring him back, bring him back if you care for his son’s broken back.”
As her song fills an empty recital hall in Murray, rehearsing for an upcoming opera performance, her powerful voice is a reflection of the strong woman she’s had to become to endure the hardships of her life.
Preserving A Family
When Victoria Sethunya, 51, of Salt Lake City, celebrates Mother’s Day this weekend, she’ll be singing to her oldest son, Moeti Christopher Mohlakola.
He’ll be thousands of miles away, back to their native South Africa, the land he was deported to a little more than a year ago.
Mohlakola, 32, had been struggling with addiction after he was prescribed opioid medications to treat back pain. The addiction led to an arrest and, ultimately, his deportation before his mother, a substitute teacher in the Granite School District, could say goodbye.
It is not the life the former Mormon woman imagined for her family when she emigrated to Utah in 1998. She left Lesotho to escape the violence stemming from the country’s political strife at the time. She also wanted to get away from an abusive ex-husband whom she said was still threatening her after their marriage was dissolved.
“For me, it’s most demoralizing that this is happening here in Utah because I thought it was here that my family would be preserved,” the Salt Lake City mother of three said.
The African immigrant has found happiness — and sorrow — in her new life in the United States. The bad times have left her more scars, and shaken her faith — but not her love for her son.
‘My Heaven Was Starting To Happen’
She came to Utah on a student visa to restart her life with her children, who joined her as dependants. It was a good move, and things were going well for the family. Sethunya pursued a bachelor’s degrees in English, chemistry and a master’s degree in criminal justice at Weber State University.
Mohlakola was also thriving in school. As a high school senior in 2006, he was recognized by then-Utah Gov. Olene Walker for his academic achievements.
“It was beautiful,” Sethunya said. ”My heaven was starting to happen.”
But the family’s luck took a turn after Sethunya was nearly deported when her student records at the university vanished in 2006, putting her F-1 student immigration status in jeopardy. The university said it started using a new software and sent instructions to international students to ensure that their records transferred.
University officials said Sethunya didn’t follow those instructions. She, in turn, blames Weber State for the error and the fallout that came with it. The mixup spurred her to become an activist and speak out against injustices toward immigrants and other minority groups.
But Sethunya’s struggles and trauma didn’t end there. She would later be granted U nonimmigrant status after being sexually assaulted between 2006 and 2008, according to documents provided to KUER.
Her thoughtful and caring son, who would help their neighbors shovel snow during the winter, fell into addiction. Her heart broke even more when Mohlakola was deported last January.
“I just felt my stomach was torn into two parts. I just couldn’t handle the stress of everything that the whole moment put me through,” Sethunya said.
A Lapse In Judgment
Mohlakola’s struggle with addiction began between 2010 and 2011. He’d injured his back while doing heavy lifting for his job at an Ogden warehouse. He was prescribed opioids to treat pain.
“I was on and off the medications for a while,” Mohlakola said in a phone interview from South Africa.
The work became too painful, and Mohlakola decided to quit the job. But he still craved the medications. In April 2017 he went with friends to the Rio Grande district in Salt Lake City, looking for drugs.
“We went down there and we got caught,” he said.
Law enforcement was cracking down on crime and drug use in the area and Mohlakola was arrested. It came at the worst time for him.
After the mixup over his mother’s student visa, Mohlakola had applied for and benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, an Obama-era program that shielded from deportation some young adults brought to the United States as minors. But he’d let his status lapse, and the protection had expired months before he was jailed.
He tried to renew his DACA protection but the U.S. government denied him. He was then deported. Mohlakola’s removal from the United States, which happened before mother and son could say goodbye, left an emotional scar for both of them.
Pain, But No Relief
Months after Mohlakola’s deportation, the state of Utah and several counties including Salt Lake filed lawsuits against opioid manufacturers like Purdue Pharma. It gave Sethunya some hope. She thought it might be a way to help her, and her son.
Nearly half of all fatal opioid overdoses in Utah annually occur in Salt Lake County, it said in lawsuit filed April 2018. It claims that manufacturers “downplayed the serious risk of addiction.”
“We have a community of citizens who are being processed through our criminal justice system, who are in dire need of treatment and all their collateral consequence of their addiction … impacts us disportionately as a Salt Lake County,” said Salt Lake County Attorney Sim Gill.
Purdue Pharmacy has denied the allegations.
Sethunya wonders where immigrants like her 32-year-old son, who are also victims of the opioid crisis, fit in these lawsuits across the state. She thinks it should be county’s responsibility to help her son through his recovery even though he is no longer in the country. She’s asked the county twice to let her join in on its lawsuit, but the county rejected her requests.
Sethunya can file her own lawsuit but can’t join the county’s litigation, Gill said.
“We are county attorneys, we are government attorneys, and we are representing institutions and we don’t represent individual people,” he said.
This frustrates Sethunya.
“I feel like they are going to win, and they are going to benefit from my son’s broken back because my son was prescribed opioids for his back pain,” she said.
Even though she was unable to join the county’s lawsuit, Sethunya said she won’t give up. She doesn’t lose hope that they will be reunited again someday.
“If there is anything that will stop me fighting for my son, it’s the day that I cease to exist,” Sethunya said.
Healing Through Song
The situation inspired her to write a song. Sethunya always used singing as a way to cope with the trauma that she has faced in her life.
“This is what helps maintain sanity through the triggering of my PTSD,” Sethunya.
Music also connects with her family, like her grandmother who first told her to sing to make herself feel better.
Before he was deported, Sethunya would sing to Mohlakola at night to help him sleep. But now, being so far, she can’t do that anymore for her son, who said he’s still mentally wounded from effects of the opioid medications.
During a phone call with his mom in April, Mohlakola told Sethunya that he appreciates everything that she is trying to do for him, even while they are thousands of miles apart.
“I think the world needs people like you mom,” he told his mother. “People that stand up and speak up for their families.”