RALEIGH — Gulalay Bahawdory had been happy. She had a husband who adored her, a job she enjoyed and a modest, red-brick home in a quiet neighborhood where she was respected and well-liked.
On Oct. 8, just after daybreak, police found the 60-year-old woman’s body floating in Lake Lynn in North Raleigh. Police do not think foul play was involved, but have stopped short of calling her death a suicide while awaiting confirmation from the state medical examiner’s office.
But her husband, Bashir Mohammed Bahawdory, said his wife was frightened about being deported back to Afghanistan after federal immigration officials launched an investigation six months ago to determine if she had lied on a citizenship application.
“She was worried about it,” Bahawdory said this week while sitting in the kitchen of the home on Waterbury Road that he shared with his wife of seven years. “You could see it in her face that she was worried. She thought about it all the time and asked, ‘Why? Why?’ We are all human. Maybe she thought, ‘This is a solution.’”
Bashir Bahawdory said his wife was “especially frightened” about the repression of women in Afghanistan by the Taliban, a militant, fundamentalist group that has imposed strict Islamic law in parts of the country. Women cannot work, attend school or go outside their homes unless they are covered with a traditional burqa garment and accompanied by a male relative.
“She knew it was not a good situation,” he said. “She watched the news. She was upset about that.”
Gulalay Bahawdory became a U.S. citizen in 2009. But her fears about being sent back to her native country by federal authorities were not unfounded, said Jorgelina E. Araneda, a Raleigh immigration attorney the couple hired.
“The end result of everything could have been deportation,” Araneda said on Thursday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials would not speculate on the outcome of their investigation, which was launched in April after they found a discrepancy on a citizenship application she submitted in 2001. But, said Vincent Picard, an ICE spokesman in Atlanta, “fraudulently acquiring legal status in the United States is a crime that almost always results in deportation.”
Gulalay Bahawdory grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan, and moved to the United States in the early 1990s. Before arriving in America, she had lived in Europe and earned a master’s degree in international economics from a university in Bulgaria, her husband said.
Her visa expired in 2000, and Gulalay Bahawdory applied for political asylum under the name Mahbooba Arman. Federal immigration officials took her fingerprints to accompany the application.
Bashir Bahawdory said he does not know why his wife used a different name to apply for political asylum. He says she left for Germany before she was deported or immigration officials ruled on her quest to stay in this country as a political refugee.
But ICE officials offered a different account of Gulalay Bahawdory’s arrival and quest for asylum. Picard said she used the name Mahbooba Arman when she first arrived and again on her application for asylum, which was denied.
“She was ordered removed from the United States in April 2001,” Picard said. “In 2004, she returned to the United States under the name Gulalay Bahawdory as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. Mrs. Bahawdory’s prior removal from the United States was discovered when ICE ran the fingerprints she provided for the spousal petition.”
Picard would not say when or why ICE checked those fingerprints or why it only began investigating her citizenship this year.
Bashir Bahawdory moved to America from Kabul in 1985 seeking political asylum. He became a U.S. citizen in 1999 and recently retired from the state Department of Transportation. In 2003, his first wife Nouria died. He said his family and Gulalay Bahawdory’s family knew each other. In 2004, he learned that she was living in Germany, unmarried. He visited her and persuaded her to marry him. They returned together to the United States and married in 2005.
Gulalay Bahawdory soon settled into a comfortable life in North Raleigh. She found a job at a Marshall’s department store not far from home and became a devoted stepmother to her husband’s four grown children.
“They loved their stepmother as a best friend,” Bashir Bahawdory said.
But the false name she wrote on the application for political asylum 11 years earlier came back to haunt her and threatened to force her return to a war-torn country without the support of her family. Her mother and brother now live in Switzerland.
After the ICE investigation began, Gulalay Bahawdory thought of little else, her husband said.
“I told her, ‘No, you will not be deported,’” Bashir Bahawdory said. “I told her, ‘You are a good mother. I am your husband. You are a citizen. You have a house, a job. There’s not so much as a traffic ticket on your record.’”
The day before police found Gulalay Bahawdory body, she and her husband spent the Sunday morning cleaning out a white storage shed in their backyard. A manager from Marshall’s called and asked her if she could work that day. She left for work shortly after 11 a.m. and told her husband she would be home by 8 p.m.
Bashir Bahawdory was watching television that evening when one of his daughters called from New Jersey and asked to speak to her stepmother.
“I told her she was still at work,” Bashir Bahawdory said. “My daughter said it was Sunday and the store was probably closed.”
Bahawdory called his wife’s cellphone twice and no one answered. Thinking that maybe her car had broken down, Bahawdory drove to the store. It was closed, and his wife’s car was not in the parking lot. He drove through a few neighborhoods before returning home and calling police just before midnight.
Bahawdory was sitting with a police officer anxiously awaiting word about his wife’s whereabouts when another office arrived before dawn and told him his wife’s car had been found. The officer asked if Gulalay Bahawdory had relatives or friends who lived along Lynn Road, which is about nine miles west of their home.
Police found three notes in Gulalay Bahawdory’s car. One was to her husband, written partly in English and partly in Farsi, their native language. She told her husband she loved him and knew what she had done was wrong. She wrote another note to her attorney whom she thanked for doing what she could for her.
The third letter was left for Raleigh police.
“I love the United States,” Gulalay Bahawdory wrote. “God bless the United States.”