Dad facing deportation returns home after small Tennessee town's letter-writing campaign

(Courtesy: WZTV)

WOODBURY, Tenn. (WZTV) - It's a terrible tragedy, a Cannon County man was separated from his wife and children.

His family was worried sick the entire time, with no idea when or if he'd ever come back home.

In addition to being a loving husband and father, Shaqun Zhao is a small business owner, who feeds his own family by feeding an entire community, running a Chinese restaurant.

The restaurant is located Woodbury, Tennessee, a small town about a 20 minute drive east of Murfreesboro.

Fewer than 3,000 people call Woodbury home, and like most small Tennessee towns, it's filled with quiet, law-abiding citizens deeply proud of their home and country.

You can imagine the surprise when the owner and main cook of a local favorite, the town's only Chinese restaurant, disappears one day.

What happened to Shaqun Zhao?

A man who, by all accounts, was one of Woodbury’s most upstanding and visible citizens?

The worried folks in Woodbury couldn't believe this beloved family had been ripped apart.

“I would say he’s the best father that anybody can have, and I hope he can get out and we can be together as a family again,” says Ya Ling Zhao, Shaqun’s 15-year-old daughter.

For months Shaqun sat in a detention center two states away, with no clear way of returning home soon, if ever.

He got detained after appearing for an interview at a Nashville immigration office while trying to obtain a Green Card.

Ya Ling translates her mother's worry:

“She’s afraid her husband is going to be sent back home and she’ll be over here alone working.”

Zhao entered this country illegally nearly 20 years ago seeking a better life, stronger education and more opportunities for his kids than what he had in China.

That's where you might think the town of Woodbury would be thrilled to see him deported.

After all, 75% of Cannon County voted for President Trump and his hard line on immigrants.

But that didn't happen. The people of Woodbury didn't see an illegal immigrant in their midst.

Tom Woodson is a local pharmacist who orders takeout from the China Star on a regular basis.

“The family unit is so important, to have a father, mother, the way it should be,” Woodson said.

He says a hard-working man who opened a successful restaurant, paid all his bills and taxes and raised a family should be held to a different standard.

“If they're going to enforce the law on people being here illegally, they need to concentrate on the ones stepping out of line, the ones doing right, maybe leave them alone,” Woodson said.

Others in Woodbury felt the same, launching a letter writing campaign to bring him home.

Even the owner of a competing restaurant, Lion’s Pizza Den, prayed for Zhao’s release.

“They need him to come home to help with the business, it's not that easy when you're a small business and you depend on your family to help, and you take one of them out of it it's hard,” Jeannie Durham, owner of Lion’s Pizza Den, said.

The massive effort even got folks in Woodbury to re-think if a hardline immigration policy is the way to go.

“The way things have gotten, people are not very sympathetic or empathetic anymore towards others, and I’m afraid it's taken us in the wrong direction in that regard,” Woodson said.

Thea and Joe Prince are considered the leaders of the letter-writing campaign to free Zhao.

Imagine their surprise when they discovered six months after his mysterious disappearance... Zhao was home.

“I said, ‘you're home! Can I hug you?’” Thea recalled.

“He shouldn't have been gone for six months, it's terrible, he's with his family now and that's choking me up,” Joe said.

Zhao's family was also emotional and grateful for this tight knit community's support.

The signs outside the China Star calling for their family rock's safe return are now replaced with a simple message of thanks and an offer for free meals to all who helped.

The rest of Woodbury seems content to have Zhao home, and with a new understanding that home is not where you are born, but where you are loved.

Zhao’s daughter says her father would either be deported or brought home after six months in the detention center.

She says because immigration officials did not consider him a flight risk, he was allowed to return to Woodbury under the condition he would check in monthly at a Nashville immigration office.

Zhao is continuing to pursue his Green Card so he can stay in this country legally.

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