Barely out of her teens, she escaped torture in her African homeland and, like thousands of other Ethiopians, hoped for refuge in Denver.
In a small South Boulder law office, Lisa Green strides into the conference room with a stack of paperwork. She's on autopilot, like a doctor on her 15th patient of the morning. Her firm is an immigration and nationality practice. Green represents people seeking legal status in America. She is someone who will argue on their behalf, who can, literally, save their lives. Nodding toward several files on a large conference table, Green says, "I've had a couple of Zemas." It's a wry understatement, as she has actually represented hundreds of them.
Last year alone, 42 million people worldwide were forced from their homes because of conflict and persecution. Many wander through makeshift camps in their own countries. The United Nations Refugee Agency classifies these people as "internally displaced people." More than a third of those uprooted—about 16 million in 2008—left their homelands entirely for the relative safety of other nations. Refugees, yes, only it's not that simple. A refugee is someone who has been granted the right to international protection before arriving in a new country; under the auspices of United Nations protocol refugees receive assistance and protection, to whatever degree available. Frequently, these are people fleeing an internationally understood crisis, such as genocide.
But for someone like Zema the ordeal is different, and it's a bureaucratic crapshoot. While she wants the same thing—protection, a mere right to exist in the refuge country without being persecuted—she has to apply for that right of asylum once she's already in the country, or at a port of entry. Folks like Zema become asylum-seekers the minute they ask for help when they reach the country. Until a court officially grants asylum, it is difficult to find work or truly begin rebuilding their lives. They exist in a state of limbo, plagued by the very real possibility that their application will be denied, that their would-be refuge will send them back to where they came from.
Atrocities in places like the Sudan or Rwanda have received much media attention; by comparison, there has been very little coverage of the human rights violations in Ethiopia. Green says her Ethiopian clients don't always fit the tribal clan stereotype. In their previous lives, most were generally educated and well-off, which is why they can afford her services rather than pro bono representation. They have the resources to extract themselves from their situations and seek alternative lives across the globe. Even so, Green's fees don't come close to those of a regular law firm, and the Ethiopian community here often bands together to help cover her clients' legal expenses. That community is growing. Last year, 899 Ethiopians were granted asylum in the United States, accounting for nearly four percent of all asylum petitions approved in 2008. There are more than 300 Ethiopians with legal-asylum status in Colorado, part of an Ethiopian community of some 20,000 people settled mostly in Aurora. "The lengths I've seen people go to help each other here is amazing," Green says. "It's such an interesting dichotomy, because the Ethiopian government, the people, are brutal to each other."
Standing in the cell and ordered to strip, Zema heard screams. Real or in her head, the screams were attached to the true stories Ethiopians had come to know about such African prisons. About the same time as Zema and her family were apprehended, a young West African woman and her family were taken away when their government identified one family member as part of the opposition forces. They beat everyone, then dragged them to a detention facility. The young woman was pregnant. The guards ordered her to lie on her stomach and forced her mother to watch as they jumped on her back. She hemorrhaged, and the unborn child bled out of her. They told her to lick it up; the girl did as she'd been ordered. Her mother began to scream and was beaten.
In the cold, empty cell, where Zema now refused to remove her clothes, she was beaten. The blows to her kidneys left her writhing on the floor. Then she was raped.
Fear and shame became her wardens; they gnawed at her, festered inside, for six months. Only sometimes did she get beyond the prison walls, when the guards let them outside. It was usually a bathroom break, or fresh air, as they called it. But one time, the air was different. Fewer guards patrolled the yard, and there was an opening, a chance to run. Zema's heart quickened. It was now or never. What would happen if she were to get caught? Where was her mother? Her brothers? There was no time to find them...no time to think.
She began to run, her legs moving, feet churning against the ground, as fast as she knew how. She didn't look back. She heard running, yelling—gunshots cracking the air. Her only goal was to get farther from the walls, the prison, the darkness. More firing echoed behind her, but the guards could not follow, as there were other prisoners to restrain, her family among them. Zema ran until she reached bushes big enough to provide cover. In them, she crouched down and made herself as small as she could, but not as small as she felt. She waited. Five others, she now saw, had made it outside the walls. They hid, waited, and moved, over and over again. Leapfrogging further from there and heading to nowhere in particular. Zema wondered if the prison guards would seek retribution from her family because she'd escaped. Most likely. She couldn't think about it. There was no going back. Hide, wait, move. The terror was never more than a few steps behind her no matter where she was.
She began her journey south—south because that's the direction in which she was moving. She carried no map, no itinerary or packing list, only an instinct to survive. To get from there to here, wherever here might be, as quickly as possible. Far. That's where she wanted to go. Far. On a bus to neighboring Kenya, she didn't question the "businessman" who helped her get to the border. There was no time to question; in such circumstances everyone was family, no questions asked. Zema would come to regard these angels as "cousins." Just shy of the Ethiopia-Kenya border, she disembarked. This was it, as far as the bus could take her; now she was on her own for the crossing into Kenya. There were no guards, no checkpoints, and she walked by herself, shaking, burdened by the thought of consequences if someone caught her. Without a passport or any identification, it was like she was a ghost.
For weeks that stretched into months, Zema crossed borders from one country to the next through sub-Saharan Africa. People along the way, cousins, offered help when they could, providing shelter, food, and directions. But they could not bring her across the borders. She navigated those alone, crossing rivers, fighting through bushes, never going by road. The nights were the hardest, when the shadows were moving and she couldn't see who might be watching. Sleep was always uneasy, sometimes in fields, cars, or buses—wherever the danger was lowest, or wherever she collapsed in exhaustion.
At times, she traveled with others on the run, eating whatever they could find: scraps, bread and water, handouts from strangers. It was nice to have the companionship, but there was no time to waste for the sake of staying together—for any of them. One morning, Zema woke up feverish and ill, too weak to push on that day. Her group couldn't risk waiting around, so they left her to recover; several days later, she resumed her trek alone. From South Africa, she somehow managed to cross the Atlantic—she will never reveal how—and arrived in Brazil. From there, it was more of the same. For the next three months she made her way in a journey that was at times slow and gently nudged along by cousins, and at other times abrupt and unsafe, facilitated by strangers. Part Underground Railroad, part Space Mountain roller-coaster ride. She moved through South and Central America to Mexico, taking buses, hitching rides on the backs of trucks, getting smuggled across borders. On New Year's Eve 2006, nearly six months and a dozen countries since she'd fled prison, Zema reached the U.S. border.