Barely out of her teens, she escaped torture in her African homeland and, like thousands of other Ethiopians, hoped for refuge in Denver.
Summer, 2008. In an Aurora strip mall on South Havana Street, a row of nondescript storefronts yawns into a nearly empty parking lot. Sandwiched between a day-care center and bingo parlor is an Ethiopian restaurant called the Nile. Zema picks this place for us to eat. It's a cool, dim respite from the August heat, and she says it's the best. DIA, her apartment, Aurora—a strip mall with a restaurant serving food of her faraway homeland: This is her world now. Her whole world here fits inside an RTD map.
The Nile is empty, save a few gentlemen at a table across the room. It's a strange time of day to enter a restaurant. Lunch is over, but it's not yet dinnertime. Zema knows that feeling—that sense of being suspended in odd times and places. She can't explain, can't begin to comprehend, how she ended up in this mall ordering her favorite dishes. The tables in the Nile are basket-woven, the kind made by traditional women in Ethiopia. She looks at home. Once she was sharing a piece of scavenged fruit split between six people; here she can order. She's in control, and that's happened rarely, if ever, since she arrived in this country.
Dressed in jeans and a fitted tee, with big silver hoops in her ears and her hair loose and curly, she could be any twentysomething in Denver. Every so often she giggles shyly, as if she's admitting a guilty pleasure. She likes quiet music, but also Mariah Carey and Sean Combs (giggle). Romantic movies are her favorites. And no, she's not the biggest American television fan, but she's recently been watching the Tyra Show and America's Next Top Model (giggle). Once, she explains, a long time ago, she wanted to be a fashion designer. To the men across the restaurant, she might even be a design student in college, someone who's lived here her entire life.
She's between countries and cultures, not quite here and yet no longer there. So, too, is her language. She hasn't learned enough English, and remains hesitant to try a full conversation. A thick accent coats her words in a fuzzy, elongated way, like a muffled melody that's not certain where to start and stop. When she does feel comfortable to speak, it's in her native tongue, Amharic. And so she speaks softly through a translator who shares our table. Where the interpreter is ineffective, through no fault of her own, is where there's a chasm of life experience between Zema and the rest of us. "My future is uncertain," she says. "I don't really think about it too much. I worry about my family because they are not here. It doesn't give me peace."
Our platter arrives fragrant and spicy with injera, the spongy, sour Ethiopian bread. As is custom, the entire meal is served without silverware. Zema makes the messy tear-and-scoop technique look graceful. "Do you like it?" she wants to know, eager to please. Almost in defiance of everything she's known in the recent past, she keeps her true self shrouded in a bewildering graciousness. It's a subtle contrast to her reticence, an almost undetectable paranoia that keeps her from revealing too much about her past. Part of it is sheer emotional blockage: "It is painful," she says about certain details. "I don't want to remember. I don't want to mention it."
Part of it is something more. The Ethiopian government has informants in this country. They live and work within Ethiopian communities, always alert for information to funnel to the authorities back home in Ethiopia that could link citizens to opposition schemes or conspiracy. She can surmise where allegiances lie based on the language her countrymen speak—Ethiopia has about 80 languages. It's unnerving. A wrong word here, an overheard conversation there, and her family, a universe away, could be in danger again. For all she knows, the men across the restaurant could be part of an Ethiopian government operation, and so I agree to not use her real name in the story. Zema seems right because her voice is lyrical, and Zema means "melody."
For one month and 15 days in Laredo, Texas, just over the U.S.-Mexico border, Zema once again found herself detained, this time in a border processing center. She bore the pressing weight of what could happen—what would happen—if they sent her back. Several officials came to interview her, and their messages were both reassuring and threatening: Don't be afraid, you'll be fine now...but if you don't tell the truth, you'll be deported, and you can't come back for 10 years. What could she do but tell what she knew...was it enough? How would they decide whether her story was true? Weeks into her detainment, trapped between countries, between a new start and a certain abyss, her case moved to immigration court. In an unforeseen godsend, $20,000 in bail money appeared from a relative—her aunt's brother-in-law, another cousin, Kelile—who lived in Denver. Zema didn't know where Kelile got the cash, nor did she ask. The door to freedom cracked.
With only a piece of paper that showed she was a ward of U.S. Immigration, Zema boarded a bus to Denver, where Kelile and his family were waiting. "At that moment, I was happy," she says. "I was free from prison. I was scared, though. I didn't know what my future was." Leaning back in her seat on the bus, she let the happiness wash over her like an incoming tide, slowly at first, then crashing waves of exhausted euphoria.
Twenty-four hours cramped on a Greyhound is a long time to think, and the tide of elation receded under Zema's worry. She didn't know this place called Denver. She knew nothing of its people—the language they spoke, the work they did, their customs. Her only basis for comparison thus far was the brusque immigration staff at the border. The farther northwest the bus lumbered, the colder it got. It was February, and a hard knot of panic tightened in her gut: She'd need to buy a coat—she'd never needed one before. Where, exactly, would she live? She had never lived on her own. How would she make money? She had never supported herself, let alone in a foreign country. How would she do this in a world that didn't understand her, and that she didn't understand?
From the bus station in Denver, Kelile and his wife brought Zema back to the apartment where they lived. It was comforting to have a roof over her head, even if it was temporary. Kelile worked at DIA, and his coworkers at the airport recommended a highly regarded attorney named Lisa Green to work on Zema's asylum plea. If she was not granted asylum, she would be deported. After all that running—this close to a new life—she would be sent back. Never mind that she was in the United States. She was still a captive of Ethiopia.