Barely out of her teens, she escaped torture in her African homeland and, like thousands of other Ethiopians, hoped for refuge in Denver.
As small as her universe in Colorado appears, it was enormous to Zema, a mishmash of noisy buses, strange rules, and inexplicable, frustrating waiting for an answer that would give her some certainty, a direction, a future to plan. She navigated it tentatively, making it from day to day, thanks to the people inside an unassuming renovated Victorian mansion on Gaylord Street. The awning-clad, blond-colored house is the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center (RMSC), a nonprofit that assists torture and war trauma survivors get back on their feet and start over in Colorado.
In the small reception area one morning, several people are chatting in heavily accented English. It's easy to assume, from their voices and the color of their skin, that the folks talking in the lobby are from Africa. The tables and bulletin boards nearby are covered with pamphlets and flyers about human rights, work-readiness programs, and English-as-a-second-language classes. Staffers walk briskly through the lobby and up the winding staircase, shuffling papers. The whole place, unobtrusive as it seems at first, hums with the kind of busyness and utter daily absorption that suggests this work is urgent—perhaps not in a billion-dollar-business-deal kind of way, but in a life-or-death kind of way.
RMSC has been a crucial resource for people like Zema who arrive without legal status. Work permits are required for legal employment—it takes about six months to acquire them—and without legal status there are no services from the government, meaning no medical, psychological, or housing assistance. Zema is lucky; she had a connection in the States: Kelile to take her in. Many others aren't so fortunate. The first coats they ever put on might come from the donation room in the mansion's basement—Coats For Colorado donated 88 jackets in 2008. Bookshelves piled with used books, clothes, and canned food crowd the rest of the room. Down the hall is a small cafe with food in the fridge and a microwave—nothing much, but enough to help when no one else can.
Staffed by a dedicated army of 100, mostly volunteers, and funded in part by grants from the United Nations and the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (through the Torture Victims Relief Act), RMSC has been one of the few agencies in Colorado that offers services in four key areas—legal, medical, counseling, and day-to-day resources—under one roof. While clients seek RMSC services for practical reasons—Zema received help with an RTD pass, basic communication advice, school applications, and how to rent an apartment—most also come for companionship. They come to feel safe, protected—like they're part of a community. "Cultural brokering" is what the staff at RMSC calls it, but for the folks in limbo who arrive here, it's relearning how to exist.
Kerstin Palmer has been in the counseling field for 15 years, and she has been the director of therapeutic counseling at RMSC for two and a half years. She and her staff have handled the psychiatric intake evaluations for participants, who, despite their preoccupation with the nuts and bolts of building a new life in Denver, are likely in dire need of treatment to relieve intense guilt, depression, or anger. (Zema signed a release that granted Palmer permission to discuss Zema's case with 5280.)
With her inherently upbeat outlook and sunny disposition, you'd never guess Palmer has spent so much time drawing out the painful pasts of torture survivors. The strength of the people she counsels is what keeps her going. "My god, human nature is strong," Palmer says. "Human nature can withstand these kinds of things. Look at these people...how gracious they are: kind, good-hearted people. When I think of working here, I used to think that sounded absolutely terrible. Now, it's more like a treat to actually meet these fantastic people who stood up for something—and now they sometimes regret it. It's a guilty heartache—the internal struggle. They can be here for years and don't feel like they really want to be here." But to remain here, asylum must be granted.
With the help of Lisa Green, Zema had filed her application for asylum in the winter of 2007, with the hearing date scheduled for late October of that year. During the agonizing, uncertain interim, she attended 31 therapy sessions at RMSC. Aside from the logistical hurdles of launching a new life, Zema struggled to get a handle on American culture—a life and a culture that, depending on the asylum verdict, could all be taken away from her. The staff at RMSC coached her on the important things, like how interact in the courtroom and what to say if the police stopped her, and on the seemingly banal aspects of life in America, like how to greet people appropriately. Her credibility would hinge on customs like eye contact. Back home, it was a sign of disrespect to look elders in the eye. Here, Zema was taught, court authorities expect, even demand it, lest she be thought to be a liar. So with the help of the survivors' center, she began to learn the American way—hopefully, the way that would let her stay.
The asylum process, shepherded by government officials from the Department of Homeland Security, court officers, translators, and lawyers, is mired in red tape. For a U.S. court to grant asylum, the applicant must prove past persecution in one of five areas: race, religion, social group, nationality, or political opinion, or prove the probability of future persecution. The challenge in Zema's case: Even if the court found that she was indeed raped, the attorney had to show that the rape was based on one of those five things to warrant asylum. For eight months, her worry was mind- and body-consuming. In slow motion, she moved toward a precipice. And then Zema's day in court arrived.
Lisa Green doesn't recall the details of that day, October 26, 2007, when Zema took the stand. Green remembers all of her clients' stories, but the days in court—those all bleed into one. All are critical, and yet all are the same. In this homogenized, indifferent bureaucracy, Green's role is vital. If the attorney, for example, overlooks a difference in the Ethiopian calendar, it can cause confusion on the stand when the asylum applicant recalls dates that seem impossible or out of line with the rest of the story. For those who arrive here with no context for American courts or even American customs, and little English, the pressure of formal proceedings, the rapidity, is intimidating. Zema's world was pressed into the parameters of one room. It's a deceptively ordinary-looking courtroom, considering the life-altering testimonies and decisions that happen here. One of three immigration courtrooms in downtown Denver, it is divided into four rows of seating, split down the middle, each side anchored by a large table square to the judge.
Inside the courtroom, it was as if Zema's insides were caving in under the scrutiny of the opposing counsel: the United States government attorney. A translator was present, and Zema fought off a paralyzing fear: What if her answers weren't being explained correctly? What if she misunderstood the questions? The probing was nerve-wracking, sometimes purposely confusing. Had she made a mistake? Was this what they wanted to know? "Some of the trial attorneys will rake the clients over the coals," Green says. "They'll argue [my] clients are not credible witnesses, try to get them to contradict themselves. [My] clients are petrified. They're put into an adversarial, litigious environment where they have to talk about incredibly sensitive situations. When you don't speak the language and it's formal, that's scary. And your life depends on it."
With each new set of questions, Zema's anxiety rose. In this room of strangers, these men in dark suits, she was expected to reveal every detail of the unspeakable things she endured in prison. It's something she never would have considered back in Ethiopia—verbalizing such things was improper, sinful, unthinkable—yet here, it was critical to her survival.
Because some of Green's clients don't understand English, when it comes to the verdict she often finds herself having to smile to her clients in such a way that conveys victory, and sometimes, not often, having to turn to her client and telegraph with her eyes that she gave it her best shot. Composed on the outside, Zema watched while the bureaucratic protocol unfolded, nearly three hours of proceedings that would dictate the rest of her life. She could do little else but subject herself to a system that sees thousands of others just like her. She didn't realize what had happened, what the verdict was, until Green turned to her. The United States had granted Zema asylum.