Barely out of her teens, she escaped torture in her African homeland and, like thousands of other Ethiopians, hoped for refuge in Denver.
These days, Zema is prone to migraines. They come and go, a debilitating reminder of a painful past. Her mother has been released from prison, and every so often Zema speaks to her over the phone. It's a fragile peace of mind. "I knew that, eventually, this was all leading to America," she says. "That was the hope, anyway. But there were times when I lost hope, when I thought I'd sacrificed too much, when I wasn't sure I'd made the right choice."
A few blocks from her apartment complex is an assisted-living center where Zema spends her evenings employed as a personal caretaker. She has just enough time to bus back from DIA and walk over for her shift. Both jobs are a far cry from the aspiring fashion designer she was back home, but all of that is irrelevant now. While she doesn't relish the schlep to the airport, the money's too good to pass up, and working two jobs lets her send cash back to her family. They have very little, and her father is still missing. Zema recently passed all her nurse's aide tests to earn a certification from a technical training program in Aurora, and is thinking of applying to the University of Colorado to get an actual nursing degree. One day, her parents will be as old as the folks for whom she cares at the senior home, and she imagines they'll need someone to take care of them.
At the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center, Kerstin Palmer shows me some drawings Zema completed as part of her therapy. In one session she was asked to draw a picture of herself. On the paper, there's no human figure; instead, in feather-light strokes, is a sketch of a road surrounded by nature. Here are some flowers, some falling leaves, and a beautiful lake with clean water for swimming; here, she's drawn benches for sitting and resting, and trees to lean on, to shade her from the hot sun. The road, with so many things happening alongside it, doesn't end; it continues right off the paper. The pencil strokes are so light that the illustration seems like a mirage, but for Zema, this place, America, Denver, has become an attained reality.
For those who would follow her, the journey has become even more difficult. This September, the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center shuttered its doors. As with most nonprofits, funding has dwindled in the past year. Donations were down. A $600,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement failed to come through. Programs weren't sustainable. For torture survivors arriving in Colorado now with neither money nor connections, the options are that much slimmer. Other refugee resettlement programs in Denver, like the African Community Center of Denver or Lutheran Family Services of Colorado, can provide social support, but now free legal counsel to help navigate the critical asylum process is much harder to come by.
Within a week of RMSC's closing announcement, Lisa Green received four phone calls inquiring about asylum representation—torture survivors with no way to cover her fees, but wanting a good advocate. Without RMSC's pro bono services, they've got little place else to turn. And Green simply doesn't have the capacity to take their cases. As is, she's stretched thin professionally, and the emotional toll can be significant.
After meeting Zema, I'd called Green at her office. She was audibly upset. A client of hers, a woman from Ethiopia seeking asylum, had come to Green for help with an appeal. The woman's first attempt at asylum, under a different attorney, had been denied. And now Green's petition for appeal on the woman's behalf had also been denied and deportation ordered. The woman, terrified at the prospect of going back to Ethiopia, simply disappeared. For months, neither the authorities nor Green knew her whereabouts; only recently has she learned that the woman crossed into Canada and has been granted asylum there. Her husband remains in Colorado. Bound by the arbitrariness of the asylum system, they're forced to live a country away from one another.
Finishing up her shift carrying baggage at Denver International Airport, Zema watches smiling passengers scurry from the automated doors to curbside shuttle stops or into the arms of loved ones idling in SUVs. They appear to have arrived in Denver with such purpose—such joy. Sitting on a metal bench, she counts the minutes until her bus pulls to a halt at the curb, happy to be heading home. m
Julie Dugdale is associate editor of 5280. E-mail her at email@example.com.