She is slender and beautiful the way the most striking Ethiopian women are, with smooth, mocha-colored skin and almond-shaped eyes. Five days a week, in the mornings’ wee hours, she leaves her modest Denver apartment near Quebec and Iliff and boards the bus to Denver International Airport. She is quiet and keeps to herself. She is polite. She almost always answers with a “Yes,” even when she doesn’t necessarily understand what is asked of her, even when she doesn’t understand what it all means. Her therapist would describe her as a gentle spirit, eager to please, and remarkably gracious considering what she has been through.
These qualities are part of what makes her excellent at her job. Inside DIA, under its sprawling canopies, she finds her coworkers, specifically her Ethiopian coworkers. Here, together, they have found not just paying jobs at the airport, but also a community. Among them there is an understanding, a shared history—a pain—that requires no explanation. And so there is little talk of the past; they help each other avoid their memories. Instead, they focus on the banal distractions of the present: They usher travelers and their luggage from ticket counters to security lines to boarding gates; they staff baggage conveyor belts, hoisting suitcases and reading tags.
She is a bag runner: sorting, lifting, and rushing suspicious items to security. It’s a good job. Although it pays only an hourly rate of about $7, sometimes, when she says “Yes” and assists a traveler with an especially large bag or heavy request, there is a tip. And tips can be saved and mailed back home. She plucks an oversized suitcase, the last of the day, from a carousel for transfer. Arms straining with the bag’s bulge, she pictures where it will land, then imagines its owner, in a quiet home, the night before, carefully packing it full of nonessential essentials. This is not how she traveled here, to America, to Denver.
In the dead of night, a door-splintering crash shatters the stillness of a home that is dark, asleep. Her family is there, except her father. Terrified, hearts racing, their eyes connect through the darkness. The front doorway gapes open, sucking in the arid night, and shadows morph into menacing silhouettes. An interrogation erupts from all and none of the shadows at once. “Where is he?” they bark, and they move through the house, ricocheting from corner to corner. The walls shake as uniformed figures ransack rooms, fling open doors. One of them wrenches her mother’s arm with a viselike grip. “You tell me where your husband is!” But her mother doesn’t know; if she does, she doesn’t tell. In a blur of yells and weapons, the silhouettes force the family through the broken door out into the black.
Thud. She drops the overstuffed bag onto a cart, and this 23-year-old woman—we will call her Zema—stretches her arms. Hurriedly, she makes her way through DIA’s Great Hall, awash in light and buzz. Crossing the vast, tiled floor toward the bus stop outside, she dodges antsy families waiting, couples embracing, brothers and sisters and friends craning to see their loved ones arrive. She can’t help but wonder if she will ever have a moment like that: Will she ever be the one waiting for her loved ones to arrive at the airport? Will she ever see her family again? This much is certain: There is no returning to her homeland. She can never go back there.
In prison, even day felt like night. There was no sun or moon; it seemed like there was no air. There was only a cell, with Zema and at least two of her four brothers in a cell together, and her mother in another. For two days, guards came to beat them. Zema’s body hurt. The real agony, though, was having to watch her mom and brothers suffer. Suddenly, without explanation, they were all transported to a different prison. Every couple of days, the guards would appear, the terror would swell, and the family would be questioned, one by one.
The trouble began, as things do in Africa, with regimes at odds. More than a decade before, Zema’s father had been a colonel in Ethiopia’s air force. They lived a good life, Zema and her brothers and sisters, growing up in Debre Zeyit, just southeast of Ethiopia’s capital. Her family owned a restaurant in town, and they were fed well and educated. But when a new government party moved in—the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)—their stable life began to crack. The new leadership ousted her father’s party and held its own elections, leaving former government leaders without jobs and often in prison. Zema’s father, among those arrested, spent 12 years in jail because of his alleged political affiliation.
The new ruling party ran a “democratic” republic more like a dictatorship, until a coalition of opposition parties challenged the regime in the 2005 elections. When the opposition secured only about a third of parliament, it cried foul, spreading the word that the election was rigged. In response, the government began jailing the challenging party’s leadership. Amid the chaos, Zema’s father disappeared from prison. And one night, in January 2006, military police stormed Zema’s house to look for him, accusing her family of helping him escape, suspecting he was involved with the opposition. Zema was certain he wasn’t. But no one in her family knew where her father was.
According to the international advocacy and justice organization Human Rights Watch, torture methods in Ethiopian detention facilities are often the most dehumanizing when the victim is thought to be affiliated with an opposing political party. Human Rights Watch has documented recent instances of binding an individual’s hands and feet and suspending the detainee upside down during a beating; of tying bottles of water to a man’s testicles; of rape and molestation; of severe beatings with sticks and iron bars; and of electric shock while naked. Another watchdog group has reported cases in Ethiopian jails where prisoners have been forced to urinate or defecate in front of others, to wear soiled clothes, or to don “uniforms” with cutouts in humiliating places. Prisoners have been blindfolded, led to a spot on the floor, and told to take a step forward; if they do this, the interrogator says to the victims, they’ll step directly into a giant hole and fall to an agonizing death. But if they don’t step forward, they’ll be shot.
Zema tried to stay with her mother, to ease her suffering, but it was impossible to keep her close at all times. Ethiopian jails are as overcrowded as they are unsanitary. There were times when Zema heard screams emanating from somewhere in the prison. Next to her? A few cells down? It was hard to determine. She didn’t know if it was her mother or brothers. One day the guards came for Zema. They forced her into a dark room, alone, and ordered her to remove her clothes.
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.
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.
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.
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.