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Survival Skill: Asylum Applicant Escapes Torture in West Africa to Face Scrutiny in U.S.

by Christine M. Flowers

Spring 2007, Vol. 70, No. 1

The first time I met Issa, I was struck by his shyness. He barely looked at me and focused his attention on the leather folder clutched tightly in his hands while shifting his weight from one foot to the other. I’d asked him to sit down in English, not realizing that he couldn’t understand the language. My secretary had announced a "Mr. Fofana" as my 1 p.m. appointment, and I should have figured out from the last name that he probably spoke French, but I didn’t want to insult him by assuming ignorance of English. It was only after I heard his story that I realized that this tall, dignified young man was beyond taking offense at a breach in etiquette.

Issa was from the Ivory Coast and had arrived in the United States a few months before our appointment. His passport revealed the antiseptic facts that, while useful to an immigration attorney, don’t begin to flesh out the identity and history of a person. He was 23, born in the capital, Abidjan, to parents who came from the North. He was unmarried. Issa was admitted to the U.S. as a student, and his visa was valid for another two years. It was the date it had been issued that gave me the first, telling clue as to why he’d come to see me. The consulate had granted the visa on April 19, 2005. Issa had left the Ivory Coast that same day.

He explained to me that the idea of leaving his home and family crystallized over the period of a year, from the time that he first became involved in politics. Unlike some of his friends who’d joined the student wing of a disfavored political party as an “adventure,” Issa was too serious and pragmatic to treat anything as a lark. Wise in the way that is common to young African men, Issa knew that committing himself to a political cause would be dangerous, unless and until his party was voted into power. The leading candidate from his party had already been the target of two assassination attempts and was surrounded by an international security detail provided by the United Nations. In the U.S., politics are often dirty; in many African countries, they can be deadly.

Issa knew this. Still, the indignities suffered by his parents because of their tribal heritage and the arrogance of the ruling regime convinced him that he needed to raise his voice and add it to those demanding accountability.

Of course he was tortured. One night, after an aborted nationwide protest, soldiers pulled him from his home. The only witness was his 10-year-old brother, who was too terrified to scream and too young to mount any defense. The boy watched as Issa was blindfolded, shoved into a military car and driven away. Only then did he run to his parents’ room and say, "Ils vont tuer Issa" — "They’re going to kill Issa."

He was taken to a place about thirty miles outside of his hometown; Issa estimated the distance by the fact that the journey took an hour over bad roads. When the blindfold was removed, he recognized three or four other young men from party meetings. The soldiers took out bats and began to beat the prisoners on their heads, stomachs, arms and legs, saying, "Your mouths curse us so we will crush your skulls; your hands hold banners that insult us so we will break their bones; your legs carry you on protest marches so we will make them bleed."

The prisoners were left to die in that place, but some survived. Someone, probably Issa's parents, had called a friend, who had alerted a sympathetic police officer, who in turn had located the place where the beatings occurred and sent a car to pick them up. Issa sustained a broken arm, a concussion and severe blood loss. He was more fortunate than two of the others, who died of their injuries before they could make it to a hospital.

It was at this point that Issa began to plan his exodus, bargaining and bribing and strategizing. With the help of a brother who was already living in Philadelphia, Issa obtained a student visa. He arrived with a few hundred dollars, a few photographs, his party membership card. And memories.

Those memories formed the basis of the narrative he wrote for me when we decided to file for asylum. They were devastating, but Issa recounted them calmly and without any visible emotion. During the months that we prepared his case, I never saw him cry or lose his temper or reserve.

On the day of the interview, I was late. My train arrived early in Newark, but fate ordained that I would pick the only cab driver in North Jersey who didn’t know how to get to the asylum office in Lyndhurst, a mere ten miles away. During the circuitous ride, my chauffeur mentioned that he was from the Ivory Coast — an irony that was not lost on me.

When I finally made it to the asylum office, Issa was waiting with his usual unruffled demeanor. He's like a sphynx, I thought, wondering if my client was going to be a convincing witness on his own behalf. After a few minutes, an immigration officer called us in and, after administering the oath to Issa and his interpreter, began to conduct the interview. The first few questions were routine, even though nothing is ever routine for a refugee. Issa answered through the interpreter in the same measured tone I had come to expect from him. If he was thinking about his family or his murdered friends, the grief and longing didn’t bleed into his voice.

And then, the officer departed from her script and said, "Would you mind taking off your shoes?" Obviously, she had read the part of Issa’s affidavit where he had described the beating, and she wanted some corroboration of the wounds. I looked at Issa and saw that his eyes had begun to tear and his jaw clenched. Then, without glancing at either me or the officer, he untied his shoes and raised his left foot onto the desk before him. The sole of that foot was etched with scars, criss-crossed like highways on an interstate map. They were discolored, ugly. I exchanged a look with the officer that told me all I needed to know.

Two weeks later, Issa was granted asylum. The day he received the letter was the first time I saw him smile. My prayer for him is that it won’t be the last.

Christine M. Flowers, a member of the Editorial Board of The Philadelphia Lawyer, is an immigration attorney with Joseph M. Rollo & Associates, P.C. in Philadelphia. Her e-mail address is