Book recounts the stories of those seeking asylum in U.S.

Baltimore-based service's project details suffering

January 19, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

When Mekabou Fofana was in Pennsylvania's Lehigh County Prison, an inmate serving time for murder asked the Liberian teen-ager how many people he had killed.

"I said, `I didn't kill anyone,'" Fofana recalled. "I just got arrested at the airport."

Fofana had fled West Africa after thugs working for Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord, killed several members of his family. Told that he was next, Fofana, then 15, flew to New York in 1999 on a false passport seeking refuge. Instead of receiving protection, he spent the next two years in prisons and detention centers before a pro bono lawyer won his release.

"Everybody said, `When you get here, you will be free,'" Fofana said in a phone interview Saturday from New York, where he drives a taxi. But "when I got here, I was locked up and detained like I was a criminal."

Fofana's story is among a dozen personal tales contained in America: A Freedom Country, a new, 43-page book published by the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The book, part of a public education project, details the suffering many asylum-seekers endure when they come to the United States.

The organization timed the book's release to coincide with the airing of Chasing Freedom, a feature film starring Juliette Lewis that airs at 9 tonight on Court TV. Lutheran Service consulted on the film, which was inspired by real events.

The movie follows an Afghan woman named Meena who ran a secret school for girls in her Kabul home and fled after the Taliban beat her. Detained by U.S. immigration officials, Meena spends months in detention as an attorney played by Lewis helps her navigate the political asylum process.

Matthew James Wilch, who handles asylum and immigration issues at Lutheran Service's office on Light Street, hopes the book and film will educate people on the struggles foreigners face when they come to the United States seeking refuge from repressive regimes.

"I hope people will be shocked and moved to action by the story of Meena and what happened to her, and they will recognize how deserving she and the other asylum-seekers are who come to our shores," Wilch said. "The other thing you see in the movie is the process we have for receiving them which can be very dehumanizing. I hope ... people feel called to act to change that."

Under U.S. law, illegal immigrants can receive asylum if they prove that they have a "well-founded fear of persecution" based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. On any given day, 1,000 asylum-seekers sit in detention centers around the United States waiting for adjudication of their cases, Wilch said.

The average detention time is less than a week, but some cases extend to six months or more, according to Lutheran Service officials.

Although the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have made life much tougher for many immigrants, especially those from Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority nations, Lutheran officials refer to 1996 as a turning point for asylum-seekers. That year, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The legislation permitted U.S. officials to send illegal immigrants with false or no passports back to their homelands unless they could promptly show a credible fear of persecution or torture.

In 1999, U.S. officials used this provision to remove 89,000 immigrants, according to data from the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The problem, Lutheran Service officials say, is that some illegal immigrants, when confronted at the border, cannot articulate the suffering they have endured or the fears they face if they return home. For instance, a Muslim woman who had been punished by rape in Afghanistan might be too ashamed and frightened to tell her story to a foreign official, said Anne Wilson, executive vice president of Lutheran Service's planning and programs.

Wilson acknowledged that some illegal immigrants make up stories about religious or political persecution to win asylum. But, she said, to simply send people back without more judicial recourse runs counter to the U.S. tradition of welcoming immigrants and the Christian tradition of welcoming strangers.

"We can afford to be compassionate and generous and hear people out," she said.

Since its founding in 1939, Lutheran Service has helped resettle more than 280,000 refugees through affiliated regional offices, according to officials. The organization plans to distribute America: A Freedom Country to members of Congress, religious leaders, church pastors, Sunday school teachers and youth leaders in the Lutheran Church. The book is written by Batya Swift Yasgur, a free-lance writer based in New Jersey.

Fofana, now 20, lives in a small apartment in Manhattan. This winter, he will graduate from Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School, a public institution that offers a flexible study schedule catering to nontraditional, working students like him.

Relieved to be out from behind bars, Fofana says he is still puzzled by the way he was treated when he arrived.

"I just came here to protect my life," he said. "Up until now, I don't understand why I was in jail."

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