Constable: How 7,000-mile trek through the Americas leads West African asylum-seeker to the suburbs
By Burt Constable
Watching dramatic scenes of immigrants in a caravan moving toward the United States-Mexico border, this 20-year-old resident of the Northwest suburbs knows their plight. He walked across that bridge. He survived that jungle. He was that hungry and sick. He had that fear.
"It reminds me of what I did," says Ahmad, whose journey began after he healed enough from a vicious attack in his home in West Africa to embark on a six-month, 7,000-mile odyssey where he saw death, feared for his own life, was abandoned in a jungle, and often lost hope that he'd survive long enough to request asylum in the United States. "I see these people asking for the same things I'm here for."
Ahmad was 17 when he made it to Tijuana in Mexico, waited a month for his turn to ask American authorities for asylum, and was sent to a U.S. immigration facility for juveniles in Chicago. The number of people seeking asylum has grown so much and so quickly that President Donald Trump recently ordered that asylum-seekers wait in Mexico and now is threatening to close the southern border completely. In the meantime, border patrol agents are the ones making decisions and sometimes granting "direct releases" of migrants simply because there is no more room in detention centers at the border.
Ahmad was on the verge of being transferred to jail on his 18th birthday when a priest and brother in the Roman Catholic religious order Clerics of Saint Viator made Ahmad the first resident in their new Viator House of Hospitality for asylum-seekers, which opened in the suburbs in January 2017. Still waiting to have his plea for asylum heard by U.S. authorities, Ahmad has learned English, graduated from high school, gotten his work permit and holds a job at a warehouse to pay for his classes at Harper College in Palatine.
Ahmad is adhering to every provision of the federal law for asylum-seekers, but the Daily Herald is shielding his identity and referring to him by an alias to avoid endangering his parents and younger siblings, who remain in the West Africa nation where he grew up. The nation is rich in natural resources, but many people live in poverty, the deadly ebola plagues the region, and the government and opposition forces often clash violently.
"There were a lot of things that happened before I decided to leave the country," says Ahmad, son of politically active parents. "They're just trying to protest and tell the truth, but the government is doing things to intimidate."
The tipping point was a violent and horrific attack that occurred when he was 16 years old and going to high school.
"My mom was supposed to pick me up at school," Ahmad says softly. "I came out and did not see her. After an hour, I tried to walk from the school to my house. Once I got close to home, I heard screaming."
It was March 13, 2015. A half-dozen men wearing uniforms were in his house.
"My mom wasn't wearing any clothes and there were soldiers," remembers Ahmad. "I always want to forget that image, but I can't."
The teen tried to stop one of the men. "He was stronger than I," says Ahmad, who was knocked to the floor. "They were beating me with a baton. They broke my left leg. My mom was worried about me instead of what happened to her."
His dad rushed home. Even though Ahmad's shattered bone had pushed through his skin, the father didn't want to risk taking him to the nearest hospital out of fear he'd contract ebola. Ahmad's bone was set by a traditional healer, says Amanda Crews Slezak, a supervising attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center's Asylum Project.
X-rays of his leg and a U.S. doctor's evaluation of the injury are part of Ahmad's asylum case, as are interviews by phone with his parents, said Slezak, who represents Ahmad, as does Ashley Huebner of NIJC's Asylum Project.
Ahmad kept still in bed for eight months until his leg healed.
"I stayed lying down until November," Ahmad says, pointing to a nasty scar on his shin. "After that, I practiced how to walk again."
With his family under watch and at risk, Ahmad was told he would be flying to Brazil, where a relative lived.
"I was really nervous," Ahmad says. "My mom was crying. I had never seen my dad cry, but seeing me traveling and leaving the country and not knowing when I was coming back, I had never seen him cry before."
By the time his plane made its first stop in Casablanca, "I was crying by myself," Ahmad says.
Brazil was even more foreign than Morocco.
"I went to a place that I'd never been in my life. They spoke a language I'd never heard in my life," he says. But his parents' goal of him seeking asylum in the U.S. had begun. Three weeks later, he found himself in Peru, where Spanish replaced Portuguese as the language he didn't know.
Walking alongside immigrants from other African nations, Haiti, Nepal, Pakistan, Cuba and South America, Ahmad followed smugglers into Ecuador and then Colombia. "I was supposed to hide inside a truck with a smuggler," says Ahmad, who found himself instead packed onto a tiny boat with other immigrants. "That was my first time to travel in a boat. It was a small boat and it was very scary."
When they reached land, the most difficult part of the journey was to come -- a two-week hike through the jungles of Panama's Darién Gap, 10,000 square miles of swamp, mountains and rainforest. It's loaded with things that can kill you, including venomous snakes, poison-dart frogs, drug traffickers, arms smugglers, guerrilla forces, government agents, corrupt cops, indigenous tribes, insects, mosquitoes, jaguars, wild pigs, bloodsucking bats and a host of illnesses lurking in the dirty water.
"Once in the jungle, you cannot see," Ahmad says. The vegetation was thick enough to block out the sunlight on hot days, when it wasn't pouring rain. He usually tried to sleep on a rock, which, unlike the ground, generally was not muddy and teaming with insects and other creatures.
"We were in the jungle, trying to hide from the military," he explains. "I left my country because of my safety and now I'm in the jungle with all kinds of animals. I heard these animals screaming every night for two weeks."
He worried about dying most of those days, but especially after his damaged leg slowed him down. He fell behind and lost track of the people in front of him. They trekked on without him, and soon Ahmad didn't know where they went. He spent two days alone in the jungle.
"I totally lost hope," he admits. Hungry and thirsty, he drank from puddles he knew were contaminated. But he stumbled upon another group of immigrants, who let him join their band. That's when he saw a man die.
"It was raining that day and it was really slippery," Ahmad says. As the group made its way across a ledge high above the ground, that man from Haiti slipped over the edge. There was no way to reach him. "He fell all the way down and he died," Ahmad says. "We just left him there. His family would never know what happened to him. You have no choice. You live or you die."
Huebner and Slezak, the legal team preparing his asylum case, say that story was one of the first things Ahmad told them, and they could tell how much it bothered him. Stories of getting separated from a group and seeing someone die are not unusual for people making that journey.
"They see horrific things," Slezak says. "Sometimes they are detained."
Many find jobs along the way to pay for expenses or to pay back relatives who sent money. "It's definitely thousands and thousands of dollars," Huebner says of the cost of a journey from Africa to South America to the U.S. But some people choose that route because they can get visas or because, like Ahmad, they have contacts in a specific country.
Ahmad traveled from Panama to Costa Rica to the tricky border crossing into Nicaragua, before reaching Honduras, where his group crossed into Guatemala, then, finally, into Mexico. He'd phone his parents as often as every couple of weeks, but sometimes a month or more would pass between calls. "Can I have some cash to pay off smugglers?" Ahmad would ask, and his parents would wire him money. While he speaks to his parents by phone, they refuse to discuss anything that might cause them problems with their local authorities, Ahmad's attorneys say.
Ahmad arrived in Brazil on March 14, 2016, and reached the U.S. border on Sept. 23, 2016.
"It was horrible, but I did learn a lot of things," Ahmad says, noting that in addition to learning a few phrases in a variety of languages, he discovered he was much stronger than he thought.
"I presented myself at immigration," Ahmad says, explaining that he told U.S. authorities he had no passport or visa. "I'm here to ask for asylum. I don't have any papers, and the paper I had I lost in the jungle."
He was one of 59,692 unaccompanied aliens age 17 or younger who arrived at our southern border that year. During the last decade, the National Immigrant Justice Center has been successful in about 90 percent of the asylum cases, but the national average is about 50 percent and dropping, Slezak says. Those without lawyers are successful about 10 percent of the time.
Immigrants granted asylum are eligible to apply for lawful permanent resident status, a green card, after one year in the U.S. Those who lose their asylum bid are deported.
Ahmad spent two nights in a detention center for minors near the border before being flown to O'Hare International Airport and taken to a Chicago detention center for minors. But that would last just a few months.
"At 18," Ahmad says, "I had to find a place to stay or be transferred to a jail," most likely the McHenry County Jail, which houses immigrants under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Having been working on immigration issues, Brother Michael Gosch and Father Corey Brost of the Clerics of Saint Viator were in the process of founding the Viator House of Hospitality, a suburban home for two dozen young men waiting for their asylum requests to be settled. They knew of Ahmad's plight and made him the first resident of the home. Brost has witnessed anger directed toward the asylum-seekers. For that reason, the Daily Herald is not revealing the house's location.
After learning English quickly, Ahmad admits to struggling with Shakespeare in a high school class. He graduated last May. When others are complaining about the struggles they face, Ahmad never tells them about his life. "I just listen and be quiet," he says.
One of the first things he wanted when he found a home in the United States was a prayer rug, so he could properly practice his Muslim faith.
"Yeah, and he got one from the Catholic priest," says Brost, who takes pride in letting those of all faiths practice their religions at Viator House. "That's important."
The two dozen residents of Viator House each have a bedroom with a door that locks. They are free to leave whenever they want. As with many young suburban adults, they might get their own apartments after they are financially able.
"My job is not to take care of the poor immigrants, but it's to welcome incredibly gifted, talented young men to this nation, who bring skills that we need, faith that will strengthen us, and a desire to be people who help others," Brost says. "What is so wonderful about this ministry is the sense of being in the presence of such wonderful young men, who are going to make such a great difference for the better of our nation."
Ahmad says he wants to help people. Depending on how his asylum case ends up, he can imagine himself as a 30-year-old American.
"By that time I'd like to be finished with medical school," says Ahmad, who hopes to repay society for all the help he has gotten during his journey. "There's a lot of good people in this world. That gives you hope."