Constable: Teen seeking asylum rewards people's faith in him

  • At 16, Abu was jailed for his political activism and threatened with execution. At 17, he fled his West African home with the dream of living in the United States. Last month, while living at the Viator House of Hospitality in the suburbs, Abu, 19, won his asylum case.

      At 16, Abu was jailed for his political activism and threatened with execution. At 17, he fled his West African home with the dream of living in the United States. Last month, while living at the Viator House of Hospitality in the suburbs, Abu, 19, won his asylum case. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • An asylum-seeker from east Africa washes dishes with the Rev. Corey Brost as part of the daily chores at the suburban Viator House of Hospitality. Home to 21 refugees from 13 nations, the house helps residents prepare for new lives in the United States.

      An asylum-seeker from east Africa washes dishes with the Rev. Corey Brost as part of the daily chores at the suburban Viator House of Hospitality. Home to 21 refugees from 13 nations, the house helps residents prepare for new lives in the United States. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, February 2019

  • The simple message, "I am safe," means a lot to the 21 male refugees who live in the Viator House of Hospitality in the suburbs. Many of them faced death in their native lands.

      The simple message, "I am safe," means a lot to the 21 male refugees who live in the Viator House of Hospitality in the suburbs. Many of them faced death in their native lands. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, February 2019

 
Updated 10/17/2020 5:16 PM

He hadn't spent a single day in school, and he had never seen a map. So 17-year-old Abu underestimated his forced odyssey from his violent home in West Africa to peaceful asylum in the United States.

"I thought it was a two-day drive," Abu says, laughing at his naiveté. Now, more than two years later, Abu, 19, has won his asylum case, is living in the suburban Viator House of Hospitality with other refugees, works two jobs, is set to graduate high school in January and apply to colleges, and is determined to live a good life in America.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"This young man is so grounded in the best values of America and the best values of his Muslim faith," says the Rev. Corey Brost, a Catholic priest who, with Viatorian Brother Michael Gosh in 2017, founded Viator House, now home to 21 refugees from 13 nations. "He is a wonderful example for all the men here. He is kind and considerate and looks out for the other guys. He is a real gift to Viator House."

The Daily Herald is using a fictitious name for Abu and omitting details to protect his family members from retribution.

Daniela Velez, a staff attorney at the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, handled Abu's asylum case as part of the agency's pro-bono legal representation of about 1,000 asylum-seekers. About 90% of the center's clients are granted asylum, but nationwide 69% of asylum requests were denied in 2019, and immigrants without attorneys are more than twice as likely to have their requests denied. New Trump administration regulations and pandemic guidelines have reduced the number of asylum-seekers allowed into the country.

"It was a major win," Velez says of Abu's asylum victory last month. Abu not only had "a very clear asylum case," but he also had physical evidence as a literal card-carrying member of the political group under attack, Velez says. The Human Rights Watch notes that political unrest and violence have ravaged his homeland for more than a decade.

As a child, Abu lived in a hut with his mom and extended family in a small village. The unrest and poverty were crushing. "I never went to school," Abu says. When he turned 11, Abu moved to the city to live with an older brother and work in the outdoor market.

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"We were selling jeans -- Chinese jeans," Abu says. "We worked Monday through Saturday, and sometimes Sunday."

He'd start work by 8 a.m., grab lunch from street vendors and head home with his brother by 7 p.m.

"When we came home, the teachers would come," Abu says. "I took classes in English and math." He supplemented his English classes by watching Nigerian movies in English on DVDs.

"Around 16, I was involved in a problem," Abu says, explaining how he went to a demonstration for a political party that opposed the president. "It was a peaceful demonstration. I was arrested and sent to prison. They handcuffed me and threw me in a truck."

Smaller then than his current 5-foot-8, 135-pound frame, he was roughed up and received no medical care behind bars.

"I was hurt. I was bleeding on my right leg," Abu says. "The next day, in the evening, my brother came."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Abu doesn't know how much money his brother paid to win his release, but he does know that the government made his brother sign a legal document.

"My brother said I had to leave the country because if they see me, they will kill me," Abu says. "I was terrified when my brother told me. I never went out."

The teen sequestered himself at home, until his brother saved enough money to get Abu out of the country. A hired guide accompanied Abu on a flight to Quito, Ecuador, where Abu was left on his own, with $1,000 U.S. in his pocket. Figuring he'd be in his new home in the United States by the weekend, Abu took a taxi to an international bus station, where he caught a series of buses to a village in Colombia. Then on to the border of Panama, where a bus "was not an option," Abu says. "To go in the jungle, we had to walk."

He bought hiking boots, carried his belongings in a backpack and set out with a group of 17 men and women from several countries through a treacherous terrain known as the Darién Gap.

"I was not scared. I believe that everything that happens is God," says Abu. "We spent four nights in the jungle. It was hot. The rain would fall. In the morning, you wake up and continue the hiking."

His skin got scratched by the jungle plants. Mosquitoes bit him. "In the jungle, we didn't have enough food. We used to drink water from the ponds," he says. "The first night someone woke up and said, 'Snake! Snake!' So everyone went running into the bush. In a few minutes, we came back and were laughing."

After traversing the jungle, they spent two days in a refugee camp. Walking eight hours to a second camp, they spent a difficult two weeks with lots of yelling and not enough food. Bused to a refugee camp in Costa Rica, Abu stayed several weeks before a bus trip to Nicaragua. During the next few weeks, Abu bused to Honduras, Guatemala and finally Mexico.

"I kept thinking, 'In a day, I'll be in America,'" Abu admits. After a five-day Mexican bus trip, Abu got to the U.S. border where he was given a number and told to wait. "I waited a month and a half," Abu says. Living in a hotel and running low on money, "I did some car washes," Abu says.

When his number was called six weeks later, Abu met with a U.S. official who found Abu had evidence of a "credible fear" for his safety if back in his own nation. "They took us down in a place that was very cold," Abu says, referring to an infamous holding area known as La Hielera (the Ice Box). "I was there for four days."

He was flown to Chicago and spent about four months in a youth immigrant detention center. When teens in that facility turn 18, they are sent to adult detention centers, usually local jails. The Viator House staff moved Abu into their home on his 18th birthday in August 2019.

"He's doing the right things. He is driven, this guy," says Marianne Dilsner, one of Viator House's case managers. She remembers driving Abu to high school in Chicago, and "he's in the car on his computer, doing homework."

In addition to his native African language, Abu speaks English, Spanish and French. He's also made and delivered lunches to day laborers, delivered food to local mosques and stepped up with other immigrants at Viator House whenever needed, Brost says.

"They have all turned out to be such great people," says Viator House volunteer Bob Kopp, 77, of Barrington, who currently is teaching Abu how to drive. "They've been distilled by the trials of their lives."

Abu is now on the path to U.S. citizenship.

"I want to go to college. I want to stay in Chicago," Abu says with a smile. "I feel good about this country."

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