Sunday, July 8, 2007
Former chld soldier - Salifou Yankene
From New York Times May 13, 2007
The teenager stepped off an airplane at Kennedy International Airport on Nov. 8 and asked for asylum. Days before, he had been wielding an automatic weapon as a child soldier in Ivory Coast. Now he had only his name, Salifou Yankene, and a phrase in halting English: “I want to make refugee.”
Lawyers for Salifou, Elliot F. Kaye and Rachel B. Kane, went to the International Rescue Committee office in Manhattan to seek help for him. More Photos »
Eventually Salifou’s story would emerge, and in granting him asylum, one of the system’s toughest judges would find it credible: the assassination of his father and older sister when he was 12; the family’s flight to a makeshift camp for the displaced; his conscription at 15 by rebel troops who chopped off his younger brother’s hand; and an extraordinary escape two years later, when his mother risked her life to try to save him.
But when a lawyer took the case without fee in January, Salifou, then 17, was almost ready to give up. Detained in a New Jersey jail, overtaken by guilt, anger and despair, he resisted painful questions, sometimes crying, “Send me back!” And the lawyer soon realized that saving Salifou would require much more than winning him asylum.
There are 300,000 child soldiers worldwide, human rights groups say. Only a few have ever made it to the United States, but campaigns to halt recruitment and rehabilitate survivors are resonating here — not least because a best-selling memoir by one former child soldier, Ishmael Beah, has put a compelling human face on the potential for redemption.
Yet no one has really grappled with how to handle those who make it to this country seeking refuge.
Their violent pasts pose hard questions: Should they be legally barred from asylum as persecutors or protected as victims? How can they be healed, and who will help them?
Both Salifou and Mr. Beah, who testified on Salifou’s behalf, show that on the ground, the answers are haphazard, and the results may turn on the kindness of strangers.
Mr. Beah, now a 26-year-old who exudes a gentle radiance, surged to celebrity with “Long Way Gone,” showcased at Starbucks and acclaimed on “The Daily Show.” The book tells how he was orphaned, drugged up, indoctrinated and made to kill indiscriminately by government forces in Sierra Leone’s civil war — and then reclaimed by counselors at a Unicef rehabilitation center.
But unlike Mr. Beah, who became a permanent resident without applying for asylum, Salifou has faced legal opposition from the government. And while Mr. Beah has had a decade to adjust to America, go to college and come to terms with his past, Salifou’s story is still raw, and changing.
Less than three weeks ago, days after his 18th birthday, immigration authorities abruptly released Salifou alone, at 10 p.m., on a street corner in Lower Manhattan.
“They say, ‘You free to go,’ ” he recalled, eyes wide. “I say, ‘Go where?’ ”
That night, the former child soldier — now over six feet tall, with toned muscles and a diagnosis of severe post-traumatic stress disorder — slept on a couch in the Brooklyn apartment of his lawyer, Elliot F. Kaye, near the toy trains of Mr. Kaye’s 2-year-old son.
Salifou could still be deported. At his asylum hearing in April, the government argued that based solely on his own account, he was a persecutor, and thus legally barred from refuge.
When the judge disagreed, citing Salifou’s youth and coercion by his rebel captors, a government lawyer invoked a right to appeal that will not expire until May 23.
Ernestine Fobbs, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said on Friday that the agency did not comment on active cases.
Salifou testified that to satisfy leaders who punished disobedience with death, he had looted during raids, grabbed new child conscripts and hit and kicked civilians without pity if they resisted. He maintained, though, that while he had shot at people, he had never knowingly killed anyone.
Many mysteries remain in the story of the escape of this adolescent, whose sheltered, upper-middle-class childhood and French schooling in West Africa ended abruptly with his father’s murder.
One is the real identity of the foreigner his mother called Father William, who smuggled him onto a plane to Geneva, he said, outfitted him in jeans and Timberland boots, and sent him on to New York with a false Swiss passport.
Were Salifou deported now, concluded the judge in the case, Alan L. Page — who has denied 83 percent of asylum cases brought before him — he could face jail, torture or death from both sides in the conflict dividing Ivory Coast.
Instead, on Salifou’s first day of freedom, he awoke in the Kayes’ small Cobble Hill apartment, with the French books he had collected in jail: math and physics texts, Harry Potter paperbacks and a short story by Balzac that had made him cry, he said, because, like Mr. Beah’s testimony, “it is my own history.”
When the lawyer took Salifou’s case last winter, Mr. Beah’s memoir had not yet been published, but an adaptation in The New York Times Magazine led Mr. Kaye to contact Laura Simms, the woman Mr. Beah calls his second mother.
“How did you do that?” Mr. Kaye said he asked her, when he learned that she had taken Mr. Beah into her home as soon as he arrived on a hard-won temporary visa in 1998. “I remember saying: ‘I have a wife and a young son. He may not even know how dangerous he still is.’ ”
Ms. Simms became his mentor, the guide to an expanding circle of strangers determined to rescue Salifou — even, if necessary, from himself.
“At first I distrusted everyone,” Salifou said in French. “Elliot said, ‘Life is giving you a second chance.’ All I wanted was death.”
“Little by little, Elliot changed that.”
Unlike Mr. Beah, who had major trauma therapy in his country in a residential center staffed by trained counselors, Salifou was facing his demons in an adult jail, and the lawyers probing for details of his life, against asylum deadlines, were in effect his only therapists.
Sometimes, the lawyers said, they found a petulant teenager, or an angry soldier; sometimes he was a child closing his eyes, longing to be magically transported back to a time when his family was intact and pillow fights were his only combat.
“We realized we had to make him remember things that he wanted desperately to forget,” said Bryan Lonegan, the Legal Aid lawyer who screened Salifou’s case at the Sussex County, N. J., jail and enlisted the help of Mr. Kaye and his colleagues at the Cooley Godward Kronish law firm in Manhattan.
By then, Salifou had good reason to be confused and distrustful of the system he had entered when he sought asylum. Like many of the 5,000 unaccompanied minors apprehended each year, he had no valid identity documents. But based on the birth date he gave, he had been placed in a juvenile shelter in Queens.
Within days, after confiding to a counselor that he sometimes heard voices and had once attempted suicide, he was transferred to a mental hospital’s pediatric ward, where he was so medicated, he said, that he could barely move.
Discharged in time for Thanksgiving dinner at the children’s residence, he was suddenly declared to be over 18, not 17 years and 7 months as he maintained, based on an immigration service dentist’s interpretation of his X-rays — a practice that many doctors contest as unreliable. An adult immigration detention center refused to take him, so he was locked up in a county jail in western New Jersey.
His experience evokes the larger international confusion over how to draw the line between juveniles and adults, and what treatment is best for former child soldiers.
In one sense, Salifou’s childhood ended on Aug. 6, 2001, according to the 25-page affidavit he signed. That was the day his father and older sister were shot to death within earshot of the family home in Man, a market town in northwestern Ivory Coast. He remains tormented that as a 12-year-old he was powerless to protect his family when armed men ransacked the house and assaulted his mother.
His father, a civil servant in the defense ministry, had been politically active with an opposition party, but may also have dealt in arms and diamonds. He had been able to afford to send Salifou to a French school, where he excelled.
But after the murders of his father and sister, he fled with his mother, brother and two younger sisters. For three years, they lived in a roving camp for the displaced, and it was all they could do to stay alive.
Late in 2004, troops of the Mouvement Patriotique, the rebel faction that controlled the north, raided the camp for new recruits. As rebels grabbed Salifou and his younger brother, Abdul Razack, then about 13, their mother held on to Abdul’s arm, yelling that he was too young to take. To punish her, Salifou testified, one rebel chopped off Abdul’s hand with a machete.
Abdul was left behind, but Salifou was thrown in the back of a truck with other boys and began two years as an unwilling child soldier among thousands — trained, armed, drugged and growing numb to violence.
“There are some who can’t be healed anymore,” he said two days after his release, confessing that firing a machine gun had seemed “cool,” the power, heady. “There are some who can’t stop killing and giving orders. There are people who hate people. If you had a terrible childhood, if you hated your parents ...” He added, “I loved my parents.”
In the end, he said, his mother helped him persuade his chief to let him visit her briefly after one of his raids stumbled on her village camp again. Later, with a well-timed gift of a yam for his leader, she had Salifou return and meet Father William, a friend of his father’s who would take him to safety.
“I told her that I wasn’t going to leave,” he said, mindful that the rebels often hurt or killed the families of those who escaped. “But she forced me.”
He has had no contact with his family since. The lawyers, despite tantalizing near-misses, failed to locate Father William, who drove Salifou to the capital, Abidjan, dressed him as a luggage handler to get him past airport security, then guided him onto an airplane to Geneva. There, Salifou said, he gave him a passport and instructions for a flight to the United States.
Salifou arrived in November knowing no one. Now his circle of supporters includes the lawyers who took him on a giddy shopping spree for sneakers, T-shirts and a Yankees cap the day after his release on April 23. It includes Ms. Simms, who saw his descent into deep sorrow the next day, twisting his fingers and saying he just wanted to sit in the dark.
A few days later, Salifou seemed resilient, even joyful, after a session with a therapist at Bellevue Hospital, prayer at the 96th Street mosque and a dinner cooked by Mr. Beah in Ms. Simms’s homey kitchen.
“A family was born,” said Salifou, who is now staying in Harlem with an interpreter who is himself an African refugee. “It’s true what I was taught, what the philosopher said: Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed. I thought I lost a family, but it was transformed.”
It was a lesson from physics, applied to humankind, and Mr. Beah, the writer, echoed the sentiment.
“I realized what an intelligent, calm and sweet person he is,” he said. “He just happened to have the misfortune of having his childhood taken from him. But you can see him coming back.”
“I consider him like a brother to me,” he added, “because we’re both coming from a place where we have learned to deeply understand the true nature of violence, what war really is and what it does to the human spirit.”