He had ceased to live a long time ago. Now he could only survive. His body was forever marked by deep grooves of scars, his mind equally wounded. He had survived the torture. He had survived the loss of his country, his ancestral lands, and the death of his cousin, father, and eldest son.
He fled to the United States, where he lived quietly, leaving his home only for his job in a hotel kitchen. He was fearful of loud noises, men in uniform, and being sent back to his tormentors. But eventually, he put aside his fears and found the courage to ask for asylum. Then he found an attorney willing and able to take his case.
And now Jenny Grobelski, supervisory attorney for Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors, sat beside him as the judge made his ruling.
Boubacar lowered his head in his hands and began to weep.
“Do you understand what the judge is saying?” Jenny asked in a low voice, feeling a bit unsteady herself. She hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in over a month. There had been far too much riding on this case.
“This is good news,” she told him, smiling. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Boubacar, finally raising his head. “I understand.”
Why are you so stubborn?
Boubacar is a member of the Fulani, an ethnic minority found throughout Central and—most particularly—West Africa. Historically, the Fulani are renowned as nomadic herdsmen, but Boubacar and his family were among the many Fulani crop and livestock farmers of the region.
Boubacar, who began working in the fields when he was 8 years old, had little time or opportunity for formal education. But he was a natural-born leader, his opinion respected in his small community, and recognized by the government as a troublemaker when they began confiscating Fulani land.
“The police would come after lunch dressed in military uniforms,” he remembers. “I had seen the police in my village and on TV, so I knew what they looked like.”
‘If you refuse to leave, we will kill you, one by one,’ the men in uniforms threatened.
“But how could we leave?” Boubacar asks, his voice still raw with anguish from the decision he faced in those terrible days. He was then a husband and the father of four young children.
“This was our entire livelihood,” he explains. “These had been our ancestral lands for generations upon generations.”
Boubacar began organizing, unifying the community and holding a large anti-government protest. Judgment against them was swift; Boubacar and others, including his cousin, were arrested and taken to prison.
The torture inflicted in that desolate space took all the usual and horrific forms. Boubacar was beaten, electrocuted, and hanged until near death. And the torture continued, three times a day, sometimes more. The guards told him it was his fault, because he wouldn’t give in, because he was so stubborn.
“Only the very strongest survive the torture in prison,” Boubacar says bitterly. When his cousin died in front of him, screaming in pain, Boubacar knew he would be next. The only way to avoid death was escape, and there was no way to escape.
Then came the night—2 o’clock in the morning—when a guard suddenly woke Boubacar from a restless sleep. The guard took him out of his cell…alone. Confused, terrified, Boubacar didn’t know what was happening. Would it be more torture? Was it his time to die?
The guard stopped at the exit. “Go,” he told his prisoner. “Leave now.”
Boubacar’s father was waiting outside with a change of clothing. While his son was in prison, he had contacted a relative who was a policeman in another region. They had worked together to get him out.
Boubacar’s relief and joy was immense, although tempered by his worry for those still in prison. And then his father told him the family had lost everything. The government militia had destroyed the farm, burned their livestock, and forced his parents, his wife, and children off the land.
“You need to be brave now,” his father told him. “You have to think of your family.”
Boubacar fled to the Ivory Coast, a country in chaos from civil war. There would be no permanent safety in such a place. An uncle worked instead to secure him a visa to the United States. Boubacar was still waiting for the visa when he learned that militia members, angry because of his escape, had beaten his father to death. His eldest son, always frail and sickly, had died shortly thereafter.
Boubacar pauses as he recounts these events. He grips his hands tightly to stop their trembling. “I don’t like to remember my son’s death,” he says.
He was one of the most traumatized people I’ve ever met. I knew we had to do everything we could to help him.
Anyone seeking asylum in the United States has to apply within one year of their arrival, and Boubacar had already been here for several years before he formally applied.
“It was the hardest thing about this case,” explains Jenny. “The deadline is usually an insurmountable barrier. It’s there to prevent fraud, but it can impose unfair restrictions in some cases. Boubacar was too traumatized to even ask for help.”
“It was all too much for me to handle,” Boubacar agrees quietly. “I could not eat. I could not sleep. I could not trust people. And I could not speak about it.”
Most evenings, when Boubacar finished work at the hotel, he would head back to his solitary rooms and share messages with his mother and three remaining children. His wife had divorced him years ago and now had a new family with another man. His mother was getting older, and his children were growing up. Boubacar was an undocumented kitchen worker; the money he managed to send home was not enough.
A member of Chicago’s West African community finally helped Boubacar find an attorney to help him apply for asylum. The attorney then became ill and retired suddenly, leaving Boubacar alone in court and scrambling to get his file back. He was unsure of what to do next. It seemed no one wanted to take his case. It was problematic and the chances of winning were too slim.
In other words, it was just the sort of case for Jenny and staff at Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors.
“She was very compassionate and very patient,” says Boubacar. “She helped me be comfortable. She worked so hard and took time to do everything right.
It was hard; Jenny and her staff —NIJFON staff attorney Hanoch Kanhai-Zamora and paralegal Agueda Garcia—would need to put in massive hours of research and preparation for his case.
For his part, Boubacar would have to face his second-greatest fear—being returned to his tormentors was his first—of reliving the torture and the terror he had miraculously survived. He had to undergo a medical exam for a physician to affirm the evidence of the torture. He also underwent an extensive psychological evaluation, citing horrific trauma and PTSD as the reason for both his delay in requesting asylum and for his fear of returning to his home country.
And he had to talk about it—over and over again.
Finally, the day arrived, and Jenny was concerned. The presiding judge was new to immigration court—all his previous experience had been with workers’ compensation cases. How would he react to Boubacar’s case?
“He had never heard of this level of torture,” says Jenny. “In the end, the corroborating evidence, the medical and psychological evaluations, the consistency of Boubacar’s story—it was just overwhelming, and it convinced the judge.”
In the court that day, Boubacar was trying to collect himself together, but there were still tears on his face.
“Are you okay?” Jenny asked.
“Yes, I am very happy,” he answered, nodding. He turned to her and smiled. “Thank you.”
And then he immediately messaged his mother and children to share the good news.
Boubacar—like so many others—lost his job at the hotel due to the pandemic. In the interim, he has been working as a tailor at West African fabric store. He made the office staff a bevy of masks (pictured right) using traditional West African designs.
Boubacar is also a very good cook. “He brings us a lot of food,” Jenny says happily, “rice with lamb, and this amazing peanut stew. He is always looking for ways to say thank you.”
Jenny also gratefully acknowledges the staff and volunteers of the Marjorie Kovler Center’s Survivors of Torture program, particularly case managers Reshad Amini and Marie Shebeck.
“None of this would have been possible without them,” she says.
Ultimately, however, it is Boubacar who made this happy outcome possible. It was his stubborn will to survive that delivered him to this kinder shore, and has given him a chance to, one day, be reunited with his children.
“Everything is good,” Boubacar agrees, smiling with his eyes. “I am moving forward at last. I experience every day with hope for the future.”