Broken Promises: Seeking Political Asylum in America
Coming to America
Isatu Jalloh had never been on a plane in her life when, in October 2006, she made the two-day trip to Philadelphia from her grandmother's village in Sierra Leone. As the airplane flew over New York City, the 18-year-old stared out the window, trying to see whether she could catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, that world-famous symbol of freedom for the oppressed. After living in a war-torn country, being raped by soldiers and mutilated by her tribespeople, Isatu hoped she was safe at last. Excited to be in America and exhausted from the trip, the nervous teenager handed her passport to an immigration official. "This isn't a photograph of you," he told her. "I know," Isatu replied softly. "I would like to apply for political asylum."
Isatu was only 4 years old when her country was plunged into civil war. While growing up she suffered through food shortages, blackouts, and bombings and witnessed many atrocities. In 1999, when she was 12, rebels overran Freetown, the capital city where she and her mother lived, and they were forced to flee. In the ensuing panic they were separated; Isatu was captured with many of her neighbors. "They lined us up. Rebel soldiers walked down the line, cutting off people's hands with machetes. I was terrified," she recalls. "When two soldiers got to me, one held down my hand and started cutting. The other one stopped him, saying I was too beautiful. Instead he raped me." His friends might have taken a turn, too, but a fighter jet flew over. Expecting to be bombed, the rebels took off.
A week later Isatu's mother found the girl hiding, severely traumatized, in one of the few houses still standing in their burned-out community. The war raged on for three more years before the conflict finally ended, in 2002. Eleven years of fighting had left an estimated 50,000 people dead, half the population homeless, and tens of thousands mutilated.
When the war ended Isatu and her mother began to rebuild their lives. But in 2004 Isatu's mother died of malaria. The girl, then 16, was sent to live with her grandmother, Mariama, in rural Sierra Leone. Life was suddenly very different. Her mother had been progressive, but her grandmother was extremely traditional. In fact, Mariama was her community's sowei, a revered tribal leader. One of Mariama's duties was to initiate girls into the "Bondo Society," a rite of passage signaled by the practice human-rights groups call female genital mutilation (FGM). In this agonizing ritual, the girl's labia and clitoris are partially or completely removed, usually with a razor blade, a knife, or a shard of glass, and the entrance to her vagina is sewn up tight, leaving a matchstick-size hole for menstruation. It's generally performed on girls when they're between 7 and 10 years old to prevent promiscuity and prepare them for marriage.