She got off the plane from Paris with nothing more than a couple of small bags. The bags had been packed for days as she waited for Eddie, a stranger who had approached her out of nowhere to say he knew all about her problems and could help. For $155 Eddie had given her a passport in the name of Marie-Therese Ekwa, age twenty-four, from Verviers, Belgium. This young woman, however, was seventeen, and her journey had not started in Paris, and she had never been to Belgium.
It was just before five in the afternoon. Detroit. September 4, 2001.
The airport agent looked at the passport and asked her to state her business. She spoke very little English and did not understand.
Photograph by Kevin Garrett
She wore her long hair in braids and had on a T-shirt and pants. She stood five-foot-ten and carried her slender height gracefully, almost gliding. Despite the long flight, she had not slept but rather spent the transatlantic journey in conversation with herself: Where am I going? What am I doing? Have I done the right thing?
In an office, an agent asked questions in English and a translator repeated them in French.
Why are you going to Canada?
For my brother’s wedding, she answered. Her Northwest Airlines ticket showed Montreal as the final destination. The flight would depart at 9:05.
Where are you from? Where do you live?
She gave an address in Brussels, telling the agents she had lived there eleven years and was a Belgian citizen. I was born in Cameroon but went to Belgium to live with my parents, she explained. They are dead now. I live with my boyfriend. He is a student.
Prove you’re Belgian. You don’t have other identification?
I lost my bag in Paris, she said.
What is your brother’s phone number in Montreal? We’ll call him.
I don’t know.
Where is the dress you’ll wear to this wedding?
My brother will buy it for me when I get there. He is a Canadian citizen and has been living in Canada for twelve years.
By now she should have been making her way to gate C26, where her plane would board, but the questioning went on. Finally the translator said: “Look, we’ve tested your passport and we know it’s a fake. You need to tell us now—what is the truth?”
It was late and she had run out of stories. This business about her brother’s wedding, this had come from nowhere. She had not been prepared for an interrogation—she thought she would simply switch from one plane to another and wind up in Canada, where they spoke her language and where Eddie would meet her. Now, the only story that mattered was the one she most hated to tell.
“Tu comprends ce que je t’ai dit?” the agent asked. Do you understand what I’ve said to you?
“Do you have any questions?”
“Are you willing to answer my questions at this time?”
“Do you swear and affirm that all the statements you are about to make are true and complete?”
The time would soon come and go to board Flight 3468.
“What is your full and correct name?”
“What is your date and place of birth?”
“September 29, 1983. Kayanza, Burundi.”
“Are any of your immediate relatives living in the United States? Father? Mother? Brother? Sister?”
“Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime anywhere in the world?”
“Have you ever been in prison in any country in the world?”
“How long were you planning on staying in Canada?”
“I was going to ask for asylum in Canada.”
“Do you have any family in Canada?”
“Where is your mother and father at the moment?”
“They are deceased.”
“Do you have a fear of returning to your home country?”
“Will you be harmed if you are returned to your home country?”
“Do you have anything to add to this statement?”
“I would just like for the United States to take care of me.”