This story originally appeared in our October 2007 issue. In 2008, it won a National Magazine Award for feature writing.
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.
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.”
Remove everything, they said.
Cynthia’s wrist felt strange now, bare. She had not taken her bracelets off since the day her brother, Franck, gave them to her. They were made of tiny blue strung beads and she wore them as a pair on her left wrist. She could not remember exactly when or why Franck gave her the bracelets or even whether he gave them to her before or after their parents died. At the time, the bracelets had meant little to her, but they meant quite a bit to her now that she had nothing from home—not a photograph, letter, or keepsake, no evidence that she or her family even existed. As she had grown older and taller, the bracelets tightened on her wrist. It would take a contortionist feat to get them off, and she begged the jailer not to make her do it. But Cynthia was an official U.S. Alien now and those were the rules. One bracelet broke. The other they bagged with the rest of her personal effects. Nearly starving had been hard; running had, too, and seeing so much death. But in some ways this felt even worse, being stripped and searched and locked in a cell.
After three days the door opened and they put her on a plane and flew her south, away from any possibility of Canada and who, or what, might have been waiting for her there. Another contortionist feat and she got her remaining bracelet back on as she moved once again into the unknown.
From Hartsfield International Airport, they drove her down past Fayetteville, past Peachtree City, to the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home in Meansville. A country town, population 192. A home full of other children in her situation—unaccompanied, undocumented—but from Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, as well as China, some trafficked to work illegally in the garment industry or as sex slaves. An official in Detroit had wondered whether the fellow Eddie, whom eventually they had learned about, hadn’t been planning something similar for Cynthia. “You’re lucky we got you,” one of the INS people had told her.
Set on 100 acres, the home looked like a college campus or some kind of summer camp and certainly like no refugee camp Cynthia had ever seen: tidy residential cottages, a school, a gymnasium, a chapel, ball fields, ponds. No one spoke her language, but she understood by everyone’s tone and gestures that they meant her no harm. Every morning before class, they gathered to worship and sing. Obviously these were people who believed in God. For the moment, she was safe. The world, increasingly less so. Several days later, as she watched the events of 9/11 unfold on television, Cynthia stared at the falling and burning buildings and the parade of stunned faces, wondering what to make of this nation’s grief.
In her West Peachtree Street law office, Sue Colussy, director of immigration services at Catholic Social Services, got a phone call from an Atlanta-based INS agent named Irene Holth. “I’ve got this kid who’s about to age out,” Holth told Colussy, “and I don’t want her going to detention.”
Colussy quickly understood the girl’s asylum case to be unusual for a couple of reasons. First, she came from Burundi. So few Burundians sought protection in the United States that the nationality hardly even registered on statistical reports and usually wound up lumped into the category of Central Africa. Half of America had never even heard of Burundi. It sounded a little like that fictional country Eddie Murphy came from in Coming to America, his royal path scattered with rose petals. But no paths were scattered with rose petals in Burundi, the most densely populated country in Africa and one of the poorest, tensest places on earth.
About the size of Maryland, with 6 million inhabitants, Burundi lay wedged between Zaire and Lake Tanganyika to the west and southwest, Tanzania to the south and east, and the similarly diminutive Rwanda to the north, in the Great Lakes region. About 250,000 people lived in the capital, Bujumbura, but the second largest town had only 15,000 residents. Others lived not so much in towns or villages as on hills, on family plots where they grew their own food. Churches and schools usually stood alone in the countryside. Commercial districts, if they could be called that, and if there were any, consisted of a few houses used as government buildings or shops. Everyone spoke Kirundi, and the educated also spoke French, but most were not educated; most could not even read.
As in Rwanda, the primary ethnic groups were Hutu, traditionally farmers, and Tutsi, aristocratic cattle herders. The Hutu overwhelmingly outnumbered the Tutsi at 85 percent yet held none of the power. When the Hutu tried to gain power in 1972, the Tutsi-led army put them down with such gruesome violence—a genocide that killed as many as 150,000—that no one would ever forget. When a Hutu finally became president, in 1993, he lasted barely 100 days.
The conditions for conflict had simmered for centuries, but, Sue Colussy knew, this latest civil war had been going on since late 1993, nearly eight years of fighting there in that lush, mountainous nation of coffee plantations and banana groves. When it started, Cynthia Siyomvo would have been a schoolgirl who had just turned ten. Rwanda’s genocidal horrors of April 1994 would have been six months away. Rwanda would eventually draw the world’s attention and regret, while comparatively few knew that a similarly medieval war had been waged in Burundi with barely a western finger lifted in aid. It was all very simple and complicated and interconnected, the situation in Burundi and Rwanda. “If Rwanda sneezes, Burundi gets a cold,” or so the paraphrased saying went. Colussy had worked with refugees from all over the world but amid the massacres of the nineties saw hardly any Burundians and Rwandans, because so few survivors were able to get out.
Catholic Social Services, soon to be renamed Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, had been around for fifty years and offered, among other things, legal aid to the poor. Its immigration division had existed for thirty years. Colussy had been there twenty-two. She and her handful of bi- and trilingual attorneys worked out of basement offices just down from the North Avenue MARTA station. Colussy’s office faced the street, and if she had time to look up from her work she might see passing heads, or daylight. She could have chosen the big money of a private practice but preferred to be here, in the world of Hail Marys and sliding scales. And she wasn’t even Catholic. She wasn’t even particularly—what was the term? Warm and fuzzy. But so what? Just because she wasn’t the type to sit you down and hand you a lollipop didn’t mean Sue Colussy wasn’t your truest ally or your best hope. She had trained half the immigration lawyers in this city. Her staff kept 2,000 or more immigration cases going at a time, at least 10 percent of them asylum cases, such nightmarish stories you’d wish to go back to a time when you never knew about them. People like Colussy made it their business to know about them. Your huddled masses didn’t come to Catholic Social Services for warm and fuzzy. They wanted a better life. They wanted life.
Cops and shelters and hospitals and clients and former clients and INS agents passed Colussy’s name on so quickly—uttered almost as one word, suecolussy—that some misheard and showed up in search of “Sister Lucy.” Hundreds of those who had survived homeland brutalities only to face Atlanta’s particularly tough immigration court would tell people, “I owe Sue Colussy my life.” Even other lawyers revered her. “She should be sainted,” as Charles Kuck once put it. Kuck in 1990 turned his entire private practice to immigration law. He went on to become managing partner of Kuck Casablanca, the largest immigration-only law firm in the Southeast; by 2007, he’d be president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He and Colussy operated at different points on the fee scale but shared reasons for choosing immigration. They enjoyed the increasingly complex puzzle of U.S. immigration law and a role in making a difference in someone’s life. The work allowed them to witness with regularity the resilience of men, women, and children whose lives were desperate and endangered enough to compel them to stow away in ships, or sneak across guarded borders, or risk sharky seas on makeshift rafts, or simply board a plane on faith. “Lazy people don’t walk across the desert,” Kuck liked to say. “This country attracts the best and the brightest. We attract the spirited people from around the world. People don’t come here for welfare benefits—they don’t get any. They come here to change their lives.”
And increasing thousands were coming to Atlanta. The 1996 Olympics anchored the city in the global consciousness and brought international newcomers in ever-larger numbers. As thirteen counties experienced a triple-digit population increase, the metro area was seeing a 49 percent increase in the number of foreign-born residents. Mexicans held the lead with more than 182,000, followed by Indians, Koreans, Jamaicans, Vietnamese, and Chinese. But the city also had Brazilians, Colombians, Germans, Nigerians, Guatemalans, Australians, Russians, Bosnians, Cubans, Romanians, Ukrainians, Filipinos, Pakistanis, Haitians, Iranians, and Cambodians, among many others. More were immigrating from Latin America, Central America, and Asia than anywhere else. Only 30 percent came from Africa. There were Western Africans, including Nigerians, Liberians, and Ghanians, and Eastern Africans (Ethiopians and Kenyans), and about a thousand North Africans, from Egypt, yet few Central Africans.
But now here was this kid from Burundi. Sue Colussy knew that Cynthia’s most pressing problem had been her unlawful arrival, but added to that now was a ticking clock. In two weeks, Cynthia would turn eighteen—adulthood in the eyes of the court. Too old for a group home, too old for foster care. Without a sponsor or asylum, which would take months to secure if it could be secured at all, Cynthia, who by all evidence had never done anything wrong, would be reintroduced—indefinitely—to a necessary ugliness of the immigration flow: adult lockup. Jail.
Grace Uwimfura, a Catholic Social Services caseworker, occasionally translated for Sue Colussy. Soft-spoken, with a brilliant smile that transformed her face into the shape of a heart, Grace wore a gold locket whose contents were between her and the Lord.
Grace enjoyed working for Colussy—she admired her style. Colussy pushed hard but was forthright and fair, always listening closely and peering through her rimless glasses. Sue Colussy seemed to understand that most of her clients came with nothing—no money for lawyers and no country to return to. Grace had come to Atlanta under similar circumstances herself, from Rwanda, with her three youngest children and with every intention of also getting her two war-orphaned nephews out of a refugee camp in Kenya. As a ward of the United Nations, she had come fully documented and rubber-stamped by the U.S. government; in June 1996—two years after the epic genocide that killed 800,000 Rwandans in just 100 days, Grace’s husband included—Grace and the children had stepped off a plane in Atlanta and into the security of completed paperwork and the embrace of Saint Lawrence Catholic Church of Lawrenceville. They had been living amid the filth and starvation of refugee camps, but now the people of Saint Lawrence, with help from World Relief, were settling them into an apartment carefully furnished and stocked, down to the medicine cabinet. “They don’t even know me, they’ve never even seen my face,” Grace thought, “and they’re treating me like a human.” She had lost her husband and country—her very identity, except as a mother and a Christian. Before she boarded the plane to America, she had prayed, “God, wherever you send me, just be there before I arrive.” And there were the people of Saint Lawrence.
They came to her home and taught her English. They drove her to the grocery store and taught her how to shop. They helped her find a job and took turns driving her there. While she worked, they babysat her youngest children in shifts. They taught her to drive. They found her a car. Grace knew some immigrants came to the United States with the dream that life would be perfect, that everything would flower, only to arrive and feel overwhelmed by a language they did not speak, laws and customs they couldn’t understand, and a dizzying abundance of human diversity and commerce. Grace felt like a newborn, but the people of Saint Lawrence spared her some of the loneliness and bewilderment of starting a new life.
And they did not stop there. Saint Lawrence helped get her nephews out of Kenya, and now these boys, her slain brother’s children, were Grace’s children, too. All the school-age kids were enrolled now and thriving. In time, they had moved into a nice two-story home open and full of life. Dinner conversation might start in Kirundi and wind up in French or Swahili or English. Grace never put the topic of their difficult past off limits but chose not to dwell on it. Wars between Hutu and Tutsi—so ridiculous. Were they all not black? Did they not eat the same food and speak the same language? If you are born into a family where a Hutu and a Tutsi married, how can you differentiate? One is your mother, one is your father. You love your mother, you love your father.
And what good would it do to talk about those who had murdered her husband? To be angry all the time? What could she do about it, get a gun and go kill . . . whom? She would not even know where to seek her revenge. And if she did, what then? She would go to jail because she killed somebody who killed somebody who killed somebody. The children did not need to see anger. If mom is angry, they will feel the need to join her in her anger. The children took their cues from her, parroted her. If she prepared them with peace and love, educated them in courage and forgiveness, then the world could use them.
With Americans, the genocide was almost impossible to discuss. If you have not been through war, you cannot understand war. War is like a tornado. One moment you have your life and the next moment everything explodes. When war starts, you cannot sit down at a computer and type something in and say, “Okay the war has started now, let me see where I can go.” You don’t even have time to pack. You just grab your children and run to the next place you think will be safe. You hope to keep your mind. In war, the mind comes and goes. Sometimes you even think, Oh my God, did this happen? Was my husband really killed? And where is he now? In a grave? Eaten by dogs?
What is it like to be in a war?
“It is beyond,” Grace said when she had no words. “It is beyond.”
“I am not a politician, I am just a mother,” she had decided. “The peace comes from me. I have created peace for myself and for the ones who belong to me—that is what I am in charge of. The future of the world, no. My children, yes.”
Cynthia was the same age as Grace’s son Oliver. The girl’s mother would have wanted her to be cared for, protected. It was important to treat Cynthia gently, to build trust.
During their first translation, even when addressing her in Kirundi, Grace could barely get a word out of her. “Oh my God, she is measuring her words,” Grace thought. “She is afraid.”
“She’s just shy,” someone suggested later.
“If you were in her situation, that is the attitude you would have, too,” Grace said. “This girl, she is seventeen. Her life is in danger. She is by herself—no family. She does not know what is going on, what is going to happen.”
As Colussy got to work on Cynthia’s asylum application, Catholic Social Services e-mailed hundreds of contacts, looking for a sponsor. “If they don’t find someone soon,” Grace told herself, “I will talk to my priest and we will save her life before she turns eighteen.” At home in Lawrenceville, she gathered her large family and said, “We have to pray.”
In a borrowed office near Chastain Park, Reid Preston Mizell stared at her computer screen, absorbed in a struggle to come up with a business plan for what one day would be Tula Communications. A marketing veteran, she had headed U.S. operations for Lang Associates, a Canadian firm, and, partly because she earned a year of her Georgia State MBA from École Superior de Commerce de Paris, she had served on the staff of Atlanta’s Olympics bid committee.
After the ’96 Olympics, she had moved with her husband, Robert, an architect, and their three children to Sydney, where she ran Lang’s operations before the 2000 Games. But now they were back in Buckhead, in the Roxboro Drive house that Robert designed, and Reid was figuring out her future. On September 30, 2001, she and Robert would celebrate their twenty-third wedding anniversary. Their kids were doing well: Callie, twenty-two, was finishing a biology degree at Georgia State; Sara, seventeen, had just started her senior year of high school; Jackson, fifteen, was a sophomore at a boarding school in New Hampshire. Now seemed like a good time, and yet the worst time, to be thinking of starting her own firm—Robert had decided to go out on his own, too. Their friends thought they were nuts to make such huge leaps at the same time.
Reid had made bold moves before, though. In the mid-eighties, despite an abundance of private schools, she cofounded Atlanta International School, a 4K–12 International Baccalaureate academy dedicated to bilingual education, whole-child development, and diversity. She was a brand new mother at the time but already knew she wanted her children to grow up open to other cultures and to all the world had to offer.
Reid herself, a native Alabaman, came from such a family. Her father, an IBM executive, moved the family all over the country. No matter where they lived, the Prestons maintained an open-house policy. If business contacts came from overseas, Reid’s parents insisted on putting them up. As a child, Reid would come home to find the house filled with the conversation of Brits, Belgians, Italians. Her father stoked her intellectual curiosity as much as her teachers did. If Reid hadn’t read the daily newspaper, she was not allowed to sit at the dinner table with the grown-ups. If she asked a question about something, her father would supplement his answer by buying Reid a book about it and expecting her to read it. Her father was a man hungry to know the world, a man at home in the world; Reid shared that attitude and wanted her children to have it, too.
A devout member of the Cathedral of Saint Philip in Buckhead, she also believed—strongly—in the Episcopal Church’s tenet that its members had a responsibility to participate in missions of justice, compassion, and reconciliation in the world, that everyone must play a part.
As she sat staring at her computer, an e-mail appeared from a friend at Saint Philip, a man Reid knew volunteered at Catholic Social Services.
“Reid,” the note said, “you speak French, don’t you?”
“Oh my God, she’s Sara’s age,” Reid thought as she read the e-mail about Cynthia.
She picked up the phone and called Donna Dunson, head of upper school at Atlanta International School, and asked, “What can we do?” Dunson went to AIS admissions director Aileen Williams, who offered to bring Cynthia into AIS on full scholarship.
Driving home, Reid thought, “Okay the scholarship is a huge help, but who’s going to sponsor her?” Then, sitting at a red light, she just started laughing. The clarity of the moment struck her.
The Mizells had room in their home. Most of them spoke French. Of all the schools in metro Atlanta, the Mizells had helped start the one that would best serve someone like Cynthia. Sara was her age—they could be classmates. Reid thought, “Obviously, I’m part of somebody’s plan here.”
At home, she called a family meeting with Robert, Sara, and Callie. They rang Jackson in New Hampshire to talk about offering this young woman a home. Could it work? They had the space, but would a teenager from Burundi feel comfortable with a white family in Buckhead? Would she have emotional problems, given all that she had been through? What had she been through? And say she had coped well, as some war survivors miraculously did, wouldn’t she be terribly behind in school? AIS students routinely learned several languages, including English, but Cynthia had been educated in the refugee camps of wartime Africa, and sporadically at that.
“If we do this, the burden will be on you,” Reid told Sara, who was only weeks into her senior year. “You’re her age. You’re going to have to go to school with her every day. This is going to intrude on your life the most on a day-to-day basis.”
“I understand that,” Sara said.
“Let’s go meet her,” Reid said. “If you feel you don’t want to do it, no judgment. We’ll just say no.”
Reid and Sara drove to Meansville on September 28, twenty-four days after Cynthia arrived in the United States and one day before her eighteenth birthday. When the INS agent introduced Cynthia to the Mizells, Cynthia began crying, and then Reid began crying, and then the INS agent began crying, and then Sara rolled her eyes and took Cynthia by the hand.
“Bon alors, on va parler,” she said. Come on, let’s go talk.
Sitting on a garden bench, Sara explained in French all about her family and their house and her school—that many students there were learning to speak English and that Cynthia could, too. Merci, Cynthia kept saying, and je ne le crois pas—I can’t believe it.
When they walked back over to Reid and the agent, Sara whispered to her mother, “Let’s do this.”
Reid looked at the agent and said, “Okay.”
Okay. One word and everything changed.
Let’s do this.
Or was it more than one word?
Look, I’ve got this kid . . .
Reid, you speak French, don’t you?
Let’s do this.
The e-mail from Catholic Social Services had gone out to hundreds who had forwarded it to hundreds, and out of the silence one responded, like an answer to an SOS.
Day after day, Grace had signed onto her e-mail at work, hoping for good news about Cynthia. With one day left on the ticking clock, a colleague stopped by her cubicle and grinned: “Have you opened your e-mail yet?”
The staff and residents of the children’s home celebrated Cynthia’s birthday a day early with a cake and gifts. Cynthia had never had a birthday cake before. The next day, when she arrived in Buckhead, the Mizells were waiting with a birthday cake of their own.
Here is your room, here is your bathroom, here is your closet.
The house was modern, multistoried, airy as a lodge, with a stone fireplace and leather sofas and broad windows overlooking a deeply wooded lot that glowed a thousand shades of green.
Here is the newspaper, the stereo, the television. Here is Baxter the cat. Here is the kitchen—please eat a lot. Here is your house key. This is your home.
Cynthia’s room lay at the top of a short flight of steps. It held a brass bed with fresh linens, and a desk. The picture windows faced the lush, peaceful leafiness of the forested yard. With the blinds open it was like living in a tree house.
They showed her where to put her things and invited her to their table. As she sat quietly and took it all in, they cooked for her and talked to her and went about their gregarious Mizell ways. On this day eighteen years ago Cynthia had been born in Kayanza, Burundi, up in the mountainous north, near Rwanda; born into a family of two parents and an older brother: Paul, Marie, Franck—gone now, all. And here she was in Buckhead, Atlanta, Georgia, United States, North America, 7,700 miles from where she started, with a family called Mizell giving her anything she needed, feeding her birthday cake.
That was Saturday. On Monday, she went to school.
Despite her unusual history, admissions tests showed her to be especially skilled in math and science. Right away, AIS customized a curriculum that allowed Cynthia to take her classes in French and move into the mainstream as she learned English. An unusual approach, but it could work.
And Cynthia was clearly determined to make it work. AIS turned out kids who went on to the Ivies, and from the start Cynthia matched them in determination, always with her face in a book or working with an after-school tutor. In class, she responded respectfully to teachers and classmates alike as if reared by parents who had emphasized the importance of good manners. Beyond that, she said little, as if still in survival mode: watching, waiting. Teachers wondered whether her seriousness was simply her demeanor or rather a manifestation of deep sadness. How overwhelming it must be, Dunson and others thought, to come not just to a new school, which is stressful enough for a teenager, but also to a new family and an entirely new world. Cynthia had left an impoverished country of 6 million for a superpower of 278 million. In Burundi, her life expectancy would have topped out at age forty-seven; by coming to America, she effectively doubled it. She had left a country where only 35 percent of the population could read for one where 97 percent could. Burundians had 440,000 radios; Americans had 575 million. The United States had nearly 15,000 airports; Burundi had four. She had left a country where a conversation with the wrong person could get her killed for a place where absolute strangers were going to all ends to help her.
In ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), Shanta Kalyanasundaram’s students happened to be studying human rights. Kalyanasundaram wondered whether she should change the subject matter for Cynthia’s benefit but decided against it. For days, they discussed child soldiers, Amnesty International, the meaning of life, the concept of man’s inhumanity to man, Cynthia riveted. She also showed a particular interest in natural disasters—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. When Kalyanasundaram commented on the instability of Earth during a discussion on tectonic plates, Cynthia looked up from her textbook as if in alarm and Kalyanasundaram thought, “Oh no, have I said something wrong?” She reminded Kalyanasundaram, who is South African–Indian, of other African students she had known—resilient, determined. The Mozambique children she had known had walked through land mines to save themselves, and lost limbs, yet were the most positive, productive people she knew. “They work and work and work,” Kalyanasundaram thought. Cynthia proved herself no different. She needed none of the usual reminders and constant affirmation. “Her whole aim in life is to get on with it,” Kalyanasundaram thought. “To move on.”
At home, as the weeks passed, Cynthia answered politely when spoken to but volunteered nothing more. She seldom made eye contact. She moved through her budding world as if on untested ice. “She knows what it’s like to have everything taken from her,” Reid thought. If Cynthia had any scars, and surely she must, she kept them to herself. “What she’s been through could freeze a person,” Sara thought. “How is it humanly possible to have been through what she’s been through and not be paralyzed and afraid all the time? How do you ever start to trust people? How do you ever start to relax?” Some of Sara’s friends had been more emotionally damaged by bad breakups, it seemed. “If she’s damaged, she doesn’t let it hold her back,” Sara decided.
Yet when months had passed and Cynthia had barely ventured a smile, Reid asked Grace, “What can I do? What can I do for her?”
“It’s a new family to her, a new culture,” Grace said. “She has to learn. Even though I am basically from her country, I am new to her life, too. She’s in between. Life is not just what you eat.”
If Cynthia opened up, it was with Grace; her questions betrayed her worry. Will I get asylum? How long will it take? If I don’t get asylum, will they send me back to Burundi? Is it improper to watch television with the Mizells after dinner? Cynthia still did not know whether she had been adopted or was living with the Mizells only until she got her papers, or what. She mastered the remote control and the smorgasbord of channels faster than she could figure out even the most basic things. How to greet people, for instance. Burundians kissed three times in greeting, left cheek to right cheek to left. In Atlanta, people said hello with hugs, kisses, handshakes, back slaps, or with no touch at all, but how did one know whom to kiss and whom to hug and with whom to shake hands, and when?
“Day by day, things will be different,” Grace told her whenever she felt discouraged. “Your future is bright. Other refugees come here and have to do things on their own. You have a good lawyer, you have a family who loves you. If you don’t have faith, it’s going to be hard.” Grace and Sue Colussy both had found this to be true. Refugees who came without religious faith had a much harder time and, occasionally, a hard fall into alcoholism and homelessness. “You have to build up faith in your mind,” Grace told Cynthia. “This family did not just come up from air. God was working. People picked up the phone, people made decisions. You have thousands of angels around you.”
The Mizells refused to treat Cynthia as anything other than a Mizell. Jackson called her Cynthia Escargot or Cynthia Croissant, his adolescent way of saying, “Welcome.” Before long, Sara was calling Cynthia her black twin. Robert bought her a computer and showed her how to go online. As her English progressed, he nagged her to keep reading in French. When she had court dates or appointments with Sue Colussy, Robert was usually the one who took her. He talked to her about everything, in English, whether she understood it or not. His animated monologues covered Buckhead, Eminem, Star Trek, the political significance of some ratty leather chair he found on the curb, and whatever other random bits of knowledge he felt she needed to know. The more confused Cynthia looked, the louder Robert talked. Sometimes Sara or Reid translated, but most of the time they let Robert and Cynthia find their way. Reid thought, “Every girl needs a father.”
Cynthia began taping snapshots of the Mizells, even the grandparents, to the door and window frames in her room. If someone cut up a photo for a scrapbook, Cynthia kept the castoffs. If someone gave her a gift, she kept even the box. The Mizells rarely wanted the little LEGO-like toys that came in cereal boxes, but Cynthia wanted them. She assembled the toys and lined them up for display in her room. She kept the “graduation” certificate the children’s home had given her upon her departure, along with a sheet of notebook paper on which she’d penciled a prayer she heard the other children reciting: “Thank you, Lord, for the good things you did for us today. We need your help for our problems . . .”
It was spring before anyone heard her laugh. Only then did Reid think, “She’s going to be okay.”
No one would remember quite when this happened, or why, but Cynthia began calling Sara and Callie her sisters, and Jackson her brother, and introducing Reid and Robert as her mom and dad. Grace she called Auntie.
Only occasionally did anyone try to draw Cynthia out about her past. If Reid asked, “What kind of Burundian food did you eat?” Cynthia would say, “I prefer American food.” Yet at Christmas, as the Mizells put up their North Carolina fir, Cynthia leaned into the fragrant branches and inhaled. “It smells like Burundi in the morning,” she said.
Even Grace had never asked Cynthia about home. And Cynthia never asked Grace about Rwanda. They knew each other’s souls without knowing each other’s stories. The only ones who needed to know Cynthia’s story were Sue Colussy and the government. Colussy hoped Cynthia’s chances for asylum were better than most, given the tens of thousands dead in Burundi, but with the shock of 9/11 giving way to stricter laws and procedures under the newly created Department of Homeland Security, no one’s security was guaranteed. For all her good fortune in finding Sue Colussy and the Mizells, Cynthia had walked into something of a snare by landing in Atlanta.
William Cassidy and Mackenzie Rast, the region’s immigration judges, denied asylum 88 percent of the time, well above the national average of 62 percent. Cassidy was the tougher of the two. From the mid-nineties to 2000, only three judges in the country had denied asylum more often than Cassidy. Rast ranked twenty-first. A former assistant state attorney in Florida, he had been an immigration judge for eleven years. Between 1994 and 1999, he had granted asylum in only fifty-five out of 370 cases. Yet if you wanted a shot at asylum in Atlanta, you hoped for Rast.
Judges base a big part of their decision on instinct. Everyone knew the first rule of immigration law: Clients lie. Sue Colussy always told her clients straight away: You lie to me, I’m gone. And in the extremely rare event that a client did lie, Colussy kept her word and walked right out the door. She trusted her gut the way judges had to trust theirs when applicants came before them with only their word, which made for disparity among the courts and left little room for predicting which way a case would go. It all depended on the story.
October 21, 1993
The president of Burundi went to bed with his cell phone on.
The palace occupied vast grounds surrounded by a high wall at the intersection of two broad avenues in Bujumbura. To the north lay the Hotel Meridien; to the west, a golf course. Army soldiers guarded the palace and lived in military camps a few miles away, across the Muha River. President Melchior Ndadaye, a forty-year-old ex-banker and the first Hutu president in history, had been in office since June. Barely a month after he assumed the presidency, Army officers had attempted a coup that was quickly put down. Now, coup rumors were circulating again. The country was uneasy.
Ndadaye had been elected on a platform of land reform, and on the return of thousands of Hutus exiled after the 1972 genocide, and on allowing Hutus to join the Tutsi-dominated military. His landslide win, by 65 percent, was heralded as “one of the most remarkable transitions to democracy yet seen in Africa” and a promising step forward in the complicated, bloody history between Hutus and Tutsis.
The Hutu, farmers from the Niger-Congo region, settled modern-day Burundi and Rwanda in 200 AD. The Tutsi, cattle-raising nomads, came later, from the upper Nile region in the mid-1500s, and began to rule peacefully, as overlords. From 1885 through the 1950s, the territory known as Ruanda-Urundi was colonized by Germany and later ruled by Belgium. In 1959, the region split into Burundi and Rwanda. In the early sixties, Burundi gained independence from Belgium, with Tutsis in power. Hutus and Tutsis had always lived together peacefully, and some intermarried. But independence triggered political power struggles, coups, and coup attempts that radiated mistrust, fear, hatemongering, and reactionary violence. During the 1972 genocide, hundreds of thousands of Hutu fled as refugees, fearful but furious. In the coming years, the so-called “Hutu commandments,” published first in Rwanda, filtered south to Burundians. “Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, wherever she is, works for the interests of her Tutsi ethnic group. As a result, we shall consider a traitor any Hutu who marries a Tutsi woman; befriends a Tutsi woman; employs a Tutsi woman,” read commandment number one. Number eight was, “The Hutu should stop having mercy on the Tutsi.” A Tutsi variation held that “Hutu kids are spoiled and insouciant: Just get hold of the kid who lost his way, then ask his father, elder brother, or mother to come and fetch him, and then kill them all.”
Ndadaye’s election had brought the nation months of unprecedented harmony and appeared to be the symbol of a new Burundi. Ndadaye was not only Hutu, he had also been a nineteen-year-old refugee during the genocide two decades earlier. As such, he had the heart of the people—the majority of the people, that is.
The coup rumors that had been circulating now appeared true. At one-thirty in the morning, the president’s cell phone rang. The coup has started, a high-ranking official told him. “Il faut sortir,” he said—you must leave. Ndadaye rose and quickly dressed.
Paratroopers from the Second Parachute Battalion had surrounded the palace. Gunfire and cannon blasts could be heard throughout the city. By now, the army had closed the borders, cut the phone lines. By seven in the morning, the president, his wife, and their children had been taken to an army base, where soldiers surrounded the car and forced the Ndadaye family out. “Tell me what you want, we can negotiate,” the president told the soldiers in Kirundi. “But above all, do not spill blood. Think of your country. Think of your families.”
As it became clear that the president was in trouble, Hutus across the country began destroying bridges and felling trees as roadblocks, remembering that in ’72 the Tutsi came in caravans to haul away Hutus for slaughter. News of the president’s detainment spread by radio and by provincial officials on motorcycles. Hutus were urged to take Tutsis hostage. By 10 a.m. the president had been executed, and then the orders were to kill.
Hutus began killing Tutsis. The Tutsi army began killing Hutus. Everybody seemed to be killing everybody, regardless of gender or age. Mothers watched their children be cut down and then were cut down, too. Women were raped. Homes were sacked. Tutsis were gathered in schoolhouses and hospitals and on riverbanks and executed. The Hutu should stop having mercy on the Tutsi. The people waged war with stones, spears, clubs, hammers, bayonets, bows and arrows. The soldiers used guns.
North of the capital, in the province of Bubanza, Cynthia Siyomvo sat watching nighttime television with her family. The country had one television station. It broadcast from four in the afternoon to eleven at night, and the Siyomvos watched together. They got the news in Kirundi, the news in French, and old music videos from the United States—Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson. They also got movies and, on Tuesday nights, an NBA game days or weeks old. Cynthia especially loved the basketball games. Her father, Paul, called her “Jordan,” as in Michael. If girls played soccer, she would have joined in. Instead she tailed her brother Franck to his matches, where his friends teased, “Why you always got to bring your little sister?”
They lived better than most Burundians, in a small but nice brick house with three bedrooms and one bath, and a car. Paul Siyomvo worked as a liquor distributor; deliveries kept him on the road a couple of days a week. Like most Burundians, Marie grew their own food in their vast backyard. Their neighbors lived in similar homes within walking distance. Families knew each other. The children walked together to school.
Paul Siyomvo was Hutu. Marie was Tutsi. According to custom, their marriage made Cynthia and Franck Hutu. But the Siyomvos never talked about that. Older people talked about it, as in, “Oh, he is Hutu,” but never once in her life had Cynthia asked another person, “Are you Hutu or Tutsi?” Marie had always told them, “That doesn’t matter. If you are a good person, that is what matters.” Marie had lived here for years among Hutus with no problem.
A knock on the door. Paul opened it. Outside stood a crowd of men: neighbors, friends—people they knew—including Cynthia’s fourth-grade teacher. They held machetes. They called Paul out.
“We’re on a mission,” one said. “We’re going to kill every Tutsi in the country. Your wife is Tutsi, your children are Tutsi. You must kill them.”
“What is going on?” Paul said.
“Haven’t you heard?” the leader said. “We’re going to take over, kill all the cockroaches. We’re actually late. All over the country, they have already started.”
Paul said he needed time. He said he would take care of it. The men were angry and restless, but because they all knew each other, they agreed to give Paul time. “When we come back,” the one said, “we want to see their bodies. We want to see them dead.”
Inside, Paul told Marie and the children, “Right now they’re just upset about what happened. In the morning it will be fine.” But just in case, he said, hide.
Right away, Marie took Franck and Cynthia to the banana grove at the far, dark edge of the yard. There they waited all night. In the morning, they went back to the house and found Paul dead in the living room, the men’s dark promise having been carried out for his failure to kill his family.
“Stop crying,” Marie told Cynthia. They needed to move fast because the men would be back. Marie and the children gathered whatever clothing and food they could carry and went back to the banana grove to wait, to think about what to do. Soon the men returned. Cynthia could see their shadows moving about the house, see them step out with their machetes, into the backyard. Then the house began to burn. It burned with Paul in it and with everything they owned. When morning came, Marie and the children ran.
Cynthia felt caught in a very bad dream. “Tomorrow is just going to be normal again,” she kept thinking. She cried for her stuffed animals and for school and for the homemade french fries they used to eat at supper and for her favorite clothes. Marie slapped her right across the face.
“Stop crying,” she said.
They made it to a refugee camp, thinking safety in numbers. Outside the camp, the killing continued. Schoolteachers killed their pupils. Pupils killed each other. Tutsis were locked inside an abandoned gas station and burned alive. The army randomly hunted down Hutus and shot them on sight. The Nyabarongo River flowed with bodies. Even most of the nation’s cattle were killed. Ten, twenty, fifty thousand people lay dead in the early days, and more than 200,000 would be gone by the end. Some of the bodies would remain where they fell, going to bone, for many years to come. As one official put it, “Everybody has hands full of blood.”
By the end of just the first week, 400,000 Burundians had fled to Rwanda and other neighboring countries. By the end of the month, 600,000. By Christmas Eve, one and a half million. “The situation is very complex,” as Burundi’s minister of communications, a Tutsi, explained it to The New York Times. “It is not a western. You don’t have cowboys on one side and Indians on the other. It is not a moral problem, it is a political one. This will not be resolved in one week or two months.”
In the camps, 180 people were dying each day, many of them children. They starved, or died of cholera, dysentery, malaria. In Cynthia’s camp they had powdered milk and little else to eat. At first Cynthia refused it. She said, “No, I don’t eat that.” Soon, she was happy to eat anything at all. “If I could just get a handful of beans,” she would think.
As a lifelong Catholic, she knew how to pray. She prayed for survival. But as she began to understand that her life would never be the same—that their home was gone, her father was gone, bread was gone—she prayed to die.
But she didn’t die. For nearly a year, Marie, Franck, and Cynthia lived crowded into one small tent in a camp with little water and no place to wash and people pissing and shitting right on the earth.
Still, someone set up a school. First-graders attended with fifth-graders. No one took it very seriously because no one was sure they would survive to care about mathematics.
From time to time Marie cried for no reason. Franck grieved in dry silence. Cynthia thought, “This is my life now. I just need to get to tomorrow.”
She learned to sleep through nighttime gunfire and grenades. “This will come to an end,” she heard women in the camp say. “People cannot keep fighting forever.” But the fighting continued. When soldiers attacked the camp, Marie took the children and fled to the forest, where they walked and walked and walked—for days, they walked. Sometimes they could see distant figures moving off among the trees, groups of people passing like ghost ships. Whenever Marie got a bad feeling, she and the children stopped to hide. They slept in the forest and scavenged for food. But mostly they just walked, in silence. There was nothing to discuss.
On the other side of the forest, they found a two-room cottage to rent behind a Hutu family’s house. The arrangement violated the Hutu commandments about showing mercy to Tutsi women, but for all the killing, Hutus everywhere were hiding Tutsis at great risk to their own lives, and vice versa. For the next year, as the war continued, Marie worked for the landlords and in the fields. Cynthia studied with the landlords’ tutored children.
One night, they heard arguing and screaming in the main house. Marie helped Franck and Cynthia scramble up into their crawl space of an attic but had no way or time to get up there herself. Hutu men broke down the door, found Marie hiding in a corner, and killed her on sight. Finding no others, they left.
For hours, Franck and Cynthia waited. Then they came down. The long night with their mother’s body passed as they thought about what to do. At daybreak the landlady came and said the men had also killed her husband, for letting Tutsis live in his house. She gave Franck and Cynthia bus fare and told them to hurry away before the killers returned; she would take care of Marie.
The bus took them to Cibitoke, near the border of Zaire, where they rented a one-room cottage with a dirt floor and no kitchen or bath. Cynthia was twelve now, Franck sixteen. Cynthia enrolled in a school for orphans. The orphanage had no bed space but allowed Cynthia a uniform and a place in class. Franck took work and buried their savings in the floor. For three years they lived in the room—through another coup, more slaughters, through the genocide and its aftermath up north in Rwanda. Like the other families, they cooked outside and shared the communal bath. They concentrated simply on making it from one day to the next.
Behind their cottage stood the charred husk of an abandoned house. Weeds grew through the foundation. In duller moments Franck and Cynthia went to the house and played pretend, rebuilding it in their minds: Here is the living room, here is the kitchen; this could be your room, that could be mine.
One night, noise in the street. Men yelled, “Come here!” and “Who are you?” and “Where are you going?” Peeking out the door, they saw houses burning, women running, children standing stunned and screaming in the road. As Franck began gathering up their things he told Cynthia to run out the back, to the abandoned house; he would be close behind.
Cynthia slipped out the back and hid in an overgrown corner of the old house. A girl she knew ran past, holding her infant brother. Cynthia called the girl over and they huddled there together through the gunfire, trying to keep the baby quiet. All night they hid. Franck never came. At daybreak, Cynthia returned to the cottage and found him face down in the dirt.
The living began to tend to the dead. Some boys carried Franck down to the open field where they were burying people. They put him in the ground among the homemade crosses. Cynthia unearthed their money from the cottage floor, collected her school uniform, and got a bus to Bujumbura.
Her father’s brother lived there as a successful businessman. Despite the intermittent killing, life in many ways went on. Schools convened. Buses ran. Bean fields were plowed. Businessmen conducted business. Cynthia had visited the uncle and his family in the capital in happier times. Yet she and Franck had come to believe the uncle was to blame for their mother’s death because the uncle blamed Marie for Paul’s death. Had Paul never married a Tutsi, he might still be alive.
“My brother is dead now, too,” Cynthia said when the uncle came to the door. She thought, “How strange to look at this man and know he is the enemy.”
“You can’t stay here,” the uncle said. “It’s dangerous for me.” He gave her money and told her to never come back.
Cynthia rented a room in a Tutsi neighborhood, found a job in a small market, and used her income for rent. Every day possible, she put on her uniform and took the bus to school. A year passed, maybe more. Peace talks progressed but the killing continued. No one ever really felt safe, especially people like Cynthia. Among Hutus, it was dangerous to be the child of a Tutsi; among Tutsi, it was dangerous to be the child of a Hutu. She had no one and belonged nowhere.
One day, a man named Eddie showed up at Cynthia’s home and said he knew all about her problems, said he could help her get out. “Soon they will find out that your dad was a Hutu and that you’re here to spy,” he said. “You will never find peace.”
He offered to take her to Europe. Cynthia knew about Europe. People were happy there. Kids went to school. She had no real future in Burundi.
Together they traveled from Bujumbura to Paris, Cynthia as Eddie’s “daughter.” In Paris, he put her on a westbound plane alone.
Judge Rast granted Cynthia asylum on December 16, 2002, one year and three months after her arrival in the United States—one year and three months that she might have been in adult lockup, waiting. Sue Colussy was with her when she told her story. Grace testified on her behalf. Robert Mizell sat in the courtroom, just as he had sat in almost every other courtroom with Cynthia in the past fifteen months.
By then she had graduated from Atlanta International School and scored 1100 on her SAT. Without the proper papers, she couldn’t enroll in college, or work, so as she waited for Rast to rule on her future, she had been volunteering at a center for refugee women.
With asylum, she applied for a green card, the hardest of all documents to procure, and there began more waiting. Once she got the work permit, she found a job—no, several. Working at Zaxby’s. Conducting inventory at Abercrombie. Selling clothes to wealthy women at a boutique in Lenox Square, whose space and beauty mesmerized Cynthia; Lenox Square seemed like one big happy party.
She took driving lessons and got a license. She bought a cell phone that rang all the time. Her circle of friends now included not only Americans and Rwandans but also Somalis, Nigerians, Sudanese. Reid watched Cynthia move deftly between her American life with the Mizells and her African life with Grace’s family in Lawrenceville.
One morning in early January 2004, Cynthia called Grace, crying.
“Cynthia, what happened?” Grace said.
Cynthia could barely talk.
“Please, tell me,” Grace said.
“No, Auntie, I cannot say it.”
“He died,” Cynthia said.
And it was just beyond. Robert Mizell, such a good man. For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me. Yet on just another Saturday morning at the gym, a massive heart attack took him, at age fifty-two.
Two by two, the Mizells followed the casket into the Cathedral of Saint Philip: Reid with Callie, Jackson with Robert’s sister, and Sara hand in hand with Cynthia.
“Why?” Cynthia asked. “I was happy that I had a second father, and now he is gone.”
Grace told her, “But you still have a mother.”
Two years after Robert’s death, Cynthia opened her mail in Buckhead to find her green card. Grace could have heard her screaming all the way in Lawrenceville.
They drank champagne in the Mizell house that night. Cynthia wrote Sue Colussy a letter, telling her the news. She enrolled at Georgia Perimeter College and began earning the credits to get into a four-year college. In 2011, Cynthia will be eligible to apply to become a U.S. citizen. Citizenship will make everything complete. “Atlanta is my home now,” she says.
The first person to save Cynthia’s life was Paul Siyomvo, her father. The second person to save Cynthia was Marie Siyomvo, her mother. The third: Franck Siyomvo, her brother. The fourth person to save Cynthia was her uncle, through rejection and cash. The fifth: the mysterious Eddie, with a plane ticket and passport. The sixth? Irene Holth, of the INS, who made that critical phone call. The seventh was Sister Lucy—Sue Colussy. The eighth person to save Cynthia was Reid Mizell, by paying attention to what could have been just another e-mail. The ninth: Grace, by giving Cynthia another kind of home.
The tenth and perhaps most important person who saved Cynthia was Cynthia herself, by running when she needed to run, hiding when she had to hide, and by trusting when her instincts told her to trust.
After six years, she has known the Mizells almost as long as she knew her own family. She still lives in the room with photos taped to her wall and with framed pictures of an American boyfriend on her nightstand. She thinks in English now. But the bracelet Franck gave her still hugs her left wrist. She speaks as seldom of her past as she ever did. Sometimes when people ask about Burundi, Cynthia will say she does not remember. To those who know her this often means, I don’t want to talk about it. The unabridged version is personal, and tightly contained, like the contents of Grace’s gold locket.
In August, Cynthia enrolled at Georgia State University. A biology major with a year and a half to go, she plans to apply to medical school at Emory. She hopes to become a cardiac surgeon, a healer of broken hearts.
This story is based upon interviews and source material including U.S. Department of Homeland Security intake documents; statistics from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which analyzes data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the justice department agency responsible for overseeing the nation’s fifty-four immigration courts and 220 judges; A Problem from Hell, by Samantha Power; Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide, by René Lemarchand; We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch; From Bloodshed to Hope in Burundi, by Ambassador Robert Krueger and Kathleen Tobin Krueger; and the 1996 International Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in Burundi report, conducted by members of seven nongovernmental organizations including Human Rights Watch of New York and Washington, D.C. The story’s dialogue was either found in transcripts or reconstructed from memory by participants and witnesses.