In a city with six interstates, all sorts of stuff tends to turn up on the roadside—abandoned vehicles and bounced luggage are the least of it. There’s also a mysterious class of discoveries you cannot even imagine or, at first, explain. An extreme example: In the late nineties on westbound I-20 in Douglas County, police answering a call about an unattended car found fragments of a female body scattered along the roadside. Authorities eventually closed that whodunit—a hit-and-run during a rainstorm, the young woman’s body struck by multiple vehicles—but other mysteries go unsolved.
An April morning. A Tuesday in 2008. On the I-75 overpass at exit 201 in Henry County, the blue lights of a parked police cruiser flash as Lieutenant Matt Garrison of the Butts County Sheriff’s Office directs traffic around a tow truck and a disabled vehicle. Four huge truck stops are clustered at the top of exit 201—it’s like a little trucker village, with almost everything a long-distance traveler might need: gasoline, overnight parking, private showers, truck scales, convenience stores, laundry facilities, drivers lounges, RV dump stations, restaurants, and a truck wash. Untold thousands of travelers stop at exit 201 each year as they journey to or from anywhere along the 1,787-mile interstate, which starts in Hialeah, Florida, just north of Miami, and runs through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio, ending at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, on the Canadian border. As Lieutenant Garrison works, a woman in an RV rolls past, lowers her window, and says, “Excuse me, but there’s a zebra down there.”
Sure enough, at the foot of the ramp, a zebra stands on the overgrown shoulder in the midmorning sun. The grass is knee-high to a human there, and thick, and the zebra is calmly grazing. He’s about the size of one of those ponies kids ride at petting zoos, and he’s wearing a blue lead rope attached to a blue halter, but nothing about his appearance suggests where he came from or when, or how he had appeared out of nowhere on the side of a major highway.
A small crowd of authorities soon gathers, including wildlife biologists and other agents summoned from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The zebra doesn’t try to run, but he doesn’t want anyone touching him, either. If someone takes two steps toward him, the zebra takes two steps back. Garrison and a colleague grab the bridle. Then they start to walk him. Which is when they notice the blood.
“This is just gonna be a big April Fool’s joke,” Jama Hedgecoth says when the zebra call comes.
The founder, director, and longtime owner of Noah’s Ark Animal Rehabilitation Center in nearby Locust Grove has been getting crank calls for thirty years. Some of the jokers think they are so funny, and others have the sense of a lug nut. Countless times Jama has geared up with cages and dart guns only to discover the bobcat in the cul-de-sac is just a really big cat; the cougars on a playground are in fact yellow Labs; the bear cub running down the highway is a Chow puppy.
Jama nevertheless grabs a pillowcase and some pantyhose, the pillowcase for covering a frightened animal’s head and the hose for gently tying restless legs. She removes the rear seat of the company van to make a holding area and sets out on the ten-mile drive to exit 201.
The DNR boys will be relieved to see her. Jama regularly takes animals off their hands, whether the creatures were confiscated in drug raids or abuse cases or from unlicensed owners. Once, when police raided a house—well, let’s just put it this way: The only thing worse than finding a fifteen-foot snake in a house is finding a fifteen-foot snake skin. The deputies quickly departed the residence and called in Jama, whom they know on sight: tall, with the deeply tanned face of an outdoorswoman, steel-gray hair, and almost startling blue eyes. As the mammoth men with sidearms watched from a safe and snake-free distance, Jama marched in to hunt reptile.
She didn’t find the snake. Had she found it, she would have put it with the boa and the python and the other snakes at Noah’s Ark. The only thing she might say no to these days, in this tough economy, are horses; she already has more than eighty in her pasture and cannot afford another mouth to feed. Her wildlife center, a nonprofit, operates entirely on donations, and Jama and her husband of thirty-eight years, Charles “Pop” Hedgecoth Sr., have to set boundaries.
With her is their oldest son, Charlie, a big, friendly guy in his mid-thirties, and Allison Felker, a pretty, brown-eyed volunteer in her mid-twenties. At six foot two and more than 200 pounds, with blue eyes and dimples, Charlie is like a brown bear with a lollipop. He is divorced, with two children from his first marriage, plus a daughter he adopted as a baby, to raise as a single father. He lives in a house adjacent to the 250 pastured and forested acres that make up Noah’s Ark and the place where he grew up helping Jama and Pop care for everything from lions and leopards and tigers and bears to emus and monkeys and odd little goats. Charlie has his parents’ gift for communicating with animals, and he can toss around feedsacks and hay bales like they’re pillows. When county judges send misdemeanant inmates such as check bouncers and DUI offenders to work off their fines and sentences at Noah’s Ark, Charlie is the one who drives them back and forth to what he calls the “Henry Hilton,” which is a nicer way of saying the Henry County Jail.
Lately, Jama has noticed Charlie spending time casually with Allison, who is mature for her age and shows a sort of Jama-like mettle. “Al,” as they call her, grew up in Buckhead and is a tiny thing but can outwork most men. Noticing Charlie and Allison’s shared instinct for animals and children, Jama has been hoping—praying, actually—that the two are right for each other. “You should ask her out,” she once told Charlie. He said no—he didn’t want to ruin the friendship.
But it’s spring. And it’s hard to say no to love in the spring. In the animal kingdom, spring is the time for birth, when creatures are more likely to survive because there’s newly abundant food and fresh water. Spring brings gifts of life.
From the moment Jama sees the zebra, the word “no” never occurs to her. He is probably two or three months old and dazed and traumatized. He has injuries all over his body, including a nasty, gaping gash across his rear end, beneath his tail. He allowed the officers to take his lead and now he lets them load him into the back of Jama’s van. En route to Noah’s Ark, Jama calls Karen Thomas, the volunteer veterinarian for the rescue and a longtime small-animal vet in Riverdale. By now it is around noon, and Doc T, as everyone calls her, is having lunch. When Jama tells her she just picked up a zebra, Doc T mishears.
“A beaver?” Doc T answers, wondering why Jama would call so excitedly.
“No,” Jama says. “A zebra.”
Which is, of course, a whole other thing.
Doc T counts more than a hundred scrapes and cuts, the sort of “road rash” found in cats and dogs that have been hit and rolled by a car. Two of the zebra’s front teeth have been knocked out, leaving an ugly gouge in his gums. The bloody twelve-inch cut across his rear shows like a red belt of bulging meat across his black-and-white coat, growing more prone to infection by the hour.
Doc T has tended to squirrels, dogs, cats, goats, pigs, miniature horses, and birds in her twenty years of treating and rehabilitating animals at Noah’s Ark. She has neutered deer, pinned the broken leg of a Canada goose, and mended the cracked shells of a tortoise and snapping turtles. She has extracted monkey teeth and transfused a cougar. She has amputated the crushed wing of a rare golden eagle, carefully saving every stray feather to send to the federal government, as required by law. She has carefully—very carefully—sedated a Himalayan bear named Susie. Exotic animals aren’t her vocation, but they are her thrill—early in her studies, Doc T wanted to become a zoo vet—and now here in the Noah’s Ark barn stands a zebra. An abandoned, motherless, horribly injured little zebra.
The cops at exit 201 referred to him as evidence, so that’s what Jama and the others are calling him: Evidence. Not a particularly melodious name and certainly not a name befitting one of the most recognizable and exalted animals in existence, but his name nonetheless. Doc T needs to sedate Evidence in order to work on him, but this is new to her. Zebras may be equines, like horses, but they’re more than “a horse with stripes”—different in size (smaller) and temperament (aggressive and dangerous as adults). She calls the exotic-animal vets at the University of Georgia; they are out. She rings up a large-animal vet who lives nearby, but he is out. She turns to a book about exotic animals, studies weights and dosages, and wings it.
She administers a partial dose of tranquilizer into Evidence’s hindquarters, and when he gets woozy she gives the rest via IV. Once he’s laid out on some hay bales, she cleans his wounds and stitches up the gash and applies antibiotics. Evidence looks pretty good now, and Doc T thinks, “Cool.”
Jama and Allison sit with Evidence as he sleeps and talk about what happened to him. Their best guess: He fell out of a slow-moving trailer as the driver entered the ramp to exit 201, then was hit by a car and left for dead. This is not implausible. Trailers transport animals up and down I-75 all the time from Florida—where it’s legal to own all kinds of exotic animals not legal in other states—and cut over to Missouri, home of Lolli Brothers Livestock Market, one of the world’s oldest and largest auctioneers of exotics. At the very moment that Evidence lies injured, a four-day auction is under way at Lolli, with zebras scheduled for sale in the coming hours.
Dealers and buyers from around the world attend Lolli sales. Such auctions cater largely to private collectors and operators of private zoos and wildlife preserves. If you are in the market for a pair of blue capped finches or a giant three-horned chameleon or a wildebeest or a lowly peafowl, you can probably find it at Lolli. But depending on where you live, you had better be licensed for ownership. Georgia’s laws are stricter than those of other states, particularly Florida and Alabama. Here in Georgia, no, you may not have a tiger cub as your gang mascot, and you may not put a bear in a pen in your yard and invite friends over to see it.
As Evidence sleeps off his anesthetic, Lolli, in Missouri, is gearing up to sell everything from cockatoos to rock hyraxes to sixty-two head of camel to a baby Russian hog to a male zedonk (a zebra-donkey hybrid) to a baby giraffe to water buffalo. The zebras will end up selling for between $3,100 and $10,000.
Jama has a lot of angry questions. Number one: If you are missing a baby zebra, do you not care enough to find out what happened to it? The fact that no one has claimed Evidence suggests he was owned illegally or that the owners or transporters know he is injured and can’t deal with the medical bills. Number two: What kind of jackass runs over a zebra and does nothing about it? “Animals are not disposable,” she thinks. “You don’t just discard an animal because it’s hurt and you can’t afford it, just because it doesn’t fit into your budget.”
To her, the sequence of events hardly matters anymore. Evidence is hers now. “Once you give me an animal, hell will freeze over before you get him back,” she likes to say.
Jama is the Mother Hubbard of animals. Her devotion to them began as a child. She couldn’t stand the sight of an injured creature and as young as age four started taking in all kinds of animals, winged and four-legged. She nurtured them back to health, then found them homes. Her parents were traveling preachers, though, and Jama’s compulsion to help animals didn’t fit with the world of people who live on the road. They told her to be patient—someday she would live in a place where she could care for as many animals as she wanted. When that day came, Jama vowed, she’d let anybody and everybody visit her animals—for free. During a mission trip to Mexico, Jama visited an orphanage and realized she would one day like to nurture children, as well.
She and Pop opened Noah’s Ark in 1978, on a small Ellenwood farm that they eventually outgrew. They moved the Ark to Locust Grove in 1990, to rolling fields and woods paid for in part by a benefactor who wants to remain anonymous. There, Jama is both the Noah’s Ark figurehead and something of a patron saint to creatures great and small. To her, everything is beautiful. She smooches llamas on the lips. She once carried two near-death baby lemurs in a fanny pack and fed them by eyedropper every hour on the hour for months until they were well. She can subdue a 300-pound ostrich one minute and sit down to a white-tablecloth luncheon with Georgia first lady Mary Perdue the next. True to her childhood vow, she doesn’t charge a penny. “It’s blessed ground,” Allison has said. “The work we do, the dream Jama had—it’s an almost sacred place.”
Now, as Jama and Allison talk in the barn, Evidence comes to. He stands groggily and steps over to his water bucket and—this is a good sign—takes a drink. Then he urinates and—this is not a good sign—the urine emerges not from his penis but rather spills from the new sutures across his rear, bringing Jama and Allison to their feet.
The situation is now beyond Doc T’s expertise. She must get large-animal vets involved. She tries the veterinary school at Auburn University, 120 miles southwest, in Alabama. Back into the van.
With Pop and Jama up front, Charlie and Allison keep Evidence company in back. Evidence stands; Charlie and Allison sit along his left flank. They sit closely, the three of them, Evidence, Charlie, and Allison. And it’s spring, remember. And after a while on the road, sitting close like that, Charlie leans in and kisses Allison for the first time and says, “I’ve been waiting a year to do that.”
The examination at Auburn shows what Doc T already determined: scrapes to the head, ears, muzzle, limbs, hocks. Also, a broken pelvic bone. And, most urgently, this: The laceration across Evidence’s hind end cut through his penis, urethra, two hamstring muscles, and the muscle that stabilizes the anus.
The wounds will eventually kill Evidence if left untreated, yet repairing all of this will not be inexpensive. His care will require pelvic radiographs, anesthesia, sutures, monitoring, a urinary catheter, drape sheets, surgical blades and sponges, bandages, penicillin, Buckeye Mare’s Milk Plus, and a hundred other things that add up.
The doctors tell Jama and Pop that they should figure on spending at least $5,000, to start, if they plan to go for it. Noah’s Ark doesn’t have a hundred dollars to go for it. A nonprofit, the Ark operates mostly on the goodness of donors and the commitment of volunteers: Boy Scouts and corporations such as UPS and community concerns such as Hands on Henry. The nonprofit will take in $1.1 million in donations and grants over the course of the year but spend nearly $900,000 of that on the animals. Jama will pay herself $23,995 this year and Charlie a little more. (“We don’t get rich at Noah’s Ark,” says Diane Smith, Jama’s assistant. “You don’t work here unless you have a heart for this.”)
Jama, who has always refused to allow Noah’s Ark to accumulate debt, pulls out her MasterCard. The money to pay Evidence’s hospital bill will come from somewhere.
Evidence rests overnight in the ICU. In the morning, the surgeons gown up and operate. They remove the penis and testicles; they restructure the urethra, to allow for urination. The surgery goes well.
Days pass, and Evidence grows stronger. Kindergarten classes send him get-well cards. Donors mail in checks for $3 and $3,000, which pay for a stable and a horse trailer. Everyone is pulling for Evidence. And when it is time for him to come home to Noah’s Ark, the Alabama Highway Patrol gives him a lights-and-sirens escort all the way to the state line, and Henry County deputies pick up the honor when they near Locust Grove. At Noah’s Ark, busloads of schoolchildren cheer as Charlie leads Evidence out of the zebra-striped Hummer that Lowe Engineers, whose company mascot is a zebra, has donated for the ride home. Evidence is as famous as a Georgia zebra can be.
He still needs antibiotics and a special cream for what Pop calls “his real bad boo-boos.” Pop is the only human Evidence will allow anywhere near him. Pop administers all the medicine and tends to Evidence’s wounds. They spend five or six hours a day together. “Come on and eat something, son,” Pop will say in his soft Tennessee drawl. “Come here, son,” he’ll say. He brushes Evidence and talks to him. Evidence learns Pop’s voice. Sometimes he stands on Pop’s foot or steps between Pop and the gate, as if to keep him from leaving. He follows Pop around like a puppy. If something makes him nervous, like a pig—Evidence is terrified of pigs—he sticks his head under Pop’s arm.
Pop is slight and dark, with almost black-brown eyes. The first time Jama saw him—she was a girl of fourteen; they were at church—she knew they would marry. Of the Hedgecoths who can be seen around the Ark’s grounds daily—pruning the crape myrtles or delivering loads of feed on a four-wheeler—Pop is usually the one building or repairing something. His grandchildren call him “sir.” The family has always noticed something special between Pop and horses, but never more so than between Pop and Evidence, who seems to think of Pop as his mother.
One day in June, two months after the accident, Pop finds Evidence lying down. Evidence never lies down. Immediately, they head back to Auburn.
There’s a problem with the urethra. The doctors operate a second time, and Evidence returns to his hay-strewn stall in ICU. Auburn’s veterinary hospital is one of the oldest and best in the country, and extremely nice, but Evidence’s stall reminds Jama of a prison cell. So she brings toys.
The only humans allowed near Evidence, though, are his surgeon, Dr. Justin Harper, and Pop. A sign on the stall door says so: “No one allowed but Dr. Harper or Pop.” Whenever Pop tries to leave, Evidence whinnies, so Pop stays, and Evidence sticks his head under Pop’s arm. “It’s okay, son, it’s okay,” Pop says.
Just when everyone thinks Evidence will be fine, colic sets in. Colic is a fast-moving problem of the digestive system, often caused by intestinal blockages, and the number one killer of horses. It is difficult and expensive to treat. Equines usually either get better or they don’t, and in the meantime they suffer. Evidence rolls around in his stall and knocks his head against the wall in pain. Dr. Harper tells Pop and Jama their boy is in bad shape and isn’t getting better. The point may come when they’ll need to make a difficult decision.
“That’s not an option,” Jama tells Dr. Harper, knowing they are talking about euthanasia. “He’s got a bad bellyache, right?”
“Major,” Dr. Harper says.
“Well, he’ll either die on his own or he’ll get better,” Jama says. She and Pop both are crying.
“Tonight will be the big night,” the doctor says. “We can’t do any more. Now it’s up to him.”
Pop says, “I’m not leaving.”
Jama goes to the Best Western. She calls several churches and puts Evidence’s name on the prayer lists. “Is Evidence a son or a daughter?” she is asked. Jama figures she shouldn’t tell anyone the prayer recipient is a zebra—they might not pray. “He’s part of my family,” she tells them, “and he’s critical right now.”
All night, Pop walks Evidence round and round his stall and out to the grassy area between stables. “It’s okay, son, it’s okay.” As the hours pass, the thrashing and head-banging stop. Around four in the morning, Evidence steps over to his feed bucket and begins to eat. At dawn, Pop calls Jama at the hotel.
“Dr. Harper says we can go home.”
Summer passes, and then come fall and winter. Evidence gets better, and bigger. It has been nearly one year since he tumbled out of someone else’s life and into the hands and hearts of the Hedgecoths.
Because his birth date is uncertain, the Hedgecoths make one up. They give him February 14, Valentine’s Day. Soon after, Publix bakes a giant cake, and more than 300 Evidence fans show up at Noah’s Ark to celebrate a zebra’s first birthday. On that day, Charlie and Allison get married.
Evidence’s name makes sense now to Jama and Pop and Charlie and Allison and everyone else because of the God-given love that happens at Noah’s Ark, which was founded as a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center but is also a children’s care home. That is the other part of the Hedgecoths’ job. Their childcare home is licensed by the state to take in up to twenty-four children at a time. Relatively few children go there anymore because the state has moved away from the group-home model of foster care, but at one time children filled the camplike bedrooms of the Hedgecoth house, a beautiful cedar and glass residence that looks like a lodge. According to state and federal records dating back a decade, there has never been a major problem with Noah’s Ark, either with the animals or the children.
A lot of the children who’ve passed through Noah’s Ark were, like the animals, unwanted, neglected, abused. Jama and Pop brought them in and introduced them to other small creatures that needed care: baby deer, newborn possums. “[The children] come to us very wounded,” says Barbara Toner, a psychologist and Noah’s Ark volunteer. “But they can look at a little kitten or a baby deer or a puppy who’s also been hurt, and the children can begin to give love to an animal that needs it. And once they begin to give love to something else, they can begin to give love to themselves, which is so vitally important to their health and growth.”
This is the family Evidence joined. In addition to Charlie, the Hedgecoths have three other biological children, but that is not all. Eleven years ago, they adopted a thirty-year-old woman and former volunteer named Paula because Paula wanted to be a part of the Hedgecoth family. Then they adopted a two-day-old African American baby who is now a gangly seven-year-old named Elijah. Then they went to the Hunan province of China and adopted a baby girl they named Sarah, who turns four in October. Jama says, “Everybody deserves a family.”
Children will never care for Evidence or even get close. Only the Hedgecoths care for the exotic animals, which live in triple-fenced, padlocked habitats inspected by the Department of Natural Resources. While most are generations removed from the wild, they are still undomesticated and can never be tamed, and therefore are potentially dangerous. Every now and then a Hedgecoth has to run out and remind visitors of that. “Ma’am, that baby is food,” Jama once told a woman holding her toddler over the fence at the alligator pond.
Everyone is beginning to see that a zebra is not like a horse at all—that a small, sweet zebra will grow up to be a mean, kicking, biting zebra, because that is a zebra’s nature. You cannot pet a zebra on the neck like you pet a horse—in the wild, the neck is the kill zone. Corner a zebra and it will whip around and kick you with force and accuracy. “You look at a lion and think, ‘I know you can eat me.’ You look at Evidence and think you can treat him like a horse. You think, ‘Ooh, he lost his mother,’” Charlie says, and his mother interrupts: “Oh baby, he’ll put a whuppin’ on you like you’ve never seen.”
The two most dangerous creatures at Noah’s Ark are the leopard and Evidence.
The one human Evidence tolerates is Pop.
One summer afternoon that feels almost cool enough to be fall, Pop jumps into one of the Noah’s Ark golf carts and buzzes down to the grove that houses the exhibit area. Evidence is standing in one corner of his shady habitat, which he shares with Gracie, a doleful miniature horse. People still send Evidence toys and cards and drawings and apple licks. They come from as far away as Florida to see him, straight up I-75.
“Hey, son,” Pop says.
When he hears Pop’s voice, Evidence begins following the cart along the fence line. Pop speeds up, and Evidence begins to run. He is big now, and graceful and beautiful.
This article originally appeared in our April 2008 issue.
“Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.” —From “Where Do We Go from Here?” King’s presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967
One of the city’s poorest neighborhoods is a block-shaped section of the westside known as The Bluff. Nearly 4,000 people live there, on the rough end of the wealth gap. Some parts of The Bluff look so third-world, you can hardly believe you’re in Atlanta. If you’re white and drive through, the people who live there assume you’re looking for drugs. If you’re looking for drugs, you’re in the right place.
One Friday not too long ago, Victoria Carson was looking for food. She waited with her boyfriend, Will, in the rear of the fellowship hall of Antioch Baptist Church North. This is on Northside Drive, within sight of many of the rising, glimmering changes in Atlanta. The church’s grocery pantry would open at noon, but Vicky and dozens of others had started arriving hours before. The busiest man in the room was Collumn Jaffar, who was passing out numbered slips of paper to those in line. 1 . . . 50 . . . 100 . . . 150. He’d used a bright blue Sharpie this time. Jaffar used to write the numbers on notebook paper, in ordinary black ballpoint ink, but the more resourceful of those who arrived late got wise to the system and found their own paper, their own black ink, and wrote themselves a ticket to a few days’ worth of canned beans and fruit cocktail and salvaged bread.
Most had come on foot, wheeling shopping carts, collapsible dollies, empty baby strollers, large pieces of luggage—anything that would hold a box of food—until the church parking lot looked like an assemblage of misdirected grocery shoppers and wayward travelers. Vicky and Will were living over on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and had walked here. It was the second week of January but bright and slightly warm, and they had walked through King’s old neighborhood, Vine City, and up into The Bluff. Vicky has a broad, pretty face and a soft voice and looks younger than fifty-three despite untended teeth. Will, in his forties, tall and serious, walks with a slight limp (back injury; last job). “He doesn’t talk much,” Vicky said.
She had on tight brown loafers and navy blue cotton pants marbled with dust from the floor of the place where she and Will had been sleeping. Once a boarding house, the property was now in abandoned foreclosure, but Vicky and Will had sneaked in and intended to stay until someone ran them out. The plan had its hazards beyond the obvious. One day when Will went out to try again to find a job (he’d lost the one at the car wash), a guy they knew from the neighborhood came to the door, which Vicky barricades whenever she stays there alone. “That you, Vicky? You still here?” he said through the door. Vicky said it was. Already they had no electricity, no heat, no furniture, and already this man had made off with the water heater, and now he wanted the stove. Vicky told him he couldn’t come in; she made an excuse about not being dressed. “You better get dressed, then, and get out of the way, because we’re coming in,” the man said, and did. Others returned for the wiring—there’s value in copper.
Vicky is resourceful, too. Once, she said, she stole dog food right out of the bowl. “It wasn’t bad,” she said. Other days, she and Will pull their meals from the garbage behind the chicken place or the Chinese place, or they eat pecans from the yard. She washes clothes behind the house, with a hose and a bucket. “It could be worse,” she said. “Some people don’t have clothes. Some people can’t get dog food.”
Her mother lives in New Jersey and sometimes sends money, and adult diapers. The need for diapers—that’s the AIDS. Vicky pulled up her pant leg and showed a keloid radiation scar on her left calf. The need for radiation—that’s the cancer. Vicky keeps telling Will to leave her, to find someone who isn’t sick, who can work, who can run, if necessary. Will wants Vicky to live in a home for people with AIDS. But she won’t leave him. And he won’t leave her.
Vicky wouldn’t mind getting on disability, but she can’t figure out how. Her medication ran out and her T-cells are dropping, not that she really minds. “I just want to get it over with,” she said, meaning life.
The Bluff is also known as English Avenue. It lies roughly along Northside Drive just beyond the Georgia Dome and the Georgia World Congress Center and barely a mile from Downtown. Ninety-eight percent of the population is African American. More than 40 percent live below the federal poverty line of $17,170 (the income threshold for a family of three). The Bluff is among a handful of neighborhoods where roughly 35 to 68 percent of the population has lived in severe poverty for more than thirty years, a reality the city is addressing, somewhat controversially, by razing and rebuilding public housing units and replacing them with mixed-income development. The Bluff’s dwellings range from tumbledown wooden houses with tarpaper roofs, to apartment buildings, to Habitat for Humanity homes built before the 1994 Super Bowl, to new single-family construction in the form of incongruous two-story homes that with their fresh paint, garages, and unbroken windows look like shiny new Cadillacs stranded in a junkyard. Land prices are tripling in the area, just as they’re escalating across a city growing so fast the brickmasons and cranes can barely keep up. Any intown location with developable acres, interstate access, and a skyline view will only get hotter, no matter what’s on it.
Even Antioch Baptist has entered into real estate, through its nonprofit development arm, Bethursday Development Corp., which occupies an office next door. “We’re buying up everything we can find,” says Joe Beasley, Antioch’s director of urban ministries and one of the city’s most well-connected and outspoken advocates for the poor. The church owns thirty-eight acres that it’s developing through Bethursday. It’s a complicated position to be in. Church leaders have criticized the revitalization of public housing—they feel it turns the poorest of the poor out and runs them out of town—yet they take advantage of city tax incentives in hopes of bypassing traditional gentrification (usually in which wealthier white residents move into poorer black neighborhoods) and rebuilding English Avenue in its own way, for its own people. “We’re not trying to change the complexion of the neighborhood,” explains architect Bob Jones, CEO and executive director of Bethursday. “We’re trying to integrate the very low, low, and middle incomes.”
So far, Bethursday’s projects include the Gateway apartments on Northside and more than two dozen townhomes on Kennedy Street, the first eight of which were expected to be available by the end of March. Gateway opened in 2005 with 261 units, forty of which are reserved as government-subsidized housing and thirty-nine, or 15 percent, of which to rent at market rate. The townhomes are projected to sell for $200,000. If this sounds beyond the reach of most in the community the church intends to serve, Jones says prospective homeowners will be able to apply for special housing subsidies. The vivid architectural renderings in his office show future streetscapes not dissimilar to those of upscale developments such as Atlantic Station. The proposed city BeltLine, which runs right through the westside, stands to raise property values even more. “To have an invigorated community, you have to have housing, schools, you have to have greenspace,” Jones says. “We want all the amenities of the suburbs right here.”
Ideally, he adds, the redevelopment will create jobs for “those who can’t be readily employed.” Basically he means convicts. These days, felons especially can’t land a job that pays a living wage, and it’s almost impossible to get into public housing with a criminal record. In some neighborhoods, it’s harder than ever to start over.
“This is 30318,” as Beasley puts it. “And in 30318, you name it, we got it.” He’s talking about some of the city’s highest rates in the worst societal indicators: crime, mental health, unemployment, underemployment, HIV/AIDS, homelessness, recidivism, hunger—“things that go along with being poor, things that make you feel you’ve been thrown away on the scrap heap of society,” he says. “An illegal economy has grown up here because many of these people feel they’ve been locked outside the legal economy. People are going to survive one way or another.”
After getting her box of food, Vicky had popped the top of a can of Campbell’s Chunky Sirloin Burger soup and started drinking it cold. Across the parking lot, others were turning up their own cans. Now, blocks away from Antioch, Vicky wore a line of tomato sauce across the bridge of her nose. Before long, she and Will made it to the old Eagan Homes area (now “Magnolia Park”), to Greater Bethany Baptist, which was known to serve a free lunch.
Derrick Johnson came out of the dining hall and lingered to talk. He is thirty-eight and goes by “D.J.” He wore a big flannel shirt and a trucker hat with “PIMP” in glittering gold lettering. D.J. gets regular meals from Bethany, where he was baptized as a child. He said his parents are dead now and he’s estranged from his siblings. Whatever he’d been drinking carried strongly on his breath. He had no plans for the afternoon. “Sometimes all you can do is lay down and wait for another day.” From the parking lot he pointed toward the former Eagan Homes site, where he grew up. “It wasn’t no gated community like it is now,” he said. “It was rough. You know how it is in the ’hood.” He paused. “Well, you probably don’t know. I’ll just say this—it was open house, all the time.”
He looked around. “It’s so different here now. Back then every corner had drugs. This neighborhood, they’re trying their best to move people out. But they can’t. This is Atlanta. It’s the gateway. If black people need to push their way forward in life, they come to Atlanta.” He raised his arms at the neighborhood. “This is what Dr. King built. We’re trying to keep it whole. They’re putting these big new houses in and they think people are just gonna move in. It ain’t that simple.”
This article originally appeared in our December 2007 issue.
If you were to order hashbrowns with grilled onions for breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) and hear your server tell the kitchen to “smother ’em,” you would almost certainly be at Waffle House. And even if you placed this order on Interstate 80 in Hubbard, Ohio, or on Highway 34 in Loveland, Colorado, or overlooking the Gulf of Mexico in Key West, or at some lonely exit off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, or at any of the other 1,543 Waffle Houses in twenty-five states, you would be channeling a uniquely enduring and iconic piece of Atlanta.
Waffle House is as Atlanta as Coca-Cola, CNN, or Delta, only more demure. You won’t turn on your television to see the king of all-night diners assaulting you with multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns, and you won’t get a jingle stuck in your head, because there isn’t one. Waffle House never needed one. Waffle by waffle, egg by egg, the chain has quietly grown to a consistent place in the nation’s top ten family-owned chains, in the company of Denny’s, Shoney’s, and Cracker Barrel.
Avondale Estates, the English-inspired planned city founded in 1924 just east of Decatur, is where it all started. A short-order cook named Joe Rogers Sr. bought a home on Stratford Road from a real estate man named Tom Forkner, a former lawyer who also lived on Stratford and whose father supervised the construction of Avondale Estates. Both in their late thirties, Joe Sr. and Tom decided to partner in the restaurant business. Tom found a location on East College Avenue, a main thoroughfare between Atlanta and eastern Georgia. They opted for waffles as opposed to a white-tablecloth, prime-rib kind of place because waffles felt warmer, friendlier, more family-like, and they cost less to make. Waffle House opened Labor Day weekend, 1955. Years later, when I-20 came in and a bunch of roads got moved, Joe Sr. and Tom had to close “number one.” They sold the building—it became a Chinese restaurant and later a second-hand tire store. But not long ago, Waffle House bought the building back. As you read this, the original Waffle House, at 2719 East College Avenue, is being renovated as the Waffle House museum. (Editor’s Note: The Waffle House museum opened in 2010.) You will never be able to eat so much as a grit there, but the museum will open at certain times for corporate and community events, where visitors will be able to see more than a half-century’s worth of menus, uniforms, photos, and other memorabilia, much of which harks to certain older-timers’ fondest topic of conversation: the era when a cup of coffee set a fella back ten cents and a whole homemade pie cost a dollar.
From the urban strips like Buford Highway to interstate outposts, Waffle House beams right up there with the rest of commercialized America—with the Exxons and Burger Kings and KFCs—but with such a stripped-down unpretentiousness as to almost be invisible. In the sixties, a friend of Tom’s designed the logo of today: the bright yellow blocks with plain black letters, as simple as Scrabble tiles and as pop-culturally ingenious as the smiley face. Meant to convey affordability, cleanliness, and friendliness, the design improved upon the original logo of wavy black letters, which looked less like the intended effect of poured syrup than an ad for a haunted house. The familiar yellow flow draws the shift workers, cops, college kids, brunchers, vacationers, meemaws and papaws, musicians, truckers, and the alcoholically impaired. In the tipsy demographic alone, the chain probably makes a fortune. If Waffle House were to shut its doors, the nation would be awash in hungry drunks. Unless you’ve held at least one after-after-after party at Waffle House, you cannot, in the American South, be considered a legitimate drinker. IHOP doesn’t count. Neither does Denny’s. Or Waffle King, whatever that is.
Forget about the drunks, though. Let’s talk about money. Yours and theirs. You can still eat to the popping point on less than ten bucks. Today’s burgers go for $1.25 to $3.55 (for a double cheeseburger). A double order of hashbrowns: $1.65. A waffle the size of a hubcap: $2.55 (add pecans, 45 cents.) (Note: These prices reflect 2007.) the menu contains ninety-five base items, plus meal deals, plus beverages, plus endless possibilities for gluttonous combinations. Steak and eggs plus a waffle plus country ham plus cheese grits plus maybe just one little slice of Southern pecan pie, for instance. Greasy? Obviously. Deadly? Probably. But nobody’s got a gun to your head. Pick the grilled chicken salad if you want. Or have a wrap. Either way, the cash registers are smokin’. They take credit cards now, too. Waffle House declines to talk about how much money they make—it’s a private company. But industry analysts have put annual sales at $325 million.
Listen to how they do it. “All our food is cooked up front and right in sight,” Tom Forkner said the other day. “There’s no class distinction at Waffle House,” added Joe Rogers Sr. “At Waffle House, everybody talks to everybody. We want it to be your home away from home.”
Yes, that’s right. The founders are still alive, very much so—nearly ninety now but altogether kicking. Joe Sr. is tall and cracks jokes and says he never worries about a daggone thing. (“Today is the tomorrow you were worried about yesterday!”) Tom kind of looks like a wiry Bill Clinton; he plays the straight man, waiting for his opening. They’ve been friends all these years and are still married to their first wives. Joe Sr. refers to his, Ruth, as “the queen mother.” The families were neighbors for decades in Avondale Estates until Joe Sr. and the queen mother moved to the Country Club of the South (“where all the e-lites live,” Tom says) and Tom moved to the Chattahoochee. They have been Waffle House men since Studebaker days, first on East College and now at corporate headquarters on Financial Drive in Norcross, where the language of the $537 billion restaurant industry necessitates the use of words such as “franchise” and “same-store sales.” Joe Sr. and Tom work out of adjoining offices plastered with photographs and trophies and bumper sticker-sized training mantras such as “A company is known by the people it keeps” and “Attitude is contagious—is yours worth catching?” Between waffles, Joe Sr. found time to publish an autobiography—Who’s Looking Out for the Poor Old Cash Customer?—and Tom got so handy with a nine-iron they put him in the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame.
Employees learn how to flip the burgers and scatter the hashbrowns, but more than anything else, Waffle Housers learn about customer service. This starts with a greeting, and not the slightly predatory kind you get at a place like Blockbuster, where they practically run you down just to say hello. The ideal Waffle House greeting is organic, even if the eggs aren’t. Managers and executives start out on the floor—sweeping it, working it—on the theory that if you’ve never cooked and served the food you can’t possibly run a whole restaurant, much less a region. Managers train for six to eight weeks in the field and attend Waffle House University in Norcross, where for a week they learn about operations and soft skills such as coaching, including a three-hour personality-profiling class on how to bring out the best in people. As they like to say at Waffle House: It’s all about the relationships.
How does a Waffle House get born? How do they decide where to put it? Well, it’s got a little to do with the elaborate studies and talk of paradigm shifts. “That’s a bunch of bull,” Joe Sr. said. “Kemmons Wilson, who started Holiday Inn, said all these computers and everything—all he does is go out and look.”
“Several years ago, one of our competitors looked for locations,” Tom said. “He told me if they found a location they liked, they looked around, and if they didn’t see a Waffle House, they didn’t go there.” According to the most recent company figures, 753 Waffle Houses are company owned and 790 are franchises. (Note: These numbers reflect 2007.)
“We have good locations,” Joe Sr. said. “We look clean, and we don’t look expensive. So when they come in and try us out, if we’re kind to them, we’ve got it made.”
Other chains remake themselves—modernize. Waffle House recently added biscuits to the menu, and butterscotch waffles, and deli turkey. And however improbable, they just made a YouTube video. Otherwise, not much has changed, not even the floor plan, which Joe Sr. and Tom designed for minimum steps between food preparation and delivery and for maximum contact with customers. In every Waffle House, the counter faces the open grill and booths line the windows. If you stripped all the coloring and lettering off a Waffle House, you would still know it’s a Waffle House, the way a Coca-Col a bottle could never be anything but a Coke. “We’re just a shoebox,” Joe Sr. said. “These boys who’ve come in the past few years and built these Taj Mahals and stuff—they’re not around anymore. If you could line up the restaurants we’ve seen come and go, that’s a long list. Waffle House is such an institution, it’s been serenaded (Hootie and the Blowfish), silver-screened (Tin Cup), and celebritized (Reese Witherspoon, Beyoncé Knowles, Pete Sampras, Billy Bob Thorton). Local chef Julia Williams, and ex-Waffle House cook, gave her culinary alma mater a little TV cred during her recent contestantship on the Hell’s Kitchen reality show.
Mark Miklos, Waffle House’s director of training and development, gets paid to say nice things about the company because he works there, but he puts it this way: “Think about the New York Yankees—they’ve worn the pinstripes forever. They’ve never changed their logo. A team like the Padres or the Diamondbacks—every season they’re wearing something different. They’re struggling to find an identity. There are restaurant companies going though the same metamorphosis. They’re chasing the next chic fad because they don’t have an identity. We haven’t had to chase an idenity because we’re confident in who we are, and it works for us.”
A photo posted by Waffle House Official (@wafflehouseofficial) on
Ultimately Waffle House might wind up in all fifty states, but for now most of its locations are in the South, and more than 200 of those are in metropolitan Atlanta. There’s a reason for that. “People stay up all night in the South,” Joe Sr. said. “They go to bed early in the North on account of the weather. I’ve worked in Cleveland, I’ve worked in Buffalo. The snow comes in, the buses stop running, and you don’t do any business. You take Buffalo, New York—sometimes at night you don’t see anything moving, the snow gets so deep and the weather so bad. You got employees not making any tips and standing around doing nothing. One night I realized all we could do was get the rags out and clean.”
“There’ll always be more Waffle Houses in the greater Atlanta area than anywhere else,” Tom said. “It’s like a web that builds out.”
“The night business determines whether we have sales enough to be profitable,” Joe Sr. added.
“One supreme test of whether it’s a good location—take a real rainy, blistery Tuesday or Wednesday night at two o’clock in the morning, park your automobile there and see how many cars pass,” Tom said. “If you don’t have many cars, you don’t have a good spot.”
Search the internet and you won’t get very far without coming across an international outpouring of Waffle House love. On a rabidly visited website called the Waffle House Shrine, customers and employees rhapsodize about their WaHo experiences and memories. “Our tradition is second booth from the bathroom, coffee black, a glass of water, and a Texas Cheese Steak plate w/extra hashbrowns. So here is our dilemma: HOW do you make those Texas Cheese Steaks at home!?!” writes a Melissa. “We know that our [family’s] obsession had gone overboard when our oldest daughter asked if she could be a Waffle House waitress for Halloween,” writes Michele, of Dallas, Georgia. “I have the misfortune of living in Connecticut. There isn’t a WH within 500 miles,” writes Fred. Mike of Miami writes, “Just ate with the wife and kids at Waffle House just outside Atlanta, I think store #638. I loved the chef’s visor hat which was red and had Waffle House spelled out and Grill Master on the brim. If asked her if I could buy a hat like that, she said no way you have to earn this hat after eighteen years of working . . . About two minutes later another waitress came out and gave me her hat. I realized it was used and had waffle batter on the brim, and on the inside headband was crusty old hair gel. I was too proud to give it back, so I have washed it and now wear it to our yacht club.” Tiny, a trucker from Philly, writes, “If I ever won the lottery I’d buy a franchise so I could get that great coffee and see some fine looking women.” A fellow named Chaz says, “I was at Waffle House the other day and I SWEAR TO GOD someone was getting married there.” Lee writes, “Surely there are yellow and black neon signs flashing WAFFLE HOUSE in heaven.”
Eggs lead the category of most-served menu items. Since 1955, Waffle House has dished out more than 1.5 billion of them—more than hashbrowns, more than waffles. “When I got in this business, food was number one—you got all your complaints about your egg not being cooked right,” Joe Sr. said. “All the complaints now are on service. So we’re in the service business more than we’re in the food business. We kill ‘em with kindness and survive ‘em with a little good food.” He leaned in like he was about to confide the combination to a vault. “Why, I’m such a good service man, I can give you a hamburger without any meat in it and you wouldn’t know it until you get down the street.”
Tom said, “I don’t believe I’d bet on that.”
“You never lose a customer who’s satisfied.”
This article originally appeared in our December 2007 issue.
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.
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