We received yet another call to report for results of all our troubling interviews by the UNHCR (the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). It was the most troubling appointment above all in our quest for resettlement. Many teeth will grind in disappointment and discouragement.
There were about 20 families, more than 30 people. I had a case to be a witness to in court. Did this bother me? Not at all! My thoughts were all on my results to be released to me and the date I’d be given for our orientation.
How should we leave this time? How would people think about us? Would they conclude their stories about our frequent visits to Dakar? Well, a trick came to my mind before we would set off.
Tell your boss at work that your son fainted overnight, I thought, and that there was an urgent need to go see his doctor in Dakar, so urgent you could not go by road.
Slok Air International, a Nigerian businessman-owned airline that was closed for a time due to corruption and mismanagement, was contacted by my boss, the managing editor of The Point newspaper. The Point had an agreement with Slok Air: They gave us their adverts, and they ferried Point workers and their families, wife and husband and one child, for free. I was called by a Slok manager, with the help of my wife’s Catholic friend, Aunty Bridget, who had shown compassion and pointed to this opportunity, which expedited our securing the ticket and leaving in the afternoon with our sick son.
Glen had, in fact, fainted earlier on in the past week. He had malaria, and was given chloroquine [a common treatment for malaria], which his heart would not accept. He then collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. He was treated and advised never to receive chloroquine for malaria.
All my colleagues at The Point knew my son had a problem that needed fixing. Many important details of our issues remained a complete family secret. Nobody said a word to anyone to avoid contradicting themselves and bringing our resettlement to a halt.
Read Augustine’s last installment, Joy, Despair and More Threats, or scroll down to start from earlier in his incredible journey
The commissioner of police in The Gambia wanted to see me, but I started becoming fearful because of the news that was coming out after my reports on the arrest of criminals posing as taxi drivers: some drug dealers whom I reported on implicated the Inspector General of the Gambian police.
He did not tell me he was in league with the criminals I had discovered. He wanted to see me because he would implicate me as his witness. I was wiser than he. I worried about my acceptance to leave the country as tension rose for those who still supported their president, a tyrant and a notorious secret killer, and above all a dictator.
I did not say a word to my wife, Theresa. She was often afraid of my confrontations with the government or the police. She was quite leery of what she heard at The Point newspaper, where she also worked as a well-respected secretary. She heard a lot of rumors about me, and she kept me on my guard. She was mostly in haste for us to complete our interviews with the UNHCR so as to change our address for the better.
She actually gave me some insight into breaking news that made the difference.
It was 2:25 p.m., and we were to leave by 2:30 for the airport. We got a taxi and left. We had some time before our flight would leave at 4 p.m. My wife had forgotten the money we would use for the few days in Dakar. I was compelled to return quickly to get the money before the plane took off.
A soccer referee colleague of mine, Mr. Sillah, volunteered to give me a ride home to grab the money. He did not know what the problem was that I should leave my family and return home when the plane was almost ready to take off. Early on the drive, he volunteered to give me the equivalent of the money I left home. He pulled it out of his long bag on his side and we turned back toward the airport. My family was astonished at my quick return, but I explained, and we entered and checked in.
The plainclothes police and uniformed officers were all over the place. They are security-conscious. The president is mostly targeted for assassination because he does not do well for the people. One of the policemen called me. He asked me to leave the girl, my daughter Mary, behind. I called to my wife to let her know where I was going. I followed him and he asked me to sit in their police post. I told them it was quite odd to be brought to a secluded place.
“What have I done?” I asked.
He said he was only interested in me. He asked for my passport, but I had no passport. He then took our refugee documents and browsed through them.
“Oh! You mean you are refugees?” the policeman asked.
“Sure!” I responded.
“Where do you work?” he asked again, and answered by himself, “The Point newspaper?”
“How do you know?” I asked him. “Do you know me?”
I was tired as people in the queue started leaving the hall to board the plane. The queue was long and my family was last as they waited for me, but I still had little time. I found a way out and it was easy.
The policeman left me in the room to go see another man, apparently not a journalist. As he left, I got up and went back through the door I came in. I ran to my family. The propellers were moving fast, so we gave all our documents to the attendant and were allowed to go. While on the stairs to the plane, I turned back and saw the policeman running toward the plane, but it was too far and he could not reach us. His chapter was closed.
It was better in Dakar.
The language changed and I started speaking French. We got a taxi and went to see our friend, Charles Carlon, who owned a motel and was willing to accommodate us for free. We had come to him before. It was time to talk. He had just returned to Africa from Maryland, in the United States. He has his family there, but he came back to start his business on the hard ground of Africa.
When morning came, we were all set. I told my friend that we had to do check-up on Glen, that his heart still bothered him. I asked my friend if he thought there could be resettlement for refugees. He said it was not possible for Sierra Leoneans any longer. Since he did not believe it was possible, I kept quiet and did not tell him of our mission. We left in time for our results right in the heart of Dakar.
It was quite scary! We arrived in time and saw other refugees waiting around the city. We all gathered together and gossiped about the different aspects of our lives. Each of us explained in a privileged conversation about our lives as refugees. My family’s life story had qualified us for resettlement. Others knew they were not so lucky.
Ansu, was a Guinean-Liberian, which was shown by his accent. He was able to make it to the last stage as he may have not been honest about his health. He had said his ulcers of the worst type, but managed to get through all medical checkups. We all wondered why he could be dropped. In the morning he was quiet, and very fragile, so I took my time with my jokes.
People were advised before being called. The building was complicated. When called this way, families were not allowed to return the same way, because they wanted no one to know who failed the final interview. They advised that we took heart in case we did not make it to the United States.
The conditions were difficult. Many families were called. We stayed put, waiting. We were hungry, tired and fed up. My heart was in my mouth, full of fear of failure. Many thought we were not going to lose, that we were on the winning side. Later, but a few of us were left, as the others disappeared.
We prayed hard.
My wife was made our leader because her story was far more fearful than mine. Mine was based on the mysterious escapes I had been making, including from the ambush on our 34-seat bus that left 32 dead, with a woman and me as the only survivors of the rebel massacre. That was my winning card, until I was put in prison in The Gambia for taking pictures outside a courthouse. This could not stand up to the appalling story of the killing, in cold blood, of my wife’s four brothers. One of them was my best friend, Emmanuel.
We were feeling very hungry. We recalled the killing of Theresa’s four brothers and how she suffered with her mom and sister. Well, she was made the head of our household because of this [for the sake of the interview]. My explanation about my escapes nearly became lore. Many liked me to tell it again and again.
It was about 4:42 p.m., and Eugene from Ghana worked with the resettlement group and came outside to look at us. He was my daughter’s friend. He thought Mary was adorable. He had bought pizza for her, too. That was my first time seeing pizza in Africa. He loudly called Theresa’s name and asked us to go in.
It was another interview before the results were shown to us. Many previous questions were asked to see if we maintained the same stories we had told. I knew my story to my fingertip. Their final question to me was, “Why were you apprehended at the court?” I knew they only wanted to tell us that they’d known about it, too. At the end, they congratulated Theresa and the whole family for a job well done.
You will go to the United States, the country of your dreams.
Theresa burst into tears and held me tight, as if we were ready to fight. The children rejoiced and one could see their premolars. It was quite an exciting moment. Our joy could not end. I still advocated that we keep it a family secret or else we shall not be allowed to leave The Gambia. What was next on our agenda? We sat as we waited for them to give us our final advice.
“You should have a three days’ orientation to learn about the culture of the States, and to get a head’s up for the new situation you are going to face. There is one this week and another in three weeks; you will have to decide to choose one,” Eugene said.
We decided to return to The Gambia and come in three weeks. This resonated well with our plan. It was only on our return we would have known when to come to the States, our new home. We could have done it at once, but it was quite difficult because we did not have enough money to live on and we did not want people to feel suspicious. We were settled for the next three weeks.
We left and had our lunch, with little time to waste. I told my friend, Charles Carlon, that the results for Glen’s test were negative, that we were to come again in three weeks. We then left for Banjul International Airport. I still had to escape from the policeman who had interest in me.
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