We were in Dakar the night of Oct. 17. The airport looked angelic, full of light and people of different colors. This was also just the start of our confusion until we’d reach our destination. It continued being wonderful, and full of wonder.
An IOM [International Organization for Migration] officer met us at Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport and handed us our travel documents in an IOM bag to be held in our hands till we reached our destination. We knew we were going to the United States but were not sure in which city or state we’d land. I liked it that way, so my expectations would not be too high. I thought constantly about education, though, and Massachusetts was long on my list of places to come for studies, because they said it was the seat of education.
The protection officer liked my baby, shook our hands, and kissed and hugged Mary. She gave us her number and said to feel free to get in touch when we settled. The journey was soon to begin.
When the plane finally took off in the middle of the night, it was safe to tell my wife, Theresa, the secret of narrowly escaping a meeting with the chief justice at 8 o’clock on Monday morning — a meeting regarding one of my last news reports that would have almost certainly led to prison. She was shocked to hear it. I gave her the letter which the CJ had asked me to destroy. She shed tears but encouraged herself by thinking of our journey and what lay ahead of us: a new address.
Augustine’s last chapter: A Very Long One Week Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale
The plane was very cold. No one had told us to buy thick blankets or dress warm. We all dressed in our African style, cotton materials that cold penetrated easily. It was too late when I remembered my geography teacher saying, “The higher you go, the cooler it becomes.” That day he was proved exactly right! I was not sure which button to push to stop the cool air from descending on us. I kept looking at the several buttons and trying to help those around me who thought I was well educated. It was Monday morning now, while on the plane, and work had begun in The Gambia. So too, I am sure, had the search begun by the CJ who had been directed to bring me to court.
Whatever was happening there would remain conjecture until I checked my mail.
We prayed the plane would avoid an accident. My mind lingered to the CJ’s head’s-up. He loved me, and had I gone to see him he would have given me the best advice I know. But he could not guarantee my safety. The excitement of going to America kept my hope alive and prompted me to tell stories to my family, who all feared to sleep.
I recalled to them how I escaped from the hail of bullets when I was on a bus to Motema to see my grandmother to ascertain if she was killed and above all bring her to safety. I never made it, as I was one of two survivors among more than 30 dead bodies after a rebel attack. I felt I should let go of the story but my Mary, close to my heart, was curious for me to explain further. “Daddy, tell me more of your stories,” she cried. She said I should have caught one of the rebels and flogged them. I was scared to death. Some people were shot twice to confirm they were dead. It was going to be my turn, I told her, but approaching me they’d heard the sound of a vehicle and an opportunity for a fresh attack.
I told her a little about how I landed in Basse in The Gambia, and how I had to escape back and forth from there to Sierra Leone. I became a teacher in a Catholic school for survival. I had broken my left foot, but it got better after a month or two. That was at a soccer match. The story could go on and on, but my wife too became interested. I was sleepy but I had to keep awake and retell my story.
We were all exhausted. Our journey seemed never-ending. After our first leg of the journey, we were at Brussels Airport in Belgium. It was confusing; we were on our own with many directions to choose from.
We joined the queue going out. We were lucky. As we walked very fast to keep up with the others, we bumped into a young man who asked us in English if we were the Kanjia family. He directed us to our next departure lounge and handed us a document. Without it our next assistance would not have been possible. My kids, Glen and Mary, were tired. My wife pretended to be a strong person but her eyes could tell you how vulnerable she was to laziness. Our IOM worker gave us superb advice on traveling. “You [are] heading for New York, it is a very fast-paced city … you [should] be careful. But you will be OK over there,” the man with a long Dutch name said.
We eventually got onto another plane. Our seats were all very close to each other. I wanted to sit near Mary, whose love was so high for me. She would not let go of me for anyone. Her ticket indicated she would sit by her mom, but that was not a good choice for her. I begged Glen to swap places with Mary. It was apparent that he loves his mom better than me, and Mary loves me better than anyone else. So we made the switch. Brussels was quite cold too.
We arrived at about 6 p.m. at JFK International Airport. Planes were moving as fast as I could count. There were so many planes landing, with only a few seconds in between. When we arrived, I decided to relax in a corner where I could see the sky and the amount of planes that were coming and going unabated. It was in admiration of something I had never seen before. In Sierra Leone I’d lived in the diamond mining area. There was an airplane that came to my hometown that belonged to the National Diamond Mining Company. I was only used to that tiny airplane that came around 11:30 a.m., not the likes of those that were baffling and amazing me now.
Yes, we are in America, I whispered to myself.
Our IOM worker saw us with our bags, and quickly approached. He must have recognized us from our refugee bags that we were implored to keep in our possession. He directed us to our next flight to Boston. My children were very weak and not talking. Hunger and cold changed our appearance. The food on the flight was not heavy. We had very light clothes on; they were not meant for the weather [temperatures in the lower 50s by that 2010 evening at JFK].
The flight to Boston was not smooth. With the plane not going too high for the short flight it was rough and noisy. It felt as though we were going down. My heart was in my mouth. Eventually, we were descending little by little as the pilot negotiated our peaceful landing. It hadn’t occurred to me that this could be our last flight of the journey.
The air in Boston was quite fresh mixed with cold that October.
We were lost in wonder as we waited for whoever would come to pick us up. Glen and Mary leaned on me as though I was not tired. But I had to behave like a military man: hungry but pretending I didn’t feel it. We could hardly look at each other, we were all so excited to see the real America. I needed answers for everything. My daughter Mary was new to it all, except maybe from pictures. But Glen and Theresa had been to England for his operation. They were a bit more familiar with some of the things they saw. Mary asked me if the buses had nothing else to do but go up and down (around the airport) on a daily basis. Our faces showed newness, our appearances marked us as newcomers.
I wandered a bit from where we were standing. They all followed me with their bags, but I knew it was dangerous to stray too far without finding our IOM connection. After all, we still had no address.
A smallish, young Iraqi man approached us and said in his bad accent, “Refugees, Gambia, Africa.”
“Yes,” I said, “we are. Thank God, I have been looking out for you.”
We exchanged all pleasantries and he welcomed us to America. He showed us our names on a list of paper and asked if those were us. Fantastic! He took us to his sizeable car, and fitted us in it. He asked us several questions about where we came from and the journey itself.
I started narrating the story from the poverty I suffered to the deprivation I experienced from the government. The government corruption and how the war came about. I see myself in many others who have struggled. The Iraqi, called Mustapha, was very kind with words of sympathy. He was amazed we could speak clean English. Theresa explained how her four siblings were killed and how that led her to the bush and Gambia. Well, we were not the only refugees with appalling stories — he was a refugee, too, and told us how he’d suffered with his parents. His dad was an engineer, initially left behind amid war in the Middle East.
The bushes were all colorful. We loved the fall colors. I started wondering over how even the bushes of America were flowers, and I loved them. It was almost winter. My driver said the leaves were all fallen and would soon give way to snow.
“What is snow?” Mary asked curiously. We moved on and Mustapha said it was only 47 miles to our destination. I was looking forward to seeing our new home of Worcester.
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