If there was ever a time when I wanted to be a lawyer, it was this:
I was 19. It was the finals week of my freshman year of college. I had just sold my textbooks back to the bookstore and, emboldened with the wad of cash, decided to check out their non-textbook section. A bright yellow cover caught my attention, and its attached blurb sounded interesting, so I took it home.
As it turns out, it was a good thing that classes were done for the quarter, because Fauziya Kassindja’s Do They Hear You When You Cry turned out to be a pageturner, the kind of book you’re loath to put down even for food. It’s the true story of a seventeen-year-old girl, born to a wealthy family in Togo, whose progressive father kept his daughters from being subjected to kakia, the local term for female genital mutilation (FGM). When Fauziya’s father dies, however, her more traditional aunt moves in and decides that Fauziya will become the fourth wife of a 45-year-old man — and undergo kakia beforehand.
Ultimately, Fauziya escapes and goes to Germany under a false passport, where a stranger takes her in and tells her that if she’s willing to reveal herself to the authorities, she can ask for asylum and stay in the country legally. Wanting to continue her studies in an English-speaking country, Fauziya goes to the United States, asks the immigration officer for asylum … and ends up in prison for sixteen months while her case is considered.
The account of Fauziya’s time in prison is harrowing, to say the least — she endures strip searches, abusive guards, a riot, and 18 consecutive days in isolation. When she finally gets a hearing in front of an immigration judge, he makes it clear that he doesn’t believe a word of her story, and orders her deportation. It takes another eight months, a team of four lawyers, and major media attention to get Fauziya’s case the careful consideration it deserves.
Fauziya’s story had a happy ending — not only was she granted asylum and welcomed into a loving American community, but her case confirmed that FGM could be considered grounds for asylum. Many other asylum seekers haven’t been so lucky. Even if their cases for asylum are strong, they might very well be caught up in intense political and civilian battles. Do They Hear You When You Cry can serve as a good reminder that at the end of the day, each asylum seeker is a human being with the same rights as anybody else, and we would do well to actively work towards protecting those rights.
Photo credits: Cover photo from Better World Books;