Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Hero for Hire

Koffi is his name. It means “born on a Friday.”

In the classic English poem, Friday’s child is “loving and giving”, and so Koffi is indeed a Friday’s child.

He was a nationally recognized athlete in his tiny West African country of Togo, an impoverished sliver of land wedged shoulder to shoulder between Ghana and Benin and clinging to its toehold piece of coastline on the Gulf of Guinea. The beach near Lomé is where Koffi would organize youth sports on the weekend. His story begins there, among the young Togolese who, Koffi tells me, had poor educational opportunities and even poorer job prospects.

After the games on the beach, Koffi would talk with the kids and their parents. They formed a support group to provide the young people with the positive activity of an organized sport, as well as assistance in seeking employment. The organization naturally took an interest in politics. Togo has been under military rule since 1967, under a dictatorship handed down from father to son.

In 1993, Koffi attended a rally in support of a candidate opposing the Eyadema regime. Before the rally could even begin, it was disbanded through military force, resulting in a massacre of hundreds of people. Koffi survived by lying still among the dead bodies until he could return home.

Many Togolese fled to neighboring Benin and Ghana following the bloody outcome of the rally, and yet Koffi remained, faithful to his country, his family and to his belief in democracy. He and his athletic club became more deeply involved in supporting opposition to the military rule of Eyadema. Koffi was arrested on three separate occasions, with others from his political party, imprisoned under unimaginable conditions and subjected to various uses of force and torture before being released. He bears the physical scars of these episodes of political intimidation, but his spirit didn’t crumble. During his final imprisonment, he risked a perilous escape by feigning illness so that he could be transported to a hospital, where security was not as tight.

Koffi knew that he had to flee the country, not only for his own sake, but for the safety of his wife and three children. He crossed the river into Benin at night in a canoe. While he was in Benin, healing from his torture, soldiers broke down the door of his home back in Lomé looking for him. They beat his wife and broke her arm when she would not cooperate, and threatened that her husband was a “dead man.” Over the next weeks, she put her own safety at risk again in arranging a way for Koffi to leave Africa and go to Chicago where her sister lived.

Once in Chicago, Koffi filed for asylum and, at first, had his application denied because his interview was unsuccessful. He didn’t speak English, of course, and came with a precariously bilingual acquaintance as his interpreter. Two Chicago attorneys provided the pro bono assistance to have Koffi’s case heard in Immigration Court, successfully this time.

While Koffi was going through the tedious months of having his asylum status approved, he worked long hours to support himself. Not speaking English at all at first, he would take any work available, such as standing outside of a car wash on the South Side of Chicago, drying off cars for tips. Later, he worked in the kitchen of a restaurant and bussing tables. His goal was to be reunited with his family.

When Koffi's wife and daughter arrived from Africa, I was at O'Hare with a bouquet of flowers and my camera. One of Koffi’s Togolese friends who was present made a speech to recognize my contribution as interpreter. Far greater were the contributions of the law firm who took Koffi’s case, the attorneys who meticulously studied his asylum petition, and the support of Koffi’s friends and family here and abroad. After many months, when the entry visas were obtained, Koffi’s wife sold everything the family possessed in Togo to purchase airline tickets. Koffi’s two sons were able to fly to Chicago through the donations of the attorney who had attained his refugee status. Finally, after many years, the family is together.

Koffi is now 17 years older than when he first organized his youth sports on the beach near Lomé. He is in his fifties now, and if he hadn’t been an athlete, he may not have been able to withstand the tortures, imprisonments and hardships the way he has.

My life is enriched by my friendship with Koffi. His laugh is large and warm, as is his courage and his outlook on life. More than that, there is a Dickensian lesson in extremes here. Koffi’s faith in life and God are more valid to me than anyone’s, because blessings and good fortune are only truly appreciated in contrast with their absence. He is now faced with the same unemployment as many of his fellow American citizens, having been included in a general layoff just before his family arrived. On the surface, he may seem unemployable as well, given his age, his race, and his education. I have written him the strongest letters of recommendation I could, hopefully to open the eyes of a potential employer to see the devoted, hard-working man that Koffi is. And Koffi continues to tell me that all will be well, that he will overcome this setback. I believe him. Through my interpreting work, I have seen many Koffis who have beaten amazing odds to find a better life in America. I’ve come to think that anti-immigrant sentiment is sometimes unconsciously born of resentment that a foreigner can enter the country with limited means and yet maneuver through the system to succeed where native-born Americans have not. If one could put Heart and Determination on a job application, as real tangible assets, Koffi is superiorly qualified.