I fled Liberia with my family as a young child. My family are ethnic Mandingos. We were targeted by the rebel forces of Charles Taylor because my father had supported the former president of Liberia. My father was killed. My mother, younger brothers, and I fled to the Ivory Coast. In 1999, two of my uncles were murdered and I was threatened by men who recognized me as my father’s son. I feared that my uncles’ murderers were with the former rebel movement of Charles Taylor. I fled to the United States to seek asylum, and because I did not have a passport from Liberia, I traveled on a false passport from the Ivory Coast.
I arrived at JFK International Airport on July 11, 1999, nine days before my 16th birthday. I spoke only a few words of English and could not understand the INS officers who questioned me. Although I kept repeating “Mandingo, speak Mandingo,” the INS did not call a Mandingo interpreter. Instead, they brought an airline employee who spoke French. I spoke very little French and could not understand the translator. After the interview, I was given papers to sign. I refused to sign the papers because I could not read them and did not know what they were. I was then taken to be fingerprinted. I was frightened and did not understand what was happening to me. One of the INS officers grabbed my hand and tried to fingerprint me by force. I cried out, in Mandingo, “Don’t force me, you are hurting me.” I was crying. The officer returned with four others. They grabbed me, twisted my arm, and tried to fingerprint me. I fell to the floor and slammed my head against the edge of a desk, cutting my head. One of the INS officers stepped on my shoulder. I was bleeding a lot and could not see. I was very scared and couldn’t believe that they could hurt me like this in this country. I was handcuffed and taken to the hospital where I got stitches. I was afraid they would kill me in the hospital. My white shirt was covered in blood. I was taken back to the airport and shackled to a bench overnight. I still have pains in my head from that time. I do not understand the way I was treated at the airport. Is this what America is like?
The next morning I was taken to the Wackenhut detention center in Queens, New York. I was held at the adult facility even though I was a minor, because the INS claimed that they could tell I was over 18 from a dental examination. I was detained at Wackenhut about six months. I was very sad at Wackenhut because I was put with adults and wasn’t supposed to be with them. When I was very sick at Wackenhut and needed help, I had to wait before seeing the doctor. The doctor did not ask me what was wrong with me, but only gave me Ibuprofen. It made me feel that he didn’t care about me. Every night I had nigaspxares that I was being deported.
I have family in New York. My uncle is a U.S. citizen. My aunt is a legal permanent resident. My cousin was granted asylum. Even though I have family here, I was not released on parole. I asked for parole three times, but the INS denied it each time. While appealing the denial of my claim, I was transferred to Lehigh County Prison, a criminal prison in Pennsylvania — moving me far from my family and my pro bono lawyers. I was detained there with criminals for one week. I felt like I was treated like a criminal. I was the youngest one among them and was very scared that the criminal detainees would hurt me. My cellmate had killed someone and would tell me about the crimes he had done. I was so afraid, I couldn’t sleep at night. After I requested to be moved, they changed me to another cell with INS detainees, where I was held for over a month. When I had medical problems at Lehigh, I made many requests to see a doctor, but never had a response. It was not fair for the INS detainees at Lehigh, because we were not treated like human beings.
After my treatment was mentioned in an article in the New York Daily News, I was transferred to York County Prison, another remote detention facility in Pennsylvania. I was detained there about five months. It was worse there than at Lehigh. They gave me a criminal uniform, which was different from the ones for INS detainees, and held me with criminals for one day. As I was transferred to my cell with INS detainees, I was handcuffed, chained, and shackled like a criminal. I was crying. One guard asked me why I was crying. I told him, “I’m not a criminal.” I felt like my life was finished. I was too young to be there. It was very hard to reach my family. I was sad that sometimes me and other Muslims were not allowed to meet with an imam, a religious leader, on Friday, our holy day. I thought that they should respect our religion.
One day, I was told to pack my bags. I thought I was getting paroled, but instead they transferred me to a detention center in Welfare County, Pennsylvania. I was there for two days, and then was transferred to Carbon County Prison. I was detained at Carbon County for about nine months. While I was waiting to be transferred to my cell, I was kept in segregation for one week. It made me feel like I was going crazy, because I was so alone. While I was in segregation, I couldn’t call my lawyer or my family. After I was transferred to my cell, I made many requests to go to English classes. It was only the week before I was released, that I was finally able to go to class. I was just happy to be able to pray every day.
I was finally granted asylum in December 2000, after a year and a half in detention. I couldn’t believe I would be released and was very happy. Even after I was released and was free, I would dream that I was still in detention. I am now living in New York City and am going to a local high school. I like school and am doing well. I like America, because I know that here, my life is protected.