Journey to Eden

America. It was a dream for my family and I. It was the answer to all of our prayers. We heard many things about the land. Money was never an issue. Everybody was rich. There was no suffering, no food rations, no children dying of Cholera, or hunger. I will never be sick again, because the doctors in America were so advanced. My friend Cecile at school would tell me to send her a bike if I ever went there. It was all we ever wanted and needed. So in June 1999, when my family and I found out that our application for refugee status in United States of America was approved, I could not explain the feeling. I imagine now that I will only feel like that again when I win the jackpot, or fulfill my dream of becoming the first African woman trillionaire. We cried, we laughed, we sang, and we ate. We celebrated like it was going out of style. My father used any and all of his funds to buy real food from the marketplace in Cotonou, Benin. Seven years of moving from one refugee camp to another had become tiring. We wanted out. Four of my friends had died before I turned six of ailments that would be instantly cured in this promise land, so I was ready. We had no idea what we were in for. This is a story of how my family and I came to the United States after spending a total of seven years hiding from the Togolese government and living in refugee camps.

 
My father is kind of a loud mouth. A lot of people know him as a very short, intense man who is hard to understand when he speaks English. But before all that, he was a political activist and a civil engineer in Togo. He was summoned by president (AKA dictator, or devil), Gnassingbe´ Eyade´ma, to work on a task force that would build a bridge in the City of Lome´ in mid-1980s.

 
While working on this task, my father and some of his colleagues began noticing the corruption in the Togolese government. They also noted the number of Togolese citizens in the capital city of Lome´ who were suffering and being killed for no reason. They started writing letters to the United Nations in search of help with the problems. When they did not receive responses, they came up with a plan to reform the Togolese government, set up social services for the people who needed it, and rehabilitate current rebel group members. They figured rebel groups would stop forming if people did not suffer so much.

 
When I ask my father about the plan today he tells me, “Kayi, plan wan, plan senwoun.” It was a strong plan he says in Mina, our native dialect. After that, he remains silent. My father never liked talking about this. He is a current heart and liver transplant patient, so I try not to upset him too much.

 
The plan had a lot of potential and was well-organized, according to my mother. One of the main men involved in setting it up decided that he no longer wanted to be a part of it. He didn’t voice this to the rest of the men. Rather, he took his concerns to the Togolese government. He sold the whole group out to the government. My whole family knew this man. He was the godfather to my siblings and I. My mother said he had some financial issues at the time. After he sold the group out, he built a mansion in Lome’.

 
Agban deca me ye’ coudo etowo donanou le’,” my mother said in a shaky voice in Mina. In English this means, “He and your father ate from the same plate.”

 
Everyone in the group was issued an arrest warrant for treason. The government immediately seized all of their assets (houses, cars, land, retirement funds, etc.). Four of the group members were “arrested” and killed within days of their arrest. A good friend of my father’s warned him ahead of time, and my mother forced him to flee to the nearby country of Benin in 1992. My mother, my two sisters, and I joined him two years later after hiding out in a small house in his hometown village of Agbetiko, Togo. I was four at the time.

 
The first refugee camp we ever stayed in was in Cotonou, Benin. It was called Cotonou Cinque. We stayed in tents in a field-like setting. Food was rationed every three months, and according to my parents, it wasn’t much. The Beninese government provided the camp with policemen who guarded it at all hours of the day. The rules were very strict; no one could leave or come in without permission. But money can change anything. Government officials from their countries captured a couple of Togolese and Nigerian refugees. They were killed within days of their “capture.” After this event, this camp was deemed unsafe. So, off to the next refugee camp we went.

 
Not until we arrived in Cent-Lits Pkame´ in Come´, Benin, did we finally find some type of stability. My father and some of the other men that were deemed high-risk threats to camp safety and stability were sent somewhere else to live in hiding.

 
Cent-Lits was different. Croix Rouge (The Red Cross), and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) organized it. We did not go a couple days without food this time. Food was given to every family in rations on a monthly basis. Each family received a sack of rice, 2-3 cans of corned beef (depending on family size), a bottle of peanut oil, a couple cans of sardines, a bottle of Milo (similar to hot chocolate mix), a couple cans of Lait Peak (evaporated milk), and two boxes of cubed sugar. We did not stay in tents either. Cent-Lits was a hospital under construction. The hospital was big and not well-visited due to construction work, so the Beninese government decided to place some of the refugees there. Each family was issued a room about half the size of our classroom. We slept on cold cement floors (this was a good thing due to normally warm weather), and received a net like protection called “Mundo” to keep the mosquitoes out. These conditions were great to me, but my older sisters and my parents knew better conditions. The only conditions I knew prior to cement floors and Mundo were tents and dirt floors, so I had no complaints.

 
Benin was one of the few stable West African countries in the early to mid-1990s, so in Cent-Lits, there were refugees from all over Africa. Although most were either from Togo and Nigeria due to proximity, there were also refugees from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Mali.

 

2006: Togolese refugees prepare to leave a camp in Benin

2006: Togolese refugees prepare to leave a camp in Benin

Life in Cent-Lits was mundane. I remember that I was sick a majority of our time there. Lucky for me, I just had a few gastrointestinal issues. I did not die of cholera or malnutrition like some of the children we knew. When my friend Daniel died in late 1995 of malnutrition, my mother and a couple of other women in the camp decided to start a garden. We were given rations of food to survive, but it was not enough at times. My mother and the other women grew tomatoes, onions, spinach, peppers, carrots and pomme de terre. We also had a huge mango tree in the middle of the camp. Most of children spent their free time there. Years later in America, I would come to daydream about those mangoes.

 
Although they were not allowed to, the women of the camp would sneak out to sell my mother’s hand-woven baskets and other items in order to make money for food and medicine.

 
A lot of things happened in late 1995. My father came back to the camp after spending months away from us for safety reasons. Some Beninese citizens did not like the idea of having refugees from other countries in their schools. They did not want us associating with their children, so we were not allowed into the schools. We were not Beninese citizens so the country owed us nothing.

 
My father and some other camp members met with the camp organizers to discuss the issue of education. They met with a presidential candidate at the time by the name of Mathieu Kerekou. Kerekou worked with the school districts in the area, and refugee children were finally allowed in schools. My sisters and I started school immediately. We woke up at 2:00 A.M., and started the three-hour journey to school on foot everyday at 3:00 A.M. I was 5 at this time. Most of the children from other countries did not go to the schools because Benin is a French-speaking country, and they didn’t speak French. Luckily, nearly all of the Togolese attended because Togo is also a French-speaking country. Croix Rouge and UNHCR organized volunteers to come in and teach children from the other countries.

 
My little brother Franco was born Dec. 3 of that year. The women in the camp gathered around and helped to deliver him. We spent the next 3 years in Cent-Lits. During those 3 years, we became adjusted to the refugee camp life. Rumors of government officials coming and looking for wanted refugees spread through the camp. A young boy named Djoji stayed with my family for some time until camp officials placed him with a different family. He was brought to the camp without a family. He went missing one day and people said the government had captured him. Numerous cases like Djoji’s came up and everyone was always on edge. The guards were not trusted because people believed they could easily be bribed, and therefore, they jeopardized our safety.

 
Due to the security risks, The United States, some European countries and Canada decided to start taking refugees from Cent-Lits. Cent-Lits was a hospital under construction and the construction was being completed. Beninese Citizens wanted the refugees out of the area so the hospital could be available to them. This placed a lot of pressure on the politicians. We were told that the camp would be moving to another location within a year in October of 1998. Cent-Lits was now home to many of us. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was the closest thing to home many of us had since we left our countries.

 
Between 19’96 and 1997 many refugees were receiving approval of refugee status letters from Canada, the United States and some European countries. The population of Cent-Lits started to shrink month by month. The Nigerians ran prayer sections at 4:00 A.M. everyday so that more Nigerians would get a chance to leave Cen-Lits next by the grace of God. Everyone was extremely annoyed because they made a lot of noise dancing, singing traditional bible hymns, and praying to God for a chance to go to America.

 
It was big thing, this America. We knew nothing about it, except everything. Some of the camp members would tell us how magical it was. They either had a distant uncle, aunt, third cousin, or great niece who lived there. And boy, let them tell it…Once a person went there, he/she instantly became rich. Everyone lived in mansion. Everyone. There was an endless amount of food (this might be the only remotely true thing we heard). Bill Clinton was God. “La neige” or snow was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to earth. Nobody ever worked hard for money. It just happened to people. Rich and America are interchangeable. Poverty, refugee camps, suffering, hunger, disease, and corruption were all things that do not exist in this Eden.

 
My parents warned my siblings and I about listening to these stories. They knew the opportunities moving to the United States of America would offer us, but their level of naiveté was moderate. I once told my father that if we ever go to America, I had to send my friend Cecile a bicycle. I knew I would have at least 100 and who needs that many? Giving away one wouldn’t hurt me. I promised her I would. He listened to me attentively with a smile on his face and twinkles in his eyes. He opened his mouth as if he was going to tell me something, but quickly closed it and held me close. I never forgot that. Thinking back now, it was as if he almost wanted to tell me that Santa Claus wasn’t real, but he rapidly remembered that I was just a child so he let me have my fantasy.

 
Life in a refugee camp was rough, but I never felt like it was. There were children without parents or siblings, parents without children, uncles without nieces and nephews, and grandparents without children or grandchildren. The worse part was that most of these people did not know where their family members were. Here I was, with a father, a mother, two sisters, and a new brother. I had it all. Our parents did everything in their power to make our experience as “normal” as possible. The camp life was normal for me because I was so young and it was all I knew. I think the older children, like my sisters, who had a better life before it were the real victims.
My father would risk his safety to sneak off to Cotonou. There was a huge marketplace there. He would bring back sacomi (hot French bread made on the streets of the market) and paya (an avocado spread) for us. It was a real treat, but nothing like crème (Ice cream), or fofonu (sugar cane). He would wrap the crème about ten times in these black sacks so that it did not melt before he gets home. All the kids would scream “foman gbo” whenever he returned (Mina for “Foman is here”). “Foman” was my father’s nickname. Everyone called him that, including us-his children. Today, we still call my father “Foman.” Every child in Cent-lits loved my father. It wasn’t long before camp administrators found out his crime and banned him from leaving again. They kept a close watch on him so the fofonu, sacomi, paya, and crème disappeared for some time.

 
In Cent-Lits, we watched family after family receive the news that it was their time to leave for America. My parents said they were not sure how the decisions were being made. Nevertheless, we waited for our turn. We’d been waiting since 1996 to hear back. My father applied back in19 94 before we moved to Cent-Lits, but the applications were not processed until the United States, Canada, and some of the European countries agreed to resettle a certain number of refugees. So we waited.

 
We waited.

 
I remember that day as if it was this very minute. I even remember the smell. My mother was making riz parfumee’ (aromatic rice) with corned beef stew. It was hotter than usual that day. Earlier that day, my sister Elie and I were playing with our friend Yovo by the mango tree. There were these little lizards that crawled around camp regularly. We called them adoglo. I was deathly afraid of them and Yovo knew this. While sitting down by the mango tree to catch a breath, I had a feeling that something was off. I could hear Yovo walking slowly behind me but I did not think anything of it. I can still see Elie giggling about 10 feet away from me but I thought nothing of it. All of a sudden, I felt it. It was crawling on by bare back. I’m squirming right now typing this because I remember it so vividly. I screamed and cried hysterically simultaneously. I reached my hands back and felt the adoglo move further towards my head. I screamed so loud that Yovo came over, removed the atrocious creature from my back and continued laughing with Elie. I was beyond livid. Mostly at Elie because I could not believe she let this happen to me. It was late in the afternoon, so it was time for us to go home. I tried punching Elie, but she was much older and stronger than I, so she blocked it. I could not wait to go home and tell my parents about how awful she was. I wanted them to know what she has done, and I wanted them to punish her to the fullest capacity.
I never imagined that what was waiting at home would make me forget all about my horrible experience. When we got to our quartier (the sections in the camp were called cartier–the camp was divided in sections mostly by countries), I smelled it. Riz parfumee’ and corned beef stew. It was a meal we had often, but it was one that I loved so I already felt a little better. We got closer to the cooking area and I saw my father, my older sister Dometo, and my mother with my little brother Franco on her back. Everyone looked relieved. It was a look I had never seen on my family’s face before. My father looked up at me, and smiled. I wasn’t sure why because I still had dried tears on my face from being Yovo and Elie’s victim earlier. I wasn’t really happy that everyone was so at peace and here I was still recovering from what just happened to me. Before I could get a chance to tell my tales, my father told us to sit down. “Mile yi America,” he said in Mina.

 
“We are going to America.”

 
I wasn’t sure if I heard it correctly or rather, if I understood it correctly. But he repeated it several times. Even till this day, I feel as if I dreamt that day. My mother had tears in her eyes. My older sister Dometo was crying. My father proceeded to tell us that we would be leaving on September 19, 1999. This was June 21, 1999, so it was beyond great news. The news also came at the best time because refugees were already being moved to the new camp since we had to leave the hospital of Cent-Lits. By October of 1999, all the refugees in Cent-Lits would be relocated to this new area. My father told us we were not allowed to tell anyone until the process was completed. We had to go through a series of medical test, interviews, and immunization updates. If within that process any of us were discovered to have any disease or did not pass the interview, America was off the table.

 
We passed the tests. We took care of the interviews. On September 19, 1999, my family and I loaded an airplane for the first time in our lives to go to a place that was only a fantasy to us. We did not know what the food was like, or what the people were like. We did not know the language, or the politics. We did not know about the education system (which was drastically different from the one we were used to). We did not the norms, or the currency. We did not even know about the weather. But, oh, we thought we knew…

2 Comments

  1. Maureen Hirthler

    December 2, 2015 at 11:57 AM

    Fabulous and relevant story

  2. Brenda

    March 22, 2016 at 3:13 PM

    I’m curious,

    Did you send your friend a bicycle?

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