I Ran and Hid in the Airport

Originally published at the author’s law blog.

What do you do if you’ve endured persecution and torture so horrible you can’t talk about it, but the law requires you to talk about it?

Now let’s say you have a lawyer willing to talk for you. That would be a good thing, right?

Our government doesn’t think so. In fact, the government’s top lawyer, Jeff Sessions, thinks the system’s rampant with fraud, and people claiming fear of return is just an “easy ticket” into the United States. Read on to see exactly how wrong he is.

In late August, I got a call to investigate the case of a woman from Uganda detained at Dulles Airport, denied entry on a valid student visa. In talking to her cousin in the U.S., I learned she intended to apply for asylum. She had been through so much persecution that she couldn’t talk about it, and the cousin was afraid she would “just shut down and cry.” And she didn’t talk. She couldn’t.

So I spoke for her. I entered my appearance on the proper form, and wrote that my client was traumatized, couldn’t articulate the fear of return, and demanded she either be scheduled for a hearing on her fear of return (the first step in asylum) or at least I be permitted to talk to her. I needed all of five seconds to advise her of her rights.

Every single one of my requests was denied.

She got deported the next morning. I thought it was game over. Her flight stopped in Dubai en route to Kampala, Uganda. But when she landed in the airport in Dubai, she ran. She hid herself in the airport with Emirates personnel and airport security looking for her. I had tracked her flight online and for the first time, connected with her as she hid in Terminal 3. And learned her story.

Her nickname is Ella. Caught with her girlfriend in their hometown, the couple was paraded naked in the streets and tied up. The mob poured paraffin wax over them. While they searched for car tires to light, the police arrived, stopped the vigilantism, but arrested the couple. On release, they moved to Kampala. But Ella’s family was not happy at being “shamed.” Her own father sent a man to “cure” her by raping her, and rape her he did. She tried to go to the police, only to be rearrested on charges lodged by her own family of “recruiting young girls into homosexuality.” Ella tried to kill herself with pain pills even as she faithfully reported to the police every Thursday. Her cousin counseled her out of her attempted suicide. Eventually she was able to obtain that student visa—only to have all her hopes of escape denied by an agent who knew she was traumatized, but refused to accept my representation as her lawyer.

It was now 3 a.m. and I had been receiving this story via WhatsApp for nearly two hours. I was sitting in my family room, totally clueless on how I could stop her forcible removal to Uganda. On a whim, I called UNHCR in Dubai. And they responded. Three amazing officers took my client’s case, and worked with the airport to allow her to stay there —in legal limbo— for the next month. Along the way we assembled a rockstar team of lawyers—our own Humza KazmiSirine Shebaya, and Mariko Hirose from IRAP (think #MuslimBan challengers!), among others. We obtained documentary proof (some of it had to be obtained by secret nighttime visits to hiding places to avoid suspicion) of the rape, torture, and abuse. She is now in Kenya—still in a dangerous situation, but at least away from her family.

Despite Sessions saying it’s an easy ticket, the law is not on our side. If Customs and Border Protection wanted to, they could parole her back into the U.S., admit they should have sent her for a credible fear interview, and let us handle her asylum claim. We’ve submitted all the evidence, including a statement from Dr. Saba Maroof Hamzavi, psychiatrist, that she likely suffers from extreme PTSD.

They said no. Expedited removal order was legally proper.

I don’t have a happy ending here—at least not yet. We’re going to keep fighting to find a safe place for Ella. Her case shows the need for access to counsel: I needed only five seconds to advise her. It shows the ease with which an officer can deny this so-called “easy ticket” to the most vulnerable. It shows what gay people have to endure around the world. It shows how wrong Sessions & Co. is.

But it also shows something else. It shows the humanity of strangers from Uganda, Kenya, the UAE, DC, Michigan, New York, and Seattle coming together over WhatsApp and conference calls to help this woman they didn’t know. It shows the indefatigable human spirit overcoming tribulation.

​Perhaps most of all, it shows the very human need to protect and be protected.

​#BringEllaBack

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Hassan Ahmad, Esq., is an immigration lawyer in Northern Virginia and has spent time volunteering at Washington-Dulles International Airport in the wake of Trump’s travel bans, as well as being a vocal opponent of the administration’s deportation policies. He tweets from @HMAesq.

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