Accused of a crime, a Rwandan refugee has her day in court
A faulty subway fare card lands her in handcuffs and court. But all is forgiven when a white reporter shows up.
For the Monitor's yearlong multimedia project following Congolese third-grader Bill Clinton Hadam and his charter school community in Atlanta, correspondent Mary Wiltenburg blogs several times a week about the discoveries and missteps his refugee family makes adjusting to American life. Like the roaches in their apartment that swarm as Bill tries to do homework. Or his 8-year-old brother Igey's decision to Americanize his name. This week, Ms. Wiltenburg joined Bill's mother, Dawami, in court. This article is adapted from her blog report.Skip to next paragraph
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Tuesday afternoon, Rwandan Dawami Lenguyanga stood before an annoyed Judge Catherine Malicki of the Municipal Court of Atlanta for her arraignment on a charge of disorderly conduct. As Dawami’s friend Felix Mulamba translated, and her co-worker Felicia Jackson tried to testify on Dawami’s behalf, the judge frowned over her glasses.
“I don’t have time [for this],” she snapped.
Dawami’s latest encounter with the American legal system (earlier, an arrest warrant had been issued after she misunderstood a traffic court summons, costing her $340) began late one night last month when she tried to catch the subway home from work. She and Felicia, a Liberian refugee who came to Atlanta three years ago and has been doing housekeeping at Georgia State University two months longer than Dawami, bought fare cards and swiped them at the entrance of MARTA, the local transit system. A man stood on the platform, watching them.
Felicia’s card worked fine, but when Dawami scanned hers, the women say, the card-reader couldn’t register it. They were running to catch the train, which connected to the 10:45 p.m. bus home; if they missed it, Bill and Igey would be alone while they waited for the next one, at 12:15 a.m. So when Dawami’s card failed to read, she piled through the gate behind Felicia and the women ran for their train.
The man, they say, followed them, shouting: “Put your hands behind your back!” Dawami – a native Swahili speaker who came to Atlanta two years ago – didn’t understand the command. Felicia, a no-nonsense mother of five, intervened, explaining that Dawami didn’t know much English. The man, a MARTA policeman, handcuffed Dawami and took her into a back room. Felicia says she waited nearly two hours for her friend’s release, frantically showing the ticket saleswomen Dawami’s receipt and fare card. She says that one ran the card through her machine, and confirmed that, as the receipt showed, it had $5 on it.
The MARTA officer, unnamed on the ticket, wrote this report: “Enter[ed] into the paid area without paying the required $1.75 fare by following a paying patron through the faregate” – and ordered Dawami to appear in court on a “disorderly conduct” charge.
There she was on Tuesday afternoon, missing work her first month on the job and baffled by prosecutor William Wansker’s explanation of possible pleas: guilty, not guilty, and no contest. As he detailed the differences, Felix and Felicia conferred in French. Twice, Mr. Wansker asked them not to talk during his instructions. Then he took questions.