"What's happening with Bill's sister?" More than a year after the Little Bill Clinton series officially ended, I still hear that question all the time from readers. Today, we finally have some answers - as well as a new story in this week's Monitor magazineabout an exciting development in Bill's life, and big changes in his family.You may remember Bill's long-lost sister, Neema John, and his nephew, Toni Joseph, whom I visited in Tanzaniain 2009. Neema was separated from her family when they resettled in Atlanta, and since 2007, her parents have been fighting to reunite with her in a legal saga plagued by uncertainty and delays. But over time, as deadlines have come and gone, their reunification case has made creeping progress. In August 2009, US Immigration finally approved now-22-year-old Neema to join her family.But now-6-year-old Toni was another matter. On the advice of Chau Ly, the family reunification specialist at their resettlement agency, his grandparents applied for humanitarian parolefor Toni - the same legal status that was granted to Haitian orphans who came to the US after the earthquake. The application documented the boy's unstable living situation, and his grandparents' ability to support him.
On the final day of his 3rd-grade year, a grinning Bill Clinton Hadam made brownies, caught water balloons, played foursquare, feasted on candied apples and chicken wings, and read aloud in several classes. As his teachers explain in our newest audio slideshow, at right, he seemed like a different kid from the sad, shy boy who entered their classes last August.
Since Igey came to the International Community School two years ago, teachers have been worried about his health. The soon-to-be second-grader misses a great deal of school, and has coughs that drag on for months. He had surgery on his left ear in the refugee camp that left him with a small wound behind his ear that did not close. Last month, he and his family went to Emory-Children's Center, at Atlanta's Emory University, for surgery to close it.
I spent my last day in Tanzania with Neema and Briton. When Toni spotted me walking down the path to their house, he ran up and gave me one of his somber leg-hugs. So began the strangest and most wonderful day I spent with them. It ended with tears, and the hope of a journey. But it started with a shock.
Until they were 6, Bill and his friends Emmanuel and Jean-Jacques lived together in Mkugwa, a camp of 2,000 Central African refugees in Northwest Tanzania. Their parents were close friends, and the boys grew up sharing meals, soccer games, wheelbarrow rides. Then, in October 2006, everything changed.
The men sat around in a circle of chairs and benches, smoking, chatting, and playing board games. Their wives spent hours cooking, cleaning, tending kids, and hauling five-gallon water buckets from the pump on their heads. Men had first, last, and nicknames. Women were known by their kids: Mama Grace, Mama Elisa, Mama Billy. The gender roles in Kanembwa refugee camp, in northwestern Tanzania, seemed plenty strict to me.
Why did Neema do it? In Tanzania, I spent a lot of time trying to understand more - emotionally and culturally - about the decision Bill Clinton's sister made as a young teen to run away and leave her family.Neema says she regrets the choice to flee the camp after her rape by two older boys - as do her parents. In Mtabila camp, old friends Jean-Paul Rukundo and his wife were sympathetic, but as parents of eight children, they said they couldn't support her decision. Friends Eva Sango and her husband, whom I met in Kanembwa camp awaiting their resettlement overseas, saw the whole thing as a tragedy. But no, the parents of five agreed, Neema shouldn't have run away.Not until near the end of my visit to Kanembwa, when I stole a cool moment on the floor of Eva's mud-brick house, did I hear another story.
It was an awkward assignment. When acting US Ambassador to Tanzania Larry Andre pulled into Mtabila refugee camp in April, in a convoy of mud-darkened Land Cruisers that disgorged a crowd of United Nations and government officials and embassy personnel, he looked uncomfortable.Before he stepped into the thick orange mud, I had never actually seen my country being represented overseas, person-to-person. Larry, a veteran Africa hand, had arrived at this camp of 40,000 Burundians in northwest Tanzania to deliver an uncomfortable message: Uncle Sam does not want you. What I saw that afternoon made me both proud and embarrassed to be an American.
Last 4th of July, Bill's family was new to the country, and terrified by the fireworks, which sounded to his Rwandan mom like war had broken out. This year they've become comfortable enough in the US that this Independence Day, I wasn't worried about them: They planned to hit the holiday sales. I was worried about another family, though.