A ray of hope for Neema?

Could I have met the folks today who'll change the course of Neema's life?

Mary Wiltenburg
Neema John, Bill Clinton Hadam's half-sister, gathers water in the Dar es Salaam slum where she lives. She was left behind in Tanzania when her family moved to Atlanta.
Mary Wiltenburg
Neema, at home in a Dar es Salaam slum, brings her laundry in out of the rain.
Mary Wiltenburg
Neema John, Bill Clinton Hadam's half-sister, in Dar es Salaam.

Could I have met the folks today who'll change the course of Neema's life?

An astonishing interview this afternoon [April 16th; blogs posted with a delay due to lack of email access] with the head of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Tanzania is the first glimmer of hope in months that Bill Clinton Hadam's sister Neema John may still have a chance of reuniting with her family in the US.Since her mom's petition to bring her to Atlanta was rejected by US immigration officials last summer, 20-year-old Neema's chances of seeing her mother, stepfather, and young brothers again have looked extremely bleak. I came to Tanzania to meet her - but without much hope for her case.

But this afternoon, I spoke at length with Yacoub El Hillo, UNHCR's representative in Tanzania: an articulate, charismatic fellow with an almost superhuman recall of facts and figures. He took a strong interest in Neema, as did his colleague Mike Wells, who joined us for the interview. The two men seemed to see hope and legal possibilities where I had not. They said they wanted to help where they could - and Mike especially seemed to feel the urgency of working on Neema's case before she turns 21 in September.

Of course, that help hinges on the question of whether her parents' claims about her are borne out by the UN's files about the 10 years they spent in Tanzanian refugee camps. And it hinges too, most crucially, on whether US immigration officials decide to grant her permission to join her family in the US.

But it now sounds as though - if, as Dawami and Hassan claim, they reported the runaway Neema as missing when they were applying for resettlement in the US, if the UN considered them a married couple in their family case file, or if Neema's claim that she was raped in the camp, reported that rape, and officials failed to protect her, is confirmed by UN records - any of these things could help move her out of the legal limbo she's currently in. And maybe even across an ocean.

After our meeting, Mike took photocopies of every scrap of documentation I have about the family, and seemed ready to contact colleagues about their case this very night. I left the UNHCR offices giddy and amazed. Don't want to get my hopes up prematurely - or, especially, Neema's. No question, there's still a great deal of uncertainty. But, for the first time in nearly a year, it sounds like there may also be reason to hope.

Travel in Tanzania for this project is supported by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, in Washington DC.

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