A hope-filled farewell to Neema
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.
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.Neema, who resembles her mother Dawami so much, shares her politeness. So it was only after indulging me in a full account of my week of visits to the refugee camps, and looking at hundreds of photos of her friends there, that she shared her big news.A week before, she said, her parents had gotten a call from World Relief, the resettlement agency that had brought them to Atlanta and helped them start their lives there. According to a giddy Neema, the head of the organization had left her parents a message that said: "They will soon have a guest, and it will be me."I was skeptical. This didn't sound like something any resettlement worker in the world would say, for fear of giving false hope. I grilled Neema, but that was all she knew; her parents hadn't explained the details. We were seven hours ahead of them; they wouldn't be up for hours. So meantime, we filled our day with other things (see photos here): exchanging goodbye presents, collecting water, feeding some hungry neighbor kids, getting our nails done, posing for pictures, and packing up gifts for me to take back to her parents (cloths and crochet yarn for Dawami, and a CD of popular Tanzanian hip-hop band Bongo Flava for her stepdad).But as soon as we thought Dawami and Hassan might be awake, we called them, and they clarified: After nine months of inaction, Brian Burt, the director of World Relief's Atlanta office, had brought Hassan and Dawami in to fill in forms, and was telling them they had to move quickly, to reapply for Neema and Toni to come to the United States before she turns 21 in September. Dawami and Hassan didn't know who was responsible for this sudden flurry of activity. I didn't either, but I suspected that one of the helpful folks I'd spoken with at the UN refugee agency or the US Embassy had made a well-placed call.Brian later told me World Relief had been spurred to action by a request from the State Department, whose Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration funds the initial phase of refugee resettlement in the US, as well as working with refugees in many capacities overseas. At that moment, all we knew was that what had sounded to me like false hope might be justified after all.Around the room, there were more than a few tears. Four-year-old Briton seemed wound up by the emotional intensity of the visit. Neema, of course, was desperate to see her family. The motherly Aloisia, our Tanzanian interpreter, had overcome her initial skepticism and begun to care deeply about the young woman. She and Neema were now text-messaging one another throughout the times we three were apart; Aloisia's messages said things like: "Keep courage, sister!" and "God will make a way."I had come to Tanzania thinking there was no legal hope for Neema's case. Meetings with UN and US officials had begun to persuade me otherwise. Cheesy as it sounds, in Neema's dim room, with the rain pounding outside, I remembered a line from a speech by my own president, whose face plastered shirts, buttons, and walls all over Dar es Salaam: "In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."I'm normally a cynic about such things. But as Neema and Toni lay on the bed talking about what it would be like to see Grandma and Grandpa in Atlanta - she, for the first time since her rape seven years ago; he, for the first time in his life - I thought maybe I was wrong.In the intervening months, that hope has come under threat by the actions and inactions of the very people who should be Neema and her family's strongest allies. Our series will explore that further this week. But as Aloisia and I left Neema's home that Saturday night in April - as Toni cried quietly on my shoulder and we took our last look around the square, at the closet-sized shops lit by single bulbs, the groups of men and old women sitting and smoking, the shadows of children hurrying home - Neema held herself together by saying: "I'm not going to cry. Because, sister, I'll see you soon."Travel for this project's Africa reporting was funded in part by a grant from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.