Last time her mother saw her, Helen Neema John was a child. Neema, "Grace" in Swahili, wore her hair in cornrows, doted on her baby brothers Bill Clinton Hadam and Igey Muzeleya, and loved to sing in her church choir."She like to sing everything - French, Swahili, English," remembers her mom, Dawami Lenguyanga, a Rwandan refugee now living outside Atlanta.
A quiet kid, Neema rarely complained. Not about the day in 1996 when, as a 7-year-old, she saw Tutsi gunmen burst into her home in Rwanda and shoot her Hutu father. Not about the lack of food in the Tanzanian refugee camp where she and her mom were sent. Not when her mother married Neema's Congolese stepfather. And not about the "something bad" that happened next.
Instead, when she was 13, Neema ran away to a Baptist orphanage. By the time she went back to the camp in 2006, strangers were living in her family's hut and her mother, brothers, and stepfather were across an ocean.
"When I think of my mom, I cry a lot, because I don't know what to do," Neema, now 20, says in a phone interview. "I think a lot: Why did I leave the camp?' Even if I eat, I don't feel like I'm full, because I miss my mom, I miss my brothers. Even if I eat, I feel like dying."
Across the globe, such separations are common when war and trauma divide families.
"People run in different directions. People are separated as they run. One person is jailed, or taken away, and the others have to flee," says Ellen Beattie, regional director of the International Rescue Committee, the largest resettlement agency in Georgia. Some 20 percent of refugee families in Atlanta are missing a spouse or child, she says, and all left behind aunts, nephews, and grandparents.
"These families are torn asunder," she says, "everyone's missing somebody."
It's common at the International Community School, the charter school for refugee and US-born kids that Neema's brothers attend. ICS families have been driven apart not just by war, but by borders and politics, forms and formalities. Once they've made it to the US, reunions are difficult. Strict new regulations since 9/11, and discoveries of fraud, have made the process harder. Last month, the State Department shut down the program that has done most to reunify African refugee families, after DNA tests on 3,000 applicants, largely from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Liberia, confirmed claimed biological ties in fewer than 20 percent of cases.Two years ago, when the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees granted Dawami and her husband US visas - they'd been waiting a decade. Forbidden to leave the camp to look for Neema, they didn't know where their daughter was - but they knew this opportunity would not come again. Dawami had spent 33 of her 38 years in camps, waiting for a permanent home. So they made the agonizing choice to leave Neema behind.
Dawami was born in Rwanda in 1968. When she was 4, violence there drove her Tutsi family to Tanzania, where Dawami and 13 siblings grew up in refugee camps below Mt. Kilimanjaro. As a teen, singing in her church choir, she met a handsome baritone named Hamisi Hussen. He was Rwandan too, a Hutu. In 1988, the couple had Neema.
When Neema was 7, word reached the camp that it was safe for refugees to return to Rwanda. The 1994 genocide - in which Hutu extremists killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus - was over, and the new president was calling refugees home. So they returned.
They didn't expect reprisal killings. Neema watched men barge into their home and shoot her father. "We just run away," she says.
Crossing the Tanzanian border, she and Dawami became refugees again. At a processing center in Dar es Salaam, Dawami met a round-faced man named Hassan Mwanasumpikwa. He was Congolese, fleeing war in his country. The two were assigned to Mkugwa refugee camp. There, in 1998, just before Christmas, they married.
At first, Neema says, Hassan treated her like a daughter, and she called him "Baba" (Daddy). When her brothers were born, she spent her days caring for them, helping her mother with chores, and singing in the choir. But when Neema was 13, she says, "something bad" happened - something she's never shared with her mother. Dawami says neighbors told her they heard Hassan beat the girl. But Neema denied it. When she and her choir left the camp to perform at a Baptist church in another village, she didn't come back. "I didn't like to tell them where I was," Neema says.
Neema lived at the church orphanage for several years. There, she says, she was gang-raped by fellow residents and became pregnant. When church leaders discovered her condition, she says, they threw her out. When her son was born, she named him Briton Joseph.
In 2006, the young mother and her 2-year-old returned to Mkugwa to find her family gone. Neighbors took them in and helped Neema track down Dawami's phone number in Georgia. In her first phone call, the girl apologized for running away. The camp was closing, so Dawami started sending Neema what little money she could spare.
Last January, Dawami and Chau Ly, a family reunification specialist with World Relief, the Christian nonprofit that brought the family to Atlanta, filed paperwork with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services to bring Neema here. It was a race against time; refugees have two years from their arrival here to bring over a child this way, and Neema's chances of coming to the US by other legal means will plummet when she turns 21.
Six months passed with no word. Dawami called repeatedly for updates. Mr. Ly, whose client list is in the hundreds, had no news.
Finally, in early July, he sat with Dawami in his small, gray office, and unfolded a letter from Immigration. A Swahili speaker translated his explanation: There had been a mistake. Dawami's application was rejected, because they'd filed it in her name, and the government considered only her husband eligible to apply. Ly had known this rule, and couldn't remember why they hadn't discussed it. "Wow," exhaled Dawami when she understood.
"Denied," the letter said, "There is no appeal to this decision." But there was a sliver of hope, Ly said, if the family acted quickly. They had three months to file a new petition in Hassan's name, with statements from witnesses to their wedding now scattered in Canada and Australia.
Dawami was crushed and angry. Three months would never be enough time to track down these testimonials, she said. "Six months [wasted]. Why they no tell me that? Now is no time."
Still, she was ready to try. But Hassan refused. Life in America was hard enough without two more mouths to feed; Hassan was already supporting a family of four on a $10-an-hour job deboning chicken. Besides, Neema had left the family; she wasn't his daughter.
"I need to take care of my two kids," he said.
Bill, now 10, was 3 when Neema left, and has one clear memory of her: Once, she accidentally spilled boiling water on his stomach, and he was hospitalized. Igey, now 8, doesn't remember her. Now, she talks to them on the phone. Briton, who is always asking questions, reminds her of Igey, Neema says. But the chances that he'll meet his uncles while they're all still kids now appear slim.
If the State Department program reopens before Neema turns 21 in September, she may be eligible to apply. If not, when Dawami receives her green card, she can apply for Neema to join her on an immigrant visa. But for children over 21, there's a nearly nine-year waiting list.
The wait will be shorter once Dawami becomes a citizen. But this, too, will take years.
Friends have suggested another option: Get a US citizen to write Neema an invitation to visit the States - and once she's here, petition for asylum. Legal experts say that's unlikely to succeed.
"I doubt there's a US consul in the world that would give her a visitor's visa," says Atlanta immigration lawyer Mark Newman. Such visas are granted only when visitors are expected to return home, and "she has no country to go back to."
Dawami still prays that, in a land where all things seem possible, there is hope for her daughter. Meantime, Neema waits in Dar es Salaam, renting a room in a compound with strangers, taking occasional English lessons, eating sporadically, and crying when "Mama" calls.
And outside Atlanta, says Minnick Lenge, Dawami's best friend in America: "[Dawami] cry every day for this one."