Freed Asylum Seeker: “I Feel Like It Is A Dream”

After 3.5 Years in Jail, Takky Zubeda Can Begin the Life She Sought in America
By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Takky Zubeda stepped off a prison van to freedom in the United States of America on Friday afternoon.

She emerged with two other detainees at the Greyhound station in this faded manufacturing town in the middle of Pennsylvania. This is how, every day, the York County Prison releases its inmates to lives in the outside world.

For Zubeda, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that outside world is also a country she barely knows – except for the 1,245 days she spent in one of its county jails.

Zubeda has been locked up longer than any other asylum seeker at the York facility.

Her husband, Ndume Ibochwa, a U.S. citizen who lives in Minneapolis, was at the Greyhound station to receive her. Five hours earlier, he had taken a bus from a budget motel where he spent Thursday night. It was one last leg of their journey toward a life together in the United States.

Zubeda’s release, ordered by an immigration judge at a hearing Thursday, marked the end of a 31/2-year odyssey through a system that critics say treats asylum seekers like criminal defendants. But unlike those charged with a crime, foreigners who flee to U.S. shores without a valid passport or visa don’t have the right to have their detentions here reviewed by a judge. Nor do they have a right to a public defender.

Immigration officers can grant parole to those who can prove their identities, don’t pose a danger, have ties here, and are not flight risks. However, a recent report by the lawyers group Human Rights First concluded that, especially since Sept. 11, many asylum seekers who meet the guidelines are denied parole.

“Ultimately, Takky Zubeda’s case shows us that our immigration policy can work,” said Jonathan Feinberg, a civil-rights lawyer who worked with pro-bono lawyers from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, known as HIAS, and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia to free Zubeda.

“But the case ought to make us think very seriously about a policy of mandatory detention,” he said. “Does it really represent the best of American values to detain someone like Takky Zubeda for 31/2 years, especially after what she went through to get here?”

Zubeda was detained after arriving at Newark’s airport with someone else’s passport in December 2000. She told an immigration agent she had come to visit her brother and attend Bible school – a lie that would hurt her case for asylum. She later told a harrowing tale that, according to State Department and human rights groups, is common in her region of the Congo.

Zubeda, 29, said she was gang-raped by rebel soldiers who then beheaded her father and brothers. They set fire to her family house while her mother and sister were still inside and took Zubeda to a military camp in the jungle, where she and other women were forced to cook and clean and have sex with their captors. She escaped to neighboring Tanzania after a week and, with the help of a church worker, made her way to the United States, where her husband was resettled as a refugee 13 years ago.

Yesterday, the couple saw each other outside the walls of a prison for the first time since their wedding in Tanzania five years ago.

“Hi, baby, how are you?” Ibochwa, 43, asked Zubeda.

A silver cross hung down from her neck, and she carried a duffel bag with some clothes and two boxes with books from Bible and high school equivalency classes she took in the jail.

Ibochwa put an arm around his wife. Shy around him, she smiled and lowered her eyes. They brought her baggage into the Greyhound waiting room and, as Ibochwa bought two tickets on the 7:15 p.m. bus to Philadelphia, Zubeda bolted up to make a call on a pay telephone.

She dialed Tania Tchitembo, another asylum seeker. The women met in a minimum-security dorm in the jail. Tchitembo, now living at a shelter for refugees in York, was released Tuesday after five months in detention.

“Ndungu yangu nimetoka nje leo,” Zubeda rattled away in Swahili: “Sister, I just get out today.”

Five minutes later, Tchitembo was at the station, and the two embraced, chattering.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Zubeda said. “I feel like it is a dream.”

The couple will spend part of the weekend at the home of yet another freed asylum seeker in Northeast Philadelphia. Irina Bougaeva, who fled Uzbekistan, spent three months at the York jail. She befriended Zubeda before being released in September.

“She gave me faith,” Bougaeva said. “She gave me hope.”

Zubeda celebrated in Germantown yesterday at a backyard barbecue with the lawyers who stuck with her, for no money, for many months and even years as her case moved slowly through the immigration and court systems.

She looked a little disoriented over her plate of barbecued chicken, Caesar salad and plantains. “She’s not really here yet,” Ibochwa said. “Used to the same people in the same place for so long.”

A guest airlifted out of Liberia years ago, in the midst of a bloody civil war, told Zubeda that she would be fine. The mind, she said, snaps back from trauma when you least expect it.

Zubeda simply smiled.

The judge who ordered Zubeda freed said she would likely be detained at the airport and physically abused, even raped, if sent back to the Congo. He ruled the same way more than two years ago, but immigration authorities appealed. Then, a year ago, the Third Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals sent the case back to the judge, Walt Durling.

The Department of Homeland Security dropped its fight to deport her to the Congo on Thursday, and Durling apologized to Zubeda for her lengthy detention.

Last night, the couple planned to take the bus to Minneapolis, where Ibochwa lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his cousin and mans presses that print USA Today.

Money is tight, and it is unclear whether Zubeda will be able to work because she does not yet have legal status. But none of that matters to them now..

“I’m there for her,” Ibochwa said. “I don’t worry if she can work or not. For now, I want her to relax, for us to be enjoying each other’s faces for a long time.”

Zubeda, who learned English in prison and is close to earning her high school diploma, wants to go to college and become a nurse.

But, even as her own journey to freedom finally ended, she does not forget that, five miles away, at the York County Prison, a friend has inherited her title as the asylum seeker held the longest at the jail.

Linda Botchway, a Ghanaian who is among thousands of asylum seekers jailed nationwide, has been locked up for at least three years.