When Abdoulaye first walked into my office, he was just 16 years old. He told me that he wanted to go to college and possibly study medicine. He showed me a letter of recommendation from the principal of the Refugee School in Conakry, who wrote that he saw a lot of promise in this young student, calling him "very respectful, brilliant, hardworking and cooperative."
These same characteristics impressed a PSOT volunteer, and through his efforts Abdoulaye was transferred from Evander Chiles High School in the Bronx to the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan. "I want to work in a job that helps people," he told me at our first meeting. He was doing well in high school and looked forward to a great future. There was only one problem: he was undocumented. Many current politicians and media pundits dismiss people like Abdoulaye as "just another illegal alien." At the time, I let him know that given his undocumented status, it might be difficult for him to afford college; he would not be eligible for financial aid.
I told Abdoulaye about "Temporary Protected Status" (TPS), which was being offered to Liberians living in the United States. The advantages to applying would be that he would finally receive a social security card and employment authorization. The latter would be renewable each year until this form of relief ended. Once that happened, however, there would be no guarantee that Abdoulaye could find a way of securing a more permanent immigration status. Applying for asylum might be an option, but conditions were perceived as improving in Liberia, and an immigration judge might not understand that Abdoulaye no longer had any family to live with if sent back. He never hesitated before making his decision: I helped him apply for TPS.
At the same time, I sent him to see Reena Arya, one of the staff attorneys at Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS). She and her colleagues at HIAS had helped many of our clients win asylum cases before immigration judges. But this case was different.
Given Abdoulaye's young age, and his uncle's willingness to act as his legal guardian, Reena, along with her HIAS colleague Mindy Kerker, helped him apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. At his green card interview, Abdoulaye met with the Immigration Officer. After reviewing his papers, she said, "Everything appears to be in order except there is one line that the doctor forgot to complete in the medical report. You'll have to come back in three months." Abdoulaye pleaded with her, saying that he could immediately get that signature from the doctor, whose office was only a few blocks away. She agreed to give him two hours. He came back after just one hour, and all was complete. He received his green card in December 2005!
His new legal status made him eligible for financial aid, and suddenly he could afford to go to college. He was accepted at his first choice: John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is now in his junior year, majoring in Criminal Justice. Earlier this year, Abdoulaye won a seat on the student council.
"In New York, I spent almost my entire school career as an undocumented minor," said Abdoulaye." I have seen for myself that people can get beyond their difficulties and suffering through education and support. My own experience has motivated me to help others."
While working his way through high school, both as a sneaker salesman and a pharmacy clerk, his greatest satisfaction came in his volunteer work. When I suggested that he contact Nah We Yone, an organization which runs an annual summer camp for children of African immigrants, he immediately called them to volunteer. He has now been a Junior Counselor at the camp for the past three summers. "Young people need good role models and positive encouragement from adults," he said.
Back when he was a student at the High School for Environmental Studies, Abdoulaye was delighted to meet a young student named Ibrahim who had also left Liberia under similar circumstances.
Ibrahim's parents were killed, and he fled to Guinea at a young age. He lived in a refugee camp in Guinea, but when rebels started crossing the border, the Guinean community became wary of all refugees. Things grew increasingly dangerous. Eventually, relatives helped him get a visa to come to the United States, and Ibrahim fled to the US soon thereafter.
"I entered the country in late September 2001, just after the United States fell victim to terrorists," said Ibrahim. "I was 15 years old. Thank God I had a relative here who agreed to take care of me, but I had no documentation. I was so happy to be back in high school and dedicated myself to my studies."
"I was a child when I left Liberia," said Ibrahim. "The rebels stole that time of my life away from me. I love my parents. I know that they are watching over me in my quest for freedom and a better life." He dedicated himself to his studies, and he and Abdoulaye became best friends in high school. They remain so to this day. Abdoulaye recommended that Ibrahim come to PSOT to get therapeutic care and general legal advice.
Unfortunately, Ibrahim was not eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. Temporary Protected Status would run out in just one week, and Ibrahim quickly obtained the necessary documents to attach to his application, which we filled out together. After an initial rejection, we contacted the Department of Homeland Security in Washington and found a sympathetic official who reviewed and approved the application once he received the copy. Ibrahim would finally get a social security card and his first employment authorization card.
Unfortunately, TPS beneficiaries are not eligible for school loans, and Ibrahim is unable to attend college like his best pal Abdoulaye. TPS eventually turned into Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), and this status runs out at the end of March 2009.
Ibrahim's only hope is in the legislation proposed as "The Dream Act." All three remaining candidates for the president have supported this legislation in the past. It would allow young men and women who came here in their teens and completed high school to become eligible for permanent residency. It has had broad bipartisan support in the past, but will not be voted on again by Congress until next year, just as TPS/DED is scheduled to expire. We can only hope that a bipartisan effort will help these wonderful young men and women live without fear in their new home, and eventually become citizens. Until then, PSOT will continue to provide support for brave souls like Abdoulaye and Ibrahim.
Please note that client names have been changed for privacy reasons.