[Note: The italicized introduction is an explanatory essay I wrote about this story for an internship application.]
A Long Journey
The heavy accents rebounding off the bare, white walls of the sparsely furnished room evoked another country.
But as I glanced across the room, I knew I was firmly planted in Vail, Colorado — with a gripping story sitting in front of me.
It took me a while to get to that apartment. I needed to interview an African for a feature, and no one was willing to talk. After exhausting all other leads, I ended up at Wal-Mart where many African immigrants work, but still had no luck finding a source. Finally I pressed my phone number into the hand of the African behind the checkout counter.
“Call me any time,” I said, certain I would never hear from him.
My phone rang near midnight. Kalifa Ourany said a friend had told him I was looking for immigrant stories, and the West African wanted to share his. When he didn’t show up at Starbucks the next morning, I drove to his apartment, where he introduced me to the six African men sharing the two-bedroom residence.
He pulled out his asylum application. One look at his reason for not returning to his home country convinced me I had found my story.
“I will be killed,” Ourany had written.
He had fled his home country with the clothes on his back. After making his way by foot, boat, and airplane to the U.S., he spent a long, cold winter as an illegal street vendor in New York City and finally moved to Vail, where he supported eight family members in Senegal on his Wal-Mart salary.
The resulting story was striking, and a stark contrast to the typical resort-goers of Vail. My editor turned it into the lead story of the cover piece instead of the smaller piece it had been in the budget.
It took some determined effort to end up in Ourany’s living room, but I still feel the story was given to me. It was just waiting for someone to listen and translate it to paper.
From a writer’s viewpoint, it had drama, intrigue, horror and a tentatively hopeful future. To a journalist, it was a wrenching story that needed to be told. This story, more than any other I have reported, from interviewing famous political figures and celebrities to writing stories about international persecution, cemented my love for the story-telling that is the daily calling of journalists.
by RUTH MOON
The U.S. application for political asylum asks for an explanation of why the applicant is afraid to return to his or her home country.
Kalifa Ourany needed four words: “I will be killed.”Thirty-year-old Ourany, who now lives in a small, two-bedroom apartment in Edwards with six African roommates, is from Cote d’Ivoire, a small country on the west coast of Africa.
Cote d’Ivoire was peaceful through his childhood; people would go there for asylum from uprisings in other countries in Africa.
“And then one day it just blew up,” he said. In late 1998, changes to the government’s constitution gave the president, Henri Bédié, more power, and policy changes led to racial unrest and a government coup, according to http://www.infoplease.com. Because Ourany’s father worked for the military, the uprising placed his family in danger. For them, the day everything changed was December 23, 1998.
Family is targeted
Ourany and his family heard shooting all day. When his father came home for lunch, the house was surrounded by soldiers from the opposing army and his father was taken away.
Ourany hasn’t seen his father since.
Two hours later, a friend warned the family that they would be killed if they didn’t get out of the country. So Ourany, his mother and his younger siblings hid their identification papers, grabbed their lunches and left. His older brother, also in the military, lived on the border and fled to Mali, where he still lives.
It took the rest of the family five days to get to Mali, usually a one- or two-day trip. “We hid our papers and we started running,” he said. “The world was dead.”
They paid their way across the border to Mali and traveled from there to Senegal, where he and his family made a tent out of a tarp and lived outside a mosque. Every morning Ourany had to look for work. He sometimes made as little as 75 cents per day, but eventually found a predictable job unloading boxes for a man who also smuggled immigrants into the U.S.
Ourany asked if he could go to America as well.
“Coming (to America) from Africa is like believing that you are dying and going to heaven,” he said. “When you know that if you die right now you are going to heaven, you don’t mind dying.”
Ourany went home that night and told his mother about his chance to go to America. She responded by taking off her jewelry — including her wedding ring — and giving it to him to pay his way to the U.S.
So Ourany waited, until his boss showed up at his tent one Friday. “When are you going to be ready to go?” he said.
“When? I’m ready right now!” Ourany replied.
“It’s right now, then. Let’s go,” the man said.
Without showering or changing his clothes, Ourany comforted his crying mother and went straight to the airport. He was smuggled into the U.S. as the man’s son; the method of entry listed on his U.S. asylum application is “fake passport.”
Home of the free isn’t easy
When he first saw America in November 2000, he cried.
Although the U.S. held many opportunities for him, he soon found out life in America is difficult, too — harder, in some ways, than life in Africa.
“It’s harder for me to wait, and harder for me to (remember), and harder for me to sit … without having anything to feed my family,” he said.
Because Ourany had entered the country illegally, he couldn’t get a job, so he spent his first winter working as a street vendor outside in New York City. He was thrown in jail several times for illegal vending. Each time he was afraid he would be deported, but he needed the money, so he kept going back to the business.
Then someone told him he could apply for asylum and work legally. He found someone who spoke English to help fill out the forms, and mailed them to the immigration office.
“If I had known that I would have done it the first day I got off the airplane,” he said. “I needed to find some way not to be sitting down scared, because you’re supposed to be living free.”
When he got his immigration papers in the mail, Ourany started to cry again.
“I got a note that said you’re accepted, welcome to America,” he said. “If I had known this was the only thing I needed to be welcomed to America I would have come here a long time ago. I’d been roaming around here not knowing anything.”
Ourany was one of 43 Ivoirians and 5,059 Africans granted asylum in the U.S. from October 2000 to September 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
He keeps all of his immigration papers in a folder in his room, one of the few mementos of his journey in his sparsely furnished apartment.
Fortune seeking in Vail Valley
Ourany, who has been living in Edwards for the past year, said he is fluent in Senegalese, French and three African dialects. He also speaks English comfortably, although he says he is not fluent. He came to the Vail Valley because friends in New York told him he could make more money here. He doesn’t have time or money to do much around here but he enjoys the slower pace of life in Colorado compared to New York City.
Although he said the cost of living in the valley is about what it was in New York, Ourany does make more money now. He works at Wal-Mart in Avon as a cashier, where he makes $12.40 an hour; he made $7.50 an hour in New York.
On his cashier’s wage, he pays for his own rent and food. He also sends money to Dakar, Senegal, where he pays the rent for his family’s $120 apartment and sends home $500 to $600 each month to feed his mother and seven younger siblings. He visited his family in 2005, and hopes to bring them to America someday.
He also is hoping he can save enough on his higher salary to go to school someday.
“I want to go to college — I want to go to college so bad,” he said. “I know if I go to college something better will happen.”
Ourany said his story is painful to remember but he doesn’t want to forget.
“It’s not easy — it’s like a photo album that you don’t want to flip open to see what’s inside. Once you see the cover, it reminds you of everything,” he said. “(But) I need to know how to tell (people). I need to know how to make them understand.”