Aliens: Don’t Jump Over the Fence, Do What My Family Did—Get in Line
—W. K. Winn
I did not anticipate having any real chance of coming to the United States when I was growing up in my native Jarkaken, Liberia. So, it was a surprise to me when my father visited Liberia in 1989 from the USA and told me and other siblings that he had filed for us to come to the United States of America. It was a long process, though. In fact, it took almost four years before my dad was able to bring some of us to him.
As I said already, I always had some doubts about actually making the trip to the States. During the waiting period, I had to leave Liberia very late in1991 for the Tabou, Ivory Coast due to mysterious illness and the Charles Taylor war. I was a Liberian refugee on Camp Kablake, a sector of the town of Tabou. There, I stayed with a distant relative named Mr. Jenkins Adjafe Noranton.
Before I left my hometown, I was one of four “clever people” who attended a Grebo language seminar in Tienpo Japruke. We were taught how to read and write in Grebo, a tribal language. In Tabou, Bishop Amos Chea of AICA learned that I knew how to read and write Grebo. This was considered a talent because very few people in the entire Grebo tribe knew how to read or write this tribal language. He invited me in his house, which was located in Tabou Trois, an area in Tabou where his church was situated. It was a big due to be invited by this very renowned religious figure. We had a short chat. The Bishop wanted to establish a Grebo Literacy Program. He wanted me to teach there for him. I agreed. I was considered a non-commoner after the visit with the Bishop. Bishop Chea’s Grebo initiative started three weeks following our talk. I became the only instructor. Classes were scheduled for three days each week.
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While teaching, I enrolled at ADRA, a United Nation High Commissioned for Refugees education program, but I had to drop out a few months later when our U.S. immigration and naturalization processes intensified. There were plenty of letters and things to take to the embassy and other family members. I even made a decision to rent a mailbox—post office box number 240—at the local post office to enhance communication with my father. Many refugees soon heard about the box and asked if they could receive mails through me. I agreed. Almost instantaneously, the tiny box became very busy. It averaged about fifteen to twenty pieces of mails each week. That was quite an increase. When I used it alone, it averaged fewer than five letters a week. I became a middleman for many families, including mine. Many chanted my “good name” because they recognized that I had very high level of integrity. Many of the mails that came in the box contained money for people. The mails mostly came from European countries, Canada, and the USA. Not a single letter sent through me had any tainted issues; I was sure to physically give the letters to their respective owners.
Many times I traveled to a number of cities in the Ivory Coast, to include Abidjan, Man, Danane, Sasandla, Yamoussoukro, Subre and San Pedro. I collected and delivered money sent through me for other refugees. In mid 1994, I traveled to the cities of Lola and N’Zerekore in Guinea as well as Yekepa, Liberia to deliver money to other families. Whenever I received any United States immigration and naturalization service (INS) documents through the mailbox, I submitted such documents to the US Embassy in Abidjan.
Finally, we got a schedule for INS medical examination and a subsequent US embassy interview. Father sent me to Guinea to pick up Perry Winn (my cousin) and his mother, Elsie Winn to participate in the medical screening and the interview. Elsie was renamed “Elizabeth” to avoid confusion since one of her children (Small Elsie) was her namesake.
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Because of the nation’s general elections, the Guineans closed their borders with neighbors. In September 1994. I was denied entry into Guinea on first attempt. A few weeks later, however, I gained entry, but not without a charge at the Danane-Lola border. I brought Perry and Oldma Elsie to Tabou. We stayed in Tabou for a week than we—Perry Winn, Elizabeth Winn, Nelson Winn, and Wilfred Winn— went to Abidjan.
Nelson Targiour Winn, my brother, did the medical part but did not survive the embassy interview. The fallout was something only a few of us understood. Our uncle’s gross/annual household income was low. The US embassy said our uncle did not make enough money to sponsor four people. Because of poor incomes, the embassy employees told us, there were many people in the states who depended on the government for their day to day living. They did not want to give visas to people who had less than the recommended household incomes. Doing so, they told us, would increase their government’s burden.
My mother did not understand and was angry with that U.S. law. But angry or not, that was the ruling. So the embassy people told us one person had to stay back. Nelson Winn, my brother, elected to stay back so I could go. I still appreciate his self-less character. However, it really hurt me a lot especially after seeing how extremely motivated he had been about the trip. He always kept us on time. He was the primary guardian of Oldma Elsie (now Elizabeth) while we walked the busy streets of Abidjan during the medical phase of the process. Because many of the streets in the city had no traffic lights, crossing them posed serious challenges, especially for the Oldma. Nelson always held her hand and waited for a safe gab between traffic movements before hastily crossing the streets. He was often heard saying, “Oldma, ba tan, ba tan, ba tan!” Or “Oldma, let’s cross, let’s cross, let’s cross!” in Grebo. So, it was very painful to see him go. To his credit, he displayed an incredible maturity.
On December 14, 1994, using a stepladder, we boarded a giant Air Afrique plane in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Prior to that day, I had only seen airplanes, never boarded one. The flight was a smooth one. Since it was my first ever flight, it was impossible to make any comparison. The only comparison I could make was the size of the plane. The ones I had seen before this one were the single-engine planes that Prime Timber Products, a timber company in my town, used between Putuken and Jarkaken. They averaged three to six passengers. Prior to the day of our flight to the States, I had never seen a plane landing of taking off. Every time we saw the tiny PTP planes, they had already landed on a roadside stretch of land near Putuken. This leveled dirt strip was the “airfield” they used. There was no tower for air traffic controllers; there was probably no need for that because the airfield averaged about one or two planes a month.
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As a child growing up in Wodayken, a few-hut agricultural settlement outside Jarkaken, all the planes I saw were too small to carry a life-sized person. That’s how I used to think because the planes that flew over our tiny hamlet were too small from the distance. It did not occur to me that the planes were so little because they were very far away from the earth.
Ok, so we hopped in this giant Boeing 747 flight from Abidjan to USA.
Let me give you, the reader, some emphasis on how flying was such a foreign thing to my mother Elizabeth. She was so petrified. She refused to eat any of the variety of foods the flight attendants kindly served on board. Her eyes were closed during a better part of the journey to the States. She refused to have content-full conversation with us. She just muted; eyes closed; and pondered survival.
On the other hand, Perry and I were upbeat. We displayed not a slightest trait of anxiety—not a hint of fright. In fact, I took full advantage of my window seat. I occasionally looked down as the plane was taking off. The beautiful Ivorian city of Abidjan seemingly lay endless in the nation’s south. It was a clear and cloudless day over the city, so I could see objects clearly out the window even when the plane reached its cruising altitude. The Oldma was sandwiched between Perry and me. Whenever she refused any food, we got it from her and ate it. “We paid for this food, Oldma;” we said to her, “it is all in our ticket money.”
In less than two hours of flying, we landed in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and picked up other travelers. Two hours later, we landed in Dakar, Senegal. That was our last stop on the continent of Africa. It took us a little over four hours from Abidjan to Dakar. The flight time was shorter, but we stayed in Bamako for 30 to 45 minutes. We were in Dakar for less than an hour, and then it was time to go.
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From Dakar, we flew nonstop over the Atlantic to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Almost instantaneously, I opened the window when the flight attendants announced our entry into the United States’ air space. But I did not see anything because we were still over the ocean and it was extremely dark outside.
When we landed on the airport in Queens, New York City, it was still December 14, 1994. I was astonished when we got in the airport terminal because I had no clue how we came down from the giant plane. We did not use any stepladder, such as the one we used in Abidjan. By the way, it was a long walk from the plane to the terminal where travelers presented their credentials. There were slow and express walkways. The slow walkway was nothing but a paved concrete lane with yellow engineer tapes on either side. The express lane had an escalator –a conveyor belt, which rolled tired travelers towards the terminal. The belt was strong enough to transport all the travelers with cargo that found spots to stand on it. The entire walk way was about eight feet wide—half pavement and the other conveyor-belted.
Perry, the Oldma, and I walked on the non-belted side of the large walkway. Other travelers walked along with us on the paved side. I think they were enhancing their physical fitness, but we were afraid to use the escalator. We followed the airport security. They guided us to the in-processing stations. There, we were fingerprinted (again) and issued signed and stamped copies of “I-94,” or temporary Resident Alien Cards, known otherwise as “green cards.” We got our real green cards two months later in the mail.
We in-processed and waited at the terminal on seats that were planted into the floor. While waiting here for our father to pick us up, we heard from people coming in and out of the airport saying it was “too cold” outside. We really did not know how cold it was outside. Personally, I thought it was the same mild cold we got in Liberia around January when winds from the Sahara made it south, which gave us a 60 degrees Fahrenheit temperature and water cold. Thus, streams were made a little uncomfortable to cross on foot.
The roar of aircraft engines drowns out the sounds of excitement from the car park. Fumes from the cars pollute the surrounding air, overshadowing the smell of freshly cut grass. Solitary rays of sunlight beam through the transparent plastic covering of the exterior car park, reflecting off the metallic colouring of the people carrier below it. Enclosing the vehicle, a sea of suitcases surrounds a ...
We did not prepare at all for the kind of weather that was waiting for us outside. I had on a multi-colored shorts, a short sleeve shirt meant for the beach. Oldma and Perry wore similar summer gear too. Our father came with winter coats for us. That was great because the temperature outside was near zero degrees Fahrenheit.
When we stepped outside, I almost retreated back to the warmth of the airport terminal. It was extremely cold outside. It was a never-before-felt cold. And in the first letter I wrote to my uncle, Newton N. Winn, I compared the experience to “living in the ice box,” as we call refrigerator in Liberia. I also questioned him as to why on this vast face of the earth any group of people would choose to live in such a wintry environment.
Of course, we knew that it was cold. In fact, we used to tell our buddies back in Africa that we were “going in the cold.” Again, whenever I talked about cold in Liberia, even as it related to the United States, I always had one cold level in mind—the mild cold we felt in Liberia around the seasons. So, that’s how I came to the USA—not over the fence!