Sunday, February 7, 2010


7 Feb 2010—Krisan Ride, Accra—

For the past two weeks, I’ve been on an OPE circuit ride.  The term “circuit ride” is actually, in my experience, a euphemism for the term “bitch-slap.”  When you’re on a circuit ride, you work like a dog with precious, few personal minutes and hours of intense, detail-delicate, one-on-one, rather invasive interviews with refugees.  One casework interview, with an applicant (aka, refugee) on his own case, at the very minimum takes one hour.  However, in no way does case-size determine how long an interview will take.  Maybe this applicant has two brothers, or maybe he’s got 22 full- and half-siblings.  Maybe his persecution story is simple, or maybe it is complex.  Perhaps he came straight to Ghana from Liberia in a car, and he is sure about this.  Or, perhaps he arrived in Ghana three years after leaving Sudan, having transited through Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, first.  God forbid the interpreter sucks, but maybe he does.  In circumstances like those, my seemingly quick interview with one applicant can take f-o-r-e-v-e-r.  

Circuit rides usually occur in locations other than Accra (where OPE is located) because it is much, much easier to transport a small team of individuals with valid passports and expendable pocket change than handle travel and lodging logistics for x-number of applicants and their respective wives, children, grandchildren, uncles, brothers, sisters, etc.  However, it was decided by OPE’s Powers That Be that, for this particular ride, the refugees from nearby Krisan Refugee Camp in the Western Region of Ghana come to Accra instead of the other way around.  After a few initial hiccups (the applicants arrived to OPE three hours late the first day, for example), the ride more or less went pretty smooth, and my colleagues and I successfully processed 98 Sudanese applicants. Their cases are now getting checked, reviewed, organized and cleared for the next phase of immigration interviews. 

While circuit rides can suck the life out of you, there are moments of unexpected, unadulterated levity that, I’d wager, you’d be hard-pressed to enjoy in any other line of work. These moments tickle me to the core and I am filled with a sense of rightness about the work I do on this earth. 

Humor.  It’s everywhere.  Embrace the living daylights out of it. 

The workplace humor I’m mainly referring to, here, are the seemingly bizarre snippets of interviews—overheard as you pass by the interview-in-progress, or that you absentmindedly catch while wrapping up some paperwork—that, when taken out of context, seem like the most absurd, odd and amusing expressions EVER.  Some of these amusing conversation bits derive from misconstrued interpretations, and some of them come from exasperated caseworkers at the end of a long, stressful ride.  Others are details of stories told by applicants that come out of nowhere. In some instances, the degree of humor, for me, is contingent entirely on tone. 

Here are some gems from this and other circuit rides I’ve been privileged to appreciate:

  • “Sir, let’s just forget about the camel.  I want you to forget about the camel…let’s leave the camel there for a second and focus on the horse.”
  • “So…you’re telling me…that YOU can’t go back to your country because…let me get this straight…your father says you have a deep fear.  Is that why YOU can’t go back to your country?”
  • “Where are the diamonds.  Where are the diamonds.  Where are the diamonds.” (this one cracked me up because the caseworker read it in monotone)

This next gem is my own.  Ultimately, it was just misinterpretation, and a particularly amusing one at that, but at the time I was getting frustrated:

ME: Sir, can you please tell me how you crossed the border into Chad?

INTERPRETER: interprets in Arabic

APPLICANT: replies in Arabic

INTERPRETER (to me): On a monkey.

ME: What?  Oh.  No.  My question is, how did you cross the border—you know, by foot, by car, how?

INTERPRETER: interprets in Arabic

APPLICANT: replies in Arabic

INTERPRETER (to me): On a monkey.

ME (looking straight at the applicant): I’m sorry.  So…you’re saying that the six of you crossed the border into Chad…on monkey?

INTERPRETER: interprets in Arabic

APPLICANT: replies in Arabic

INTERPRETER (to me): Yes, on a monkey.

(The applicant, meanwhile, is beginning to look a bit confused by the length and repetition of this exchange)

ME (clearing my throat, shaking my head): No, no, that’s not what I’m asking.  Maybe the monkey came with you, that’s fine.  But there’s no way all six of you could cross the border ON a monkey.  Sir, I need to know—how did you and your family cross the border into Chad.  By foot, by car, by canoe, by bus—how.   

INTERPRETER: interprets in Arabic

APPLICANT: replies in Arabic

INTERPRETER (to me): On a donkey.

ME: DONKEY!  A donkey?

INTERPRETER (to me): Yes, donkey.

ME: A donkey—is that what we were talking about? 

INTERPRETER (to me): Yes, a donkey.

ME: Okay, okay, a DONKEY.  So you crossed the border on a donkey.  That’s much better.  Moving on…

There are also moments so touching and so tender that your heart grows big with love and emotion, and no sense of rightness on this earth makes sense.  Some applicants affect me more than others, and I remember their stories, their eyes, their names.  For whatever reason, they make a lasting impression on me and I am more drawn to them than I am to others (a quick aside: I would like to mention that I do not, cannot play favorites.  The work that I do is not designed to foster favoritism.  Also, I have zero control or influence over who is and is not accepted for immigration to the United States.  Zero). 

Usually, it is not the depth or breadth of sorrowful or painful or traumatic experiences that attracts me to an applicant, although some of the people I interview have witnessed and endured such unbelievable, inhumane and degrading atrocities I am involuntarily moved to regard each of them with a unique level of respect never bestowed on anyone before.  No, what generally impresses me is industry.  Conscientious drive.  Hard work.  Ambition.  For me, these are fibrous, human characteristics that are natural, inbuilt, and inescapable.  EVERYONE has these traits embedded within, be they free or refugee.  It’s what a person DOES with those characteristics—with that gumption and courage—that impresses me.  I think this can be said of me in all facets of my life, not just relevant to the work I do at OPE.  The people I admire most have always been nervy, present-of-mind, dedicated and determined individuals.

I met one such individual on my first circuit ride in November 2009 in Cote d’Ivoire.  He struck me immediately as honest and tireless, yet fatigued.  He told me his story in earnest.  I could tell he was at his end, having tried and tried and tried again and again and again to build a solid life for his family.  At the end of our interview, this grown man with three children rested his forehead on the edge of my desk and silently sobbed. 

I followed his case with anticipated interest. 

I learned on Friday that his case was approved by immigration, and that he and his family will soon be settled in the United States. 

Embrace THAT!