Remember the two immigrant girls who got caught up in a bogus suicide-bomber scare in the New York metro area last year? An update on one in the Oct. 26 New York Times says a great deal about the general global predicament. Adama Bah is caught between official Islamophobia in the United States and reactionary political Islam in her native Guinea—like, to a degree, all of us.
Adama Bah’s schoolmates were jubilant when she returned to 10th grade at Heritage High School in Manhattan in May 2005 after six weeks in a distant juvenile detention center. Her release put to rest the federal government’s unexplained assertion that Adama, a popular 16-year-old who wore jeans under her Islamic garb, was a potential suicide bomber.
But a year and a half later, with many of her friends planning proms and applying to college, Ms. Bah, now 18, was still wearing an electronic ankle bracelet and tethered to a 10 p.m. government curfew, restrictions that were conditions of her release. And she was still facing deportation to Guinea, where she has not lived since she was 2.
Today, at a closed hearing in Manhattan’s federal building, she will plead for political asylum from Guinea’s entrenched practice of female genital mutilation, which has marked all the women in her extended family, including her mother. An immigration judge could decide her fate on the spot.
“I’m worried about being sent back,” Ms. Bah said on Tuesday in her first extended interview about the lasting consequences of a case that briefly became a cause célèbre in the debate over government vigilance and the protection of individual liberties. “I’m worried about being separated from my family. This is all I have left now — what hasn’t been taken.”
Officially, she and a 16-year-old Bangladeshi girl arrested in Queens the same day were detained solely because their childhood visas were no longer valid. That remains the only reason Ms. Bah is in deportation proceedings, and the sole legal basis for an order last year that released the other girl, Tashnuba Hayder, on the condition that she leave the country immediately.
Even now, Ms. Bah says she has no idea whether her slight acquaintance with Ms. Hayder was what caused agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to hold her for questioning. Though a document provided by a federal agent at the time said the F.B.I. considered the girls “an imminent threat” to national security, it provided no evidence, and officials refused to discuss the matter.
“Why me?” she asked, before her volunteer lawyers warned that a judicial order limits what she can say about the experience. “Nobody answers, why me?”
She has had little time to dwell on the question, however, because she has been struggling to replace her father as the family’s primary breadwinner. Her father, a cabdriver who was arrested along with her and held on immigration violations, stayed in detention until his deportation last month. Her mother, illiterate and speaking little English, soon lost the family business, a trinket stand.
But under the strictures of the government’s curfew, Ms. Bah found she could not continue her education and at the same time earn enough to feed her four younger siblings, all American citizens. Last year, she dropped out of Heritage High, where teachers had praised her intellectual curiosity and generous spirit, and took up office work at Bellevue Hospital Center for $6.75 an hour.
Her income fell far short of needs. And though a few community agencies tried to help with diapers for the youngest and trips to a food pantry, she said, the financial crisis deepened. In the end, it was an Islamic political activist in Maryland who came through, taking three of Ms. Bah’s siblings into his home for the summer, and paying $500 a month toward household expenses so she could attend summer school and re-enroll in Heritage this fall.
“We were looking for other options, but nothing was working out,” Ms. Bah said. She added that she knew little about the politics of the activist, Mauri Saalakhan, 53, whom she met for the first time last fall when she and her mother stopped to pray at a downtown mosque after a session with lawyers at Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, which is handling her asylum case without fee.
Her family’s association with Mr. Saalakhan raised eyebrows this spring when he invited her to join spectators at the trial of a Pakistani immigrant accused — and eventually convicted — of plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station in 2004. Ms. Bah, who was recognized by some reporters in the courtroom, said later that she went out of curiosity because people told her that the young man’s case was like hers. It was not, she said, and when she realized that, she did not go back.
Mainstream Islamic groups have looked askance at her family’s link to Mr. Saalakhan, an African-American who often accuses such groups of timidity, and whose criticism of government policies dates to a youthful stint with the Black Panthers. But, she said, “He’s somebody who stepped up and helped” when others seemed afraid or only offered services like counseling instead of money to pay the rent.
For his part, Mr. Saalakhan says he is “a provocateur for truth and justice,” who loves America and has police officers in his family. He was happy to have Ms. Bah’s siblings Mohamed, 14, Mariama, 12, and Abdoul, 8, join him, his wife and teenage daughter for the summer near Washington, where he directs the Peace and Justice Foundation, “a grass-roots human rights organization.”
“What our government has put this family through is unconscionable,” he said.
But the volunteer lawyers who took over Ms. Bah’s asylum case last fall are leery of any effort to make her emblematic of larger issues, when government lawyers are raising no national security questions.
“Right now all we have is a straightforward asylum claim,” said Bryan Lonegan, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society’s immigration unit who is advising Hughes, Hubbard lawyers on the case. “This is a life and death situation for her.”
The petition draws a grim picture of what she would face in Guinea as a young woman with intact genitalia who opposes the painful and dangerous practice of female genital mutilation.
In Guinea, “If a girl’s genitals are not mutilated, she is considered dirty, repulsive, unfit for marriage and motherhood, and devoid of morals and monetary value,” an expert, Hanny Lightfoot-Klein, wrote in an affidavit. Male relatives consider themselves dishonored, and will beat her until she submits, the affidavit added. “Elder women perform the procedure on dimly lit floors, with dull kitchen knives, glass shards, scissors or razor blades,” the affidavit said.
Ms. Bah’s mother, Aissatou Dalanda Bah, who has separately applied for asylum, had her clitoris excised by her grandmother with a kitchen knife when she was about 10, the court papers said. Later, she watched helplessly as one of Adama’s cousins bled to death from the procedure.
For Ms. Bah, who grew up absorbing American values and believing she was a legal immigrant, the prospect is terrifying and unreal. Genital mutilation “has nothing to do with my religion,” she said. “You can’t just circumcise a woman against her will, to take away her pleasure. That’s my right as a woman.” Her fear has become one more part of a day-to-day struggle to hold the family together, she said, as she repeatedly interrupted the interview to respond to her youngest brother, Saeed, 2.
“It’s hard to concentrate in school,” she said, explaining that she has missed many days this fall tending to the needs of her siblings, who now get public aid.
“In front of people,” she added, “you have to be this happy person, even though inside, it hurts.” At night, alone, she said, she allows herself to cry when she thinks about her family’s collapse, and about her judge: “Somebody who’s meeting me once, and making a decision for my lifetime.”