Community equals family to me. My community stepped up when I needed them. I grew up in East Harlem but was born in Guinea, Conakry. My mother and I arrived in the United States in 1990 when I was two years old. I’m the oldest of five. My parents left Guinea for many reasons. My father had two daughters and knew we wouldn’t have a great life in Guinea. My older sister, who passed away, would have been subjected to cruel customs; she would have been married off early and endured forced circumcision if we stayed.
9/11 took place 20 years ago, and I was 13-years-old. I lived in the bubble before that. The world was small in my eyes, but things started to change. After 9/11, many innocent Muslim men were rounded up and accused of terrorism. Many of these innocent men were subsequently deported.
March 2005, federal agents raided our apartment and arrested my father and I. When we were at the federal plaza, a federal official told me I was undocumented. I wasn’t aware I was undocumented. I knew I wasn’t born in the U.S, but I didn’t know I was undocumented. I was arrested by immigration and was never charged with terrorism, just accused. I was charged with overstaying my visas.
While held at Federal Plaza, I was interrogated by the FBI, CIA, NYPD, and law enforcement. They kept asking me about places and people I didn’t know. They wanted to know my religious and political views—at 16 years old! In the middle of being interrogated, one officer said, “Tashnuba,” another young lady detained at the same time, “put you on a list to become a suicide bomber.” I asked why she would do it, and later, I found out they told her the same about me. There are many different prisoner’s dilemmas; perhaps it is worth thinking about the impact of police officers lying to children.
Tashnuba was with several officers when they informed me that I was undocumented. I recognized her from the mosque. We weren’t close friends but knew each other from social gatherings. We were both detained together and held in the same cell for a while. I remember the night we were finally in our cell together. We spoke all night. We had so much in common. Her mom had just given birth, and so had mine. We talked about plans for the future—our dreams—we thought about what we would want to do when released; we were naïve, not knowing this was just the beginning of a long journey. The last time I saw Tashnuba was in the juvenile detention center. That was so long ago. I haven’t been in touch with her, but over the years, I have received updates from reporters who were in touch with her.
I spent six and half weeks in a juvenile detention center. Once released, I was honestly confused. I was sent home with an ankle bracelet and a gag order stating that I couldn’t speak about what happened. I went back to high school the following week. I tried to go back to society as if nothing happened, but so much had changed, and so much had happened. It was just a matter of time.
I didn’t know at that moment, but if it weren’t for so many people within the community helping me, I wouldn’t have gotten this far. I later found out all my teachers from high school reached out to the juvenile detention center to find out more information about me and to talk with me. Many of my teachers had the students write letters to me if they wanted to. I wasn’t allowed to read any of those letters until I was released. I was never told about the letters or calls I was getting until after I left, but it meant a lot to me that they all had reached out and cared.
Navigating the system was an impossible task for a teenager. I didn’t know much about bills, and I dropped out of high school to help take care of four siblings (they were documented, American citizens). We didn’t have enough food at home, and the Administration of Child Services (ACS) was constantly nagging and adding pressure that they would separate us.
They wanted to deport me, and I had many court proceedings where the state argued for my removal. In 2007 I was granted Asylum. If I had returned to my native country of Guinea, I would have been circumcised. In 2009 I was given a green card. In 2014 I applied for citizenship and was met with considerable resistance from the Department of Homeland Security.
I fought them in federal courts and can proudly declare: on August 4, 2021, I was granted citizenship to the United States of America.
It has been a long journey, 16 years, dealing with law enforcement and legal battles. But the journey is not over; there are many people suffering in the broken and flawed system, and these cycles of violence will continue. I was accused of being a terrorist, charged with visions of attacking the only place I’ve ever called home, and threatened with being deported to a place I have never known, but now I can return the love so many showed to me by helping others. I share my story hoping that what happened to me does not have to happen to anyone else.