As a third-year immigration and asylum lawyer in Jersey City, New Jersey, I have worked on a variety of cases. Of them, it’s the asylum cases that always leave a lasting impression on me. I wanted to share a specific case that took me out of my comfort zone by requiring me to let go of my preconceived notions about how the world works.
Coming from a Western perspective, I don’t believe in witches, and I don’t know anyone that does. Culturally, I have my superstitions, and my family believes in old Italian Wives’ tales about not gifting knives or not putting your purse on the ground (I always do that, I don’t care). I knew, historically, women were persecuted in the UK and the U.S. because they were believed to be witches. The Salem Witch Trials were horrific, but that happened over three hundred years ago.
During the Spring of 2019, I was hired by a gentleman from Ghana to go to Elizabeth Detention Center for a consultation. Customs Border Protection had detained his nephew at the airport because he claimed to be seeking asylum. When I got there, I met this very gentle, very soft-spoken man who showed me his paperwork. He was afraid to go back to Ghana because he had been attacked by a mob of people. Why was he attacked??? Well, they thought he was a witch.
WHAT?! This couldn’t be real. This still happens??? My ignorance of this culture became so clear to me at that moment. I asked more questions. Why did they think he is a “witch?” Well, unlike what you might expect, this man was incredibly spiritual. He is a Christian that believes he has the power to foresee a person’s death. He hears God’s voice and can see when death is imminent. Ok… I could follow along, I watch the Long Island Medium on TLC.
He described what he saw as a shadow surrounding a person and then God would tell him that he needed to save them. If he kept this information to himself, he would suffer physically and mentally. He would have terrible nightmares and wake up in a panic. So, he would tell these acquaintances about their fate. He always gave them specific instructions to ward off their death for the time being like: to bathe with water and oil or pray a certain number of times. There were cases where if they didn’t listen, the worst would happen and they would die. Once family members of the deceased would find out that my client spoke to them, they started to accuse him of being a witch, for cursing their loved ones, and for killing them. They began to chase him– hunt him down with machetes and clubs. My client has scars all over his body from the multiple times this happened. He would travel to different parts of the country and he would eventually have a vision and the cycle would happen again.
Oh my God, we HAD to take this case. I’ve never encountered something like this. I had to help him. This case required a lot of creativity. It required me to visit my client at the detention center multiple times, correspond with him through mail, get documents directly from Ghana, and truly understand his perspective. I learned from him that he had undergone a traumatic childhood event, of which he has no memory. How was I going to prove something he didn’t remember? Well luckily, we were able to memorialize it in the form of affidavits from friends and family. My client’s mother could read and write in English so she wrote a letter. Once I read what she wrote, it started to make sense. The voices he heard began after he experienced this episode in his life.
I knew what I had to do. My next endeavor was to find a doctor that could help him. I reached out to a non-profit organization, Physicians for Human Rights, and they found me TWO doctors that would go visit him in jail for free! A General Physician would examine his scars, and a Clinical Psychologist would evaluate him.
While this was going on, I had to convince the immigration judge to give me more time. When immigrants are detained, the judges do not like to let cases linger. They want to make a decision on a case as fast as possible but we needed as much time as possible so the doctors could do their job. I was able to procure a later date but that also meant my client had to stay detained even longer. It was a double-edged sword.
My work continued from there as I had to do a lot of research to find country conditions about what was happening in Ghana (thank goodness for law clerks). Is this true? Are there witches? Well, that cannot be confirmed, but in Ghana, the belief that witches exist is still prevalent. In fact, they have “witch camps” to protect people who have been accused. I also found news stories of children of Western African descent being killed in the UK under the belief that they are witches.
It is important to know something about Asylum law. People are granted asylum because they have the fear of being persecuted in their own country for something they cannot or should not have to change about themselves. If someone wants to hurt you because THEY believe you to be spiritually evil, it does not matter whether or not it is true. What matters is you are in danger and you cannot do anything about it and no one can protect you. In Ghana, the police do not get involved in spiritual matters, thus my client was in danger with no protection.
This case had a happy ending as my client was granted asylum. He did, however, suffer for 5 months in detention (it’s basically jail) before being granted. He was suffering from depression and could barely sleep while he was inside. It took a toll on him but he stayed strong and made sure he stayed busy.
My purpose for sharing this story is to share this important lesson I learned. As an asylum lawyer in Jersey City, New Jersey, we encounter people from all over the world. We have some of the most diverse communities. It is important that you let go of what you THINK you know, so that you can better understand the people you are trying to help. You have to be willing to think outside of the box. The biggest hurdle is trying to make other people, who have their own beliefs about the world, understand your client, his culture, and his beliefs.
By: Cristina R. D’Amato, Esq.