American Justice

Life after detention: “I was definitely cheated of a future”

Adama Bah was a popular high school student in Manhattan when federal agents barged into her home and arrested her and her father, starting a harrowing saga that would change her life

Adama Bah returns home after an asylum hearing is postponed. (Lyric R. Cabral)

Adama Bah was only 2 years old when she arrived in America from the town of Koubia in Guinea, West Africa, across the Atlantic. This was a route not unlike the infamous “middle passage,” the slave-carrying voyages of sailing ships between Africa and the Caribbean centuries ago. But this was 1990, and she and her mother were coming to freedom and to join her father Mamadou Bah, already here, living in Brooklyn.

Growing up in the city, she went to public school until the seventh grade, when her father sent her off to an Islamic boarding school in Buffalo to study her religion. She didn’t like the school – “I am too controlled there,’’ she told her father — and came back to New York City for ninth grade, though being Muslim was not easy in the city, not since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in 2001.

On the morning of March 24, 2005, while she and her family slept, there was a knock on the door, and FBI agents, police and Department of Homeland Security officers barged in, screaming, “We’re going to deport you and your whole family!”

They handcuffed her father and they handcuffed her. They took him to a detention facility in New Jersey, while she went to a juvenile center in Pennsylvania.

She was 16 years old. So began a harrowing saga that would change her life.

“I was definitely cheated of a future,” she told Women in the World in an interview at a New York restaurant. “I would have a career by now. I would have a huge house somewhere. I would have traveled all over the world.”

Adama will tell her story on a panel called “Immigrants and Terror” at Tina Brown Live Media’s American Justice Summit on January 29th at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. The daylong conference, organized and sponsored by Tina Brown Live Media and the Ford Foundation, will explore reform in the justice and prison system, gun control and gun culture, juvenile incarceration, immigrant detention, and the state of police enforcement.

Adama was a popular teenager who wore jeans under her Islamic garb at Heritage High School in Manhattan when federal agents barged into her home and arrested her and her father. The federal government claimed that the girl was a potential suicide bomber though officially, according to The New York Times, she was detained because her childhood visa was no longer valid.

Her father, who was held for immigration violations, was sent to a detention facility in New Jersey prior to deportation in September 2006. Amada was sent to a juvenile detention center in Pennsylvania. There, she was isolated in a cell, repeatedly strip-searched and interrogated. Six-and-a-half weeks later her lawyer obtained her release. Adama would be free, up to a point, while her case went through the legal system. In the meantime, she would have to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and obey a 10 p.m. government curfew.

She did so for three years.

Adama had to drop out of Heritage High and take up three or four jobs to support her family. But she was not entirely alone. An African-American Islamic political activist in Maryland took in three of Adama’s siblings into his home for a summer and paid Adama $500 a month for her and her mother’s household expenses.

Adama told Women in the World she didn’t know much about the politics of the activist, Mauri Saalakhan, whom she met in fall 2005 at a mosque near her lawyers’ offices in downtown Manhattan. But she acknowledged that Mr. Saalakhan had helped her and her family survive. Eventually she finished high school online, enrolled at City University of New York, and took a training course in health counseling.

In October 2006, she pleaded for asylum at a closed hearing in a Manhattan federal building, claiming that sending her back to Guinea would make her a victim of that country’s practice of female genital mutilation, which all women in her family had endured, including her mother, who testified about her own experience. With so much at stake for women and the issues of government vigilance and private rights, her case became a hot topic in women’s and legal circles.

About a year later, in 2007, she was granted asylum. She took off her ankle bracelet and started life all over again.

Her father was eventually allowed to come back to the United States in 2011. “The day I got a phone call that he could come back, at that moment – I know this is not medically possible – my heart stopped,” she told me.

Now that her family is back together (her parents live in the Lower East Side) and she’s living in the Bronx with her husband and two young children, she said, “I have accepted it and moved on. I can’t focus on the past,” though, “I’ve never received explanation or apologies.”

“This is the only country I’ve known,” she said. “I don’t hate my country. I speak out to protect my siblings, my kids. We have a long way to go but we’re moving ahead. I haven’t heard of cases of young girls being arrested. The Islam I know I learned in America. I don’t know anything about the Middle East.”

Speaking about American Muslims like herself who oppose Islamic terrorism, she said repeatedly, “We have to speak out.” She will take up the banner and she will defend her religion and her family and the life and price she has paid.

Adama Bah will participate in a panel on “Immigrants in Terror” at Tina Brown Live Media’s American Justice Summit on January 29, in New York City.

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