From asylum seeker to a beacon of hope to others - GulfToday

From asylum seeker to a beacon of hope to others

Young asylum seekers find ‘meaning’ in a passenger bus

Image for illustrative purpose only.

Kate Morrissey, Tribune News Service

When Carmen Kcomt learned that she’d finally won asylum, it wasn’t relief that washed over her — it was anger.

She’d been rejected every step of the way — by an asylum officer, an immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals — until her case eventually ended up before the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. The court recognised what others in the US asylum system hadn’t, that she and her family were refugees deserving protection.

“I don’t know how to explain this feeling of, ‘Now what?’” Kcomt said. “It took them so long to understand. Why was it so difficult to understand?”

She also realized, after getting off the phone with her excited immigration attorney, that this decision was a final goodbye to the life she’d led before and the career that she built her identity around — an identity that she clung to even after her escape.

In Peru, Kcomt was a magistrate judge and law school instructor with a promising career. “I was having a good life in Peru, financially comfortable,” she said.

That all changed when a paternity case came before her in 1999. The alleged father was soon-to-be-president Alejandro Toledo, who took office while the case was still ongoing.

Headlines disparaging her filled newsstands. She remembers cringing at the sight of them and telling her children to avert their eyes.

She was also physically attacked. She doesn’t like to talk about the details, but she keeps a binder with news clippings that she used to prove her asylum case. In it are photographs of her bloody legs after the assault. She still has the scars.

She sent her family out of the country for their protection, but she stayed to finish overseeing the president’s case. After getting Toledo to submit to a paternity test, she fled, too, using a tourist visa that she already had to join her family in California, where her brother also lived.

While she waited on her asylum case, Kcomt did her best to learn English, watching movies with subtitles and rewinding to hear key phrases over and over again.

She struggled to support her family, working as a piano teacher and getting paid under the table because she didn’t have a work permit.

She waited nearly four years before she was granted asylum and could begin her life again.

Now a US citizen and longtime Santee resident, Kcomt runs a programme for survivors of human trafficking at La Maestra Community Health Centers. It is one of the largest programmes in the country.

“Me llena,” she said, searching for the equivalent phrase in English to explain how she feels about her work. It fills me.

Though Kcomt finds her new career rewarding, she still grapples with her feelings about the life that was taken from her. The pangs are especially acute when she accompanies one of her clients to court and sees the judge sitting in the courtroom. She wishes she still had that kind of power to help people.

She has nights where she is too restless to sleep. In her darker moments, she blames her own stubbornness for what happened to her, but she reminds herself that it was something much more powerful — her principles and conviction for justice.

She worries, too, about asylum-seekers — including some of her clients — who are still trying to find the safety that she was able to win for herself and her family. After all the media attention that she received in Peru, she prefers a private life now, but she decided to tell her story to try to help them.

“As a society, we need to understand nobody wants to be a refugee,” Kcomt said. “It’s not a hobby. It’s not a choice. You have no choice.”

Kcomt is a member of the Refugee Congress, a nonpartisan advocacy organisation run by former refugees. Through that work and her connections in the San Diego community, she has tried to find ways to support asylum-seekers, particularly children, waiting in Mexico to have their US cases heard.

Over time, she learned to accept the conflict within herself, and the tension between her joy and her sadness.

“In compilation, in the concentration of everything,” Kcomt said, “I’ve had a beautiful life.”

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