Denver always looked like a safe haven to 36-year-old Alimata, and now it officially is one. On Monday, the Ivory Coast native was awarded political asylum by a federal judge.
A member of the Dioula underclass, Alimata had lost her job as a high-school philosophy teacher during a 2003 coup d'etat in her homeland. But Alimata was also a published novelist, and she kept speaking out in newspapers, earning herself a strong reputation among her people — as well as beatings from police and soldiers. At one point, the then-pregnant woman was beaten unconscious and left on the floor of a filthy cell. Eventually, guards trucked Alimata and some of her fellow Dioulas to the middle of nowhere, where they feared they'd be killed. Instead, they were ordered to run. Alimata made it to neighboring Mali, where she arranged for a passport and travel to Denver.
Her fourth child was born here, an automatic U.S. citizen. But Alimata's three daughters and her husband were still hiding in Africa, and her own status here was tenuous. At the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center, a local nonprofit, Alimata learned of a woman who'd been granted asylum because as a child, she'd been subjected to female genital mutilation. Alimata, too, had undergone that crude surgery.
But she didn't have the money to hire a lawyer to plead her case. So the Survivors Center hooked her up with a new attorney in town, Lilian Shea, who took the case pro bono. An immigrant herself, Shea had been a licensed attorney in Argentina before she'd moved to the United States. She had a rough time adjusting here, but she eventually passed the bar in California, one of two states that qualifies attorneys licensed in other countries to practice federal law in any state if they pass the California exam — including Colorado, where Shea soon moved ("Law and Border," July 28, 2005).
Alimata's case quickly became an obsession for Shea. If she lost, her client would be deported to the Ivory Coast, where she might face death. Immigration officials, however, claimed that Alimata had come not to escape her homeland, but to visit a brother.
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Finally, a federal judge agreed with Shea and granted Alimata asylum — not because of the political oppression that she'd fought, but because she'd been a victim of female genital mutilation.
"It felt right to do it, and it felt so good winning it," Shea says.
Not as good as it did for Alimata, who now hopes she'll be able to bring her husband and daughters out of hiding and to Denver.