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Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Precious gifts from afar

EXTRACT: She helped coordinate a long struggle against Royal Dutch Shell, which drilled for oil in Nigeria’s Ogoni region without compensating the villagers. In early 1993, 300,000 people protested against Shell. Its executives pressured Nigeria’s government, and in 1994, 30 Ogoni villages were massacred. Leading activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged, and other protesters fled for their lives.

Stuart Low
Staff writer

(December 26, 2007) — Nwinle Anaa’s most treasured Christmas gifts this year were her five children.

Twelve years after fleeing Nigeria as a political refugee, she was reunited with the family she was forced to leave behind. Three weeks ago, the children, ages 13 to 25, called from a Cameroon refugee camp to say they’d land on Dec. 11 at Greater Rochester International Airport.

They spotted Anaa right away, just past the security checkpoint. They grabbed her shoulders, circled her and bowed their heads in tears. An hour later, they were unpacking at her 19th Ward house.

There wasn’t much to unpack — until Tuesday. A private Santa named Erin Johnson decided to show them what an American Christmas can be like.

Johnson is a Chili social worker who recently heard about Anaa, 53, through a client. She sent e-mails to 50 friends and co-workers with pleas for donations. On Christmas Eve, she drove dozens of boxes and bags to Anaa’s home.

By early Tuesday afternoon, the children couldn’t wait any longer. They attacked the ribbons with scissors, tossed the wrapping paper on the floor and showed off their loot.

“I like it — yes!” said Leelabari, 15, clutching an Ohio State sweater and a Ms. Pac-Man video game. His new football and soccer ball were soon in orbit around the living room.

Three laundry baskets held a fuzzy arsenal of coats, hats and mittens. These were particularly welcome to newcomers who’d just discovered snow.

“I was shocked: What am I seeing on my body?” said Torbari, 25, recalling her first snowfall. “I’d put the covers on at night and I was still cold. It was never like that in Africa.”

Johnson had her own reasons for aiding the family. She had recently lost a baby girl two weeks before delivery and knew she wouldn’t spend Christmas as she’d hoped.

“My husband, Ryan, and I wanted to do something different for the holidays,” said Johnson, 31, who visits homes for Unity Health System. “Then I heard Anaa’s story and said, ‘That’s it!'”

So when Johnson asked to “adopt” the family for Christmas, there was no hesitation.

“I said, ‘Hallelujah! We would like to be adopted!'” said Anaa, who also works for Unity Health System as a home health aide.

Like her children, she endured years of uncertainty before finding a safe haven in America.

She helped coordinate a long struggle against Royal Dutch Shell, which drilled for oil in Nigeria’s Ogoni region without compensating the villagers. In early 1993, 300,000 people protested against Shell.

Its executives pressured Nigeria’s government, and in 1994, 30 Ogoni villages were massacred. Leading activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged, and other protesters fled for their lives.

“They were chopping and burning people,” said Anaa. “I was hiding in the forest by day, sneaking back to a village by night. After they killed Ken, I knew they would come after me.”

She made her way in 1996 to a refugee camp in the adjacent Republic of Benin, leaving her children with her parents. “They were too young to escape with me through the forest,” she said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services sponsored her 1998 flight to the United States. Her Rochester sponsor, Catholic Family Center, soon helped her find an apartment and job training as a home health aide.

But her children couldn’t join her, since they didn’t share her refugee status.

“The first six years in the United States, I had no contact with my children at all,” said Anaa. “I thought I would have a heart attack, but God did not let it happen.”

Her children ran from her parents’ home after hearing that Nigerian soldiers were hunting for them. A stranger guided them to a Cameroon refugee camp, where they became eligible for repatriation. (Anaa has two other daughters, ages 18 and 30, who are still trying to leave Nigeria.)

“I could telephone my children in Cameroon, and they wrote me,” Anaa said. “Finally last March, U.N. officials said my children could come. But it didn’t happen until now.”

Just before her children arrived at the airport, she wondered whether they’d still know her. The oldest was 13 and the youngest a baby when she had fled the Nigerian executioners.

“My joy was above me. I was so happy to see her,” said Torbari. “She was always in my heart and my thinking.”

But Barizaa, 13, didn’t remember her at all.

“He was just 1 year old,” said Anaa. “This boy knows me for the first time.”

Newly emerged from political turmoil and refugee camps, the children have missed not only their family life but years of school. The boys will enroll at Thomas Jefferson High School next month. The daughters are studying for a high school equivalency diploma at the Family Learning Center, 30 Hart St.

“I’d like to learn Spanish and become a linguist,” said Torbari, who already speaks French, English and an Ogoni dialect.

She and her sister Barinaayaa, 20, find the 19th Ward a strange contrast to their African communities.

“It’s very calm, no noise,” said the third sister, Barizoge, 21. “At home, everyone was always running to their neighbors’ houses. You heard lots of music all the time.”

The family has succeeded in making Erin Johnson’s yuletide as busy and sociable as a Nigerian village. Call it a busman’s holiday for a social worker.

“I thought I’d be sobbing this Christmas,” she said. “This has given us more joy than we ever anticipated.”

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Copyright © 2007, The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, All rights reserved.

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