I am an artist, a student, and an activist. I was born in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, to an American mother and an Ivorian father. I was granted the privileges of American citizenship only because my mother filled out the pertinent paperwork in a timely fashion — but have watched my own siblings and family members struggle for the same status that I did nothing to merit.
Growing up, my mother imbued a sense of responsibility in me, always encouraging me to consider my contribution to the common good. So for the past eight years I have been working with nonprofits working on issues ranging from tenants' rights in Olympia, Washington, to women's economic empowerment in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Recently, my passion for community organizing has become linked with legal advocacy, through the belief that legal rights lay the foundation for economic and social benefits. As someone who pays taxes to the U.S. government, I feel complicit in the actions they take with my money, on my behalf. As of late those actions — such as forced family separation and family detention — have drawn international outcry.
Witnessing the ways in which this system seems broken on every level hurts my heart, yet it simultaneously drives me to work for change. At the Dilley Detention Center in Dilley, Texas, I witnessed women and children languishing in a for-profit prison that we, U.S. taxpayers, have funded.
Dilley, a.k.a. "Baby Jail," is the largest institution of its kind, with a bed capacity of 2,400. I volunteered there with the CARA Pro Bono Project, an organization that offers pro bono legal aid to the women and children who are imprisoned on U.S. soil while they claim their right to seek asylum. The majority of families at Dilley are from Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, countries whose murder rates are among the top 10 in the world. The U.S., through decades of imperialistic foreign policy, has directly contributed to the destabilization of the region, and to the violence that forces these families to seek asylum at our borders.
In Milan, New Mexico, at the Cibola Detention Center, working for the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, I witnessed the plight of men and of trans women, locked up indefinitely in for-profit detention centers as their cases crawl through torturously slow court proceedings. These men and women work for hours to afford a phone call home that will last only a few minutes. These calls are indispensable in gathering the testimony and proof necessary to win their asylum claims, yet the prices for these calls are astronomically high, generating tons of profit for private businesses.
Most of these men, women, and children have fled their homes in fear, coming to our borders in search of safety. The hardest part is looking into the eyes of someone who has faced unspeakable trauma with the full knowledge that you are funding a government that seeks to continue that traumatization. It angers and hurts me to no end that for-profit prison companies are making billions off of their suffering. I see how deeply broken our immigration system is, and I know that we have the power to make meaningful changes. It's so rewarding helping someone get through the labyrinth of asylum proceedings knowing that, if they do win, they can move toward freedom and healing.
One moment that will stick with me always is the case of a brilliant young West African man whose legal brief I helped to research and draft. I was at the Cibola Detention Center the day he was released and saw the relief in his eyes and on his face as he took his first steps toward freedom. Weeks later I made good on a promise I had made to him while he was detained, and cooked traditional Ivorian food for him and the Dreamers Project team. We feasted on fried plantains, crispy tilapia, and palm nut butter sauce. It was a very tasty victory lap, and in the daunting battle over immigrants' rights we have to savor every win, no matter how big or how small.
My sense of responsibility to this cause increases in lockstep with the increasingly inhumane immigration policies of the U.S. government, so this August I take the first solid steps toward a career in immigration law and eventually plan to work in public policy. My first day of law school coincides with the one-year anniversary of my first day working for The Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a legal aid nonprofit based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that provides pro bono legal services to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers. Working for the Dreamers Project fortified my resolve to work in public service law, specifically working with some of the most marginalized communities in the U.S. The staff and the clients at the Dreamers Project continue to serve as the fuel I need, reminding me why this work is so damn important.
In the midst of this struggle, and for me as an artist, my art has become not only a side hustle that supplements my income — it also constitutes my own path toward healing and becoming whole as I work toward a career in this field. My belief in the power of activism is reinforced by my relationship to art, which is a tangible reminder that we can bring beauty into the world through our fingertips. The tactile nature of ceramics is especially meditative for me. As a legal assistant, the work of filling out forms was so monotonous and also so damn stressful because you feel the impact that a small mistake can have on someone's life. Clay allows me the space to play without consequences; nothing is high stakes. Making art allows me to recharge, returning to work with renewed spirit and creativity.
This past year has been full of upheaval for me, I moved eight times, got a bachelor's degree, was accepted to law school, and lived in three different states and three countries. It has been hectic and stressful but also full of growth. The internet has empowered me to sustain my relationship to activism as I move through the world (freely, using the privileges of my American citizenship). I volunteer remotely for a team that tracks detained immigrants as they move through the system, supplementing information that ICE callously refuses to provide to legal aid organizations. There are so many ways that we can all plug in, regardless of our circumstances or physical location. It's incumbent upon those of us with relative privilege — *cough* looking at you white folks — to put in the work. Call your reps, protest, boycott, fight for the world you want to see. Websites like OpenInvest offer strategies for divesting from the prison-industrial system, which underpins the immigrant-detention industry, and for reinvesting in refugees.
I see the beauty, progress, and community that we can build through social media platforms, but I also fear that they give us the illusion of taking action while in reality we're on the sidelines. People need to get in the game! Play the position that makes the most sense to you, whatever that may be. If you feel you don't have the time or the faculties to volunteer, or to be on the front lines, then DONATE to organizations that are doing meaningful work.
I'm guided by the idea that if your life goal can be achieved within a lifetime, you are thinking too small. I firmly believe this. To me it means our life goals should not only be about us as individuals: "I want to be a CEO," or "I want to be successful," and so on. I'm not saying we must abandon our individual ambitions, just that we should always keep in mind the common good and the generations to come. In this moment, as basic civil rights risk melting away faster than polar ice caps, I think it's essential that we find ways to align our lives and professions with our principles.
Zora graduated from Evergreen State College in September 2017 and is an incoming first-year law student at Loyola School of Law. She was born in Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa, and raised in Seattle, Washington. Zora was inspired to work in immigration law by her upbringing, watching family members struggle to secure legal documentation and associated rights. She plans to study law and public policy, in the hopes of crafting comprehensive immigration solutions. In her spare time Zora loves to work with ceramics and spend time in nature.
Narrative written by Tricia English in collaboration with Zora Djenohan