Tori Marlan lost her staff-writer job in the same brutal budget slashing, but she's also found another way. A 2006 Alicia Patterson Fellow, she spent weeks in Texas pursuing the topic of "unaccompanied minors seeking asylum," and though she now lives in Montreal, the subject continues to preoccupy her. She recently collaborated with a friend, the illustrator Josh Neufeld, on an e-comic published online by Atavist, a recent start-up that the New York Times's David Carr described as a multimedia storyteller for digital devices. Stowaway tells the story of a teenage refugee who crossed the Rio Grande on an inner tube. "Fanuel," however, is not from Mexico or Central America. He is Ethiopian, and his story begins in Addis Ababa, where he lived on the streets, and continues in Johannesburg, where he was kept in quasi-peonage after being lured there by Bart, a stranger who seemed nice and promised him an education.
"Fanuel didn't know where to turn for help," Marlan writes. "For the next two and a half years, he was Bart's captive. He had no contact with other kids and little connection to the outside world."
Then Bart dies suddenly and Bart's sister tells Fanuel he's on his own. In desperation, the boy asks for help at an Ethiopian restaurant he knows, and the guy who runs the place sets him up (for a price) on an established smuggling route west to Brazil and then north to the coyotes who (for a price) will slip him into the U.S.
All along, Fanuel has told himself that eventually he'll be taken in by Sofia, a young woman from a wealthy family he remembers treating him kindly back in Addis Ababa. Now she's in America and he has her phone number. But when he calls from Texas she tells him she's living in Seattle and it's up to him to get there if he can. Having no idea what to do next, Fanuel turns himself in.
Although Marlan allows that she hadn't really thought beforehand about "the particular problems of street kids in Ethiopia," it didn't surprise her to meet someone from so far away. She knew the Chicago center "was one of the few in the country that also housed kids from other regions"—its staff spoke 23 languages.
She sent me links to a UN document, "Central America as a Global Pathway to the United States," and to a 2012 report describing Mexico as a gateway to the U.S. used by "networks of traffickers of migrants" from 70 countries.
Stowaway is a piece of a work in progress. What Atavist posted is an excerpt from the "full nonfiction graphic novel" Marlan continues to work on, its working title "Smuggled." She explains, "Once I got deep into Fanuel's story, I thought it'd be more affecting if I told it from his point-of-view. I'd been reading a lot of graphic novels and memoirs at the time (including Fun Home, Persepolis, and Stitches) and saw how intimate and emotionally resonant the form could be. Also, I was writing about a pretty closed, secretive world. Lawyers and social workers tend to be protective of their minor clients, and don't often feel comfortable speaking about them with journalists, even with the minor's consent. And immigration court, unlike state and federal courts, isn't open to the public. I thought rendering Fanuel's story graphically, through his point of view, was the best way to give readers an understanding of what it's like for a kid who's basically alone in the world to go through our immigration system."
That's not all we have little understanding of. How many readers understand what it's like to live either on the streets of Addis Ababa or as a vassal in South Africa? But we own our immigration system, and Marlan doesn't want the nice way things worked out for Fanuel to distract us from everything that's wrong with it.
She says Fanuel is now living in Pennsylvania, has his green card and a steady job, and is close to getting an associate's degree. But he was lucky: he got a lawyer, even though immigration law didn't guarantee him one. She explains that kids at the International Children's Center are screened by the nonprofit National Immigrant Justice Center, which culls the good cases and farms them out. Fanuel had a good case because the story he had to tell was so wretched. As Marlan explains, "He met the requirements for special immigrant juvenile status—a status for minors who've been abused, abandoned or neglected."
It isn't an easy status to get—"First you have to get consent from the people who are trying to deport you (Homeland Security) to appear in state court and get declared a ward of the state." But Fanuel's lawyer, a pro bono attorney from Northwestern's Bluhm Legal Clinic, arranged it.
"What kid is able to make a case for immigration relief on his own?" Marlan wonders. "Even with representation, though, many of the kids he was detained with didn't fare as well. His closest friend from the detention center got deported and another friend wound up aging out of the system and going to adult immigration jail. We don't know what happened to her."