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Zimbabwean family hopes to be granted US asylum after long wait

by Staff reporter
24 Feb 2020 at 08:39hrs | Views
The Dzawo family has built their life in Burlington since fleeing government persecution in Zimbabwe in 2012. On March 4, a judge will decide whether to grant or deny them asylum status.

It's been more than eight years since the Rev. Gerald Dzawo and his family, fearing for his life, fled Zimbabwe and came to the U.S. on visitor visas; next month, a judge will decide whether they can stay.

The Dzawos have built their life in Burlington. Gerald Dzawo is the pastor of West Avenue Baptist Church who also offers community parenting seminars tailored specifically to accommodate Burlington's demographics; his wife, Nyara, graduated Southeastern Community College's nursing program this past May and now works at Great River Klein Center; their eldest daughter, Samantha, 17, is in her senior year at West Burlington High School, where she plays basketball; their daughter Stacey, 15, is in her sophomore year at WBHS, where she also plays basketball and is considering taking up track; their son, Samuel, 10, pays trombone in the honor band; and their youngest, Anopa, 5, is a kindergartner who likes playing with Legos.

Despite having established themselves, there remains an underlying sense of uncertainty.

"It's like you can't fully live your life," Dzawo said Thursday inside the nursery of his church at 2500 West Avenue, where he has been delivering weekly sermons to a congregation of about 50 since February 2018. "Because you always have this sense of saying I can't really invest in purchasing a house because I don't know if I'm going to own it when this happens. There are a lot of limitations to what you can do because of being in limbo."

The Dzawos have been eyeing a piece of land near the church where they hope to build a home. The Rev. Dzawo also seeks to launch a non-profit, YouthWorld Africa, through which he plans to build schools in rural areas and equip students with entrepreneurial and technological skills that will help them to find jobs working remotely as well as create jobs in poverty-stricken Zimbabwe, where an estimated 34 percent of residents — or 5.7 million people — are living in extreme poverty, according to The World Bank.

Dzawo hopes the non-profit, once established, will offer "at least a speck of hope for these kids."

Job prospects have declined drastically for the people of Zimbabwe since Dzawo's childhood, and rolling blackouts, which prevent consistent manufacturing opportunities, are commonplace. The situation has been made worse by inflation, as well as by the Zimbabwean government's decision in 2016 to change its currency from the U.S. dollar to bond notes. People were told the bond notes would be of equal exchange rate, but that was not the case, and Zimbabweans lost large portions of their salaries and savings with the transition.

Dzawo is confident he and his family will be granted asylum status when they go before an immigration judge March 4 in Omaha Immigration Court. Such a decision would mean they will stay in the U.S. for a year as asylum seekers before becoming permanent residents. If they are denied asylum, however, they will have three months to leave the country.

To be granted asylum or refugee status in the U.S., applicants must prove they fear persecution from the government in their home country, as well as that they would be persecuted on account of at least one of the following: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group. Dzawo feels he has a strong case.

Fearing prosecution

Hoping to improve future prospects for Zimbabwe's youths, a large portion of whom see few opportunities for employment due to the country's poor economy, Dzawo ran an organization that worked with high schools to provide leadership training, including through leadership camps.

"We were doing this camp for a school that had about 100 students," Dzawo said of a camp he helped to run in 2012, a year before the country's election. "And we were trying to weed out the natural leaders in the group."

One method of finding natural leaders was to wake the students at various hours in the night for physical drills.

"The idea was we're saying if you're a leader, you're a leader whether you're prepared or not," Dzawo explained. "So when you wake them up unexpectedly in the middle of the night, if you have leadership qualities, they kick in, so those should kick in regardless of what time it was."

The students also did war cries as a way to build camaraderie. Dzawo thought the experiences would be something the students would always remember.

What he did not anticipate was that the camp would result in him being interrogated, tortured and nearly killed by a military vehicle.

"From the outside looking in, I guess it did look like it was a military training camp," Dzawo said with a chuckle. "What we came to realize was, during the course of that camp — it was a week long — there were some people that were observing us, that were watching what we were doing that were part of the government's secret police."

The camp was made more suspicious by the presence of a friend of Dzawo's who, while at the time was a chaplain, previously had been a member of South Africa's special forces.

His organization also was involved with another organization called Zim Rights that worked to educate people on voting rights.

"There was a group of displaced farm workers who didn't have documents — they had been destroyed by the government — and so we were trying to help them to get identity documents so they could vote in the upcoming election."

Not long after the camp was over, Dzawo was pulled over while on his way home from work and detained for seven hours questioning about the camp's activities and funding, as well as his relationship with the South African chaplain, with whom Dzawo previously had done mission work.

The government, which at the time was led by authoritarian Robert Mugabe, appeared to believe Dzawo was training and leading an opposition militia.

He was released from questioning, only to be detained once again. This time, he was tortured.

He was made to stand on one leg with his hands up in the air while the soles of his feet were beaten. He was stripped naked, beaten with a belt and burned with cigarettes.

This went on for several hours when Dzawo heard a car pull up outside. One of the men in the room left for a moment, the car drove away, and the man returned. He was asked a few more questions before his captors confiscated the SIM card from his phone.

"They said, ‘We still have a few more investigations to do. We know where you live. Don't get involved in politics,'" Dzawo recalled. "And then they let me go."

Dzawo returned home, hoping it was over.

It wasn't.

A few days after he was tortured, while on his way to pick up his daughters from school, a military vehicle raced through a red light in an apparent attempt to hit him. Regaining his composure, Dzawo noticed a group of six policeman gathered on a corner, which was not a common sight.

"They didn't attempt to stop the truck or anything," Dzawo said. "In Zimbabwe, I think even still now, the government uses ‘accidents' to get rid of people they don't like."

Having calmed down enough to continue driving, Dzawo pulled into the parking lot of his daughters' school.

"At that point, it just hit me to say, ‘You know what? I think that was probably an attempt on my life,'" Dzawo said.

He and his daughters returned home, where he told Nyara, his wife, what had happened.

"My wife was a little freaked out about it," Dzawo said. "When we talked about it, we were just like this has gone to a level that we don't like."

Over the next week, Nyara grew more watchful, believing they were being followed. They decided to leave the country.

Fleeing Zimbabwe

It was October 2012, and the family already had been planning to come to the U.S. to visit a friend in California that December. Dzawo, having studied youth ministry and organizational management at a college in Denver, Colorado, already had his visa.

Getting visas for his family on such short notice, he feared, would be more difficult, but it appeared God was on their side.

"It was just God's providence, because getting visas is really difficult, but we were able to get in and apply for the visa," Dzawo said.

Visas in hand, the family began selling off their belongings. Dzawo's car was given to a cousin who, after checking on the Dzawo's home one day after they had left the country, nearly was run off the road by a military vehicle. Family members later would report to Dzawo that people had come by asking about his whereabouts.

The Dzawos arrived in California that same month and applied for asylum the following January. Their case was referred to immigration court following an interview with an immigration officer in December 2014.

"It's been pending since," Dzawo said.

A long wait

The Dzawos stayed in Denver for a time before a job listing for a youth pastor at Oak Street Baptist Church brought them to Burlington. The Rev. Dzawo remained there until February 2018, when he began filling in as the pastor of West Avenue Baptist Church. That position became permanent the following July, when he was asked to stay there full-time.

In the meantime, their asylum hearing kept getting pushed back due to case backlogs and judges leaving. The Dzawos had to reapply for work permits each year at a cost of $500. That recently changed to every two years.

Ever-changing politics, including the Trump administration's rhetoric, have brought new waves of concern for the Dzawos.

Additionally, Mugabe was ousted from his presidency in 2017. In his place is Emmerson Mnangagwa. The Dzawos at first were hopeful. Mnangagwa, after all, had promised reform and meaningful change while running for office.

"In one sense, we were like, 'Yay, things are going to get better and we'll be able to go back," the Rev. Dzawo said.

But Mnangagwa was not a man of his word.

"What has happened on the ground since he took over is anything but reformation," Dzawo said. "If anything, it's actually worse than his predecessor to the point that three times in the last two years he's released the army on protestors in the capital city and they fired live rounds. There are people who have been killed."

The first happened when election results were delayed. The second was when fuel prices increase by 130 percent in January 2019, putting even more of a financial strain on the already cash-strapped people of Zimbabwe. The third was the following August during a peaceful protest by supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change.

With the current state of Zimbabwe, Dzawo fears persecution should he and his family return.

"What the government does is anybody who has been out of the country for awhile, when they get sent back to the country, you really become a target," Dzawo said. "They have people at the airport waiting for you."

Despite the dangers Dzawo fears he will face should he return to Zimbabwe, he is more concerned for his children.

"My wife and I, if we were somehow to end up back in Africa, we can always pick up and make do and figure out something to do," Dzawo said.

His children, however, have lived in the U.S. for between half and all of their lives. Their friends — and their futures — are here. Samantha, Dzawo's eldest, plans to attend SCC and the University of Iowa to pursue a bachelor of nursing degree. Samuel was in Zimbabwe for only two years before moving to the U.S., and Anopa was born in Colorado.

Dzawo is hopeful the judge's decision will provide his family with the peace of mind stability will provide.

"I think the biggest change would just be the ability to lay down roots and just to have stability," Dzawo said of what permanency would mean for his family. "Once we have that, then it's the ability to go in and do some long-range planning and all that stuff and actually live."