We had 24 hours of intense conversation and experience of family separation and impending reunion, in several formats this weekend.
Friday night, my wife and I went to see One Way: A Tuareg Journey, a very thoughtful documentary about a Tuareg family from Niger that immigrates to Northern Italy, where the father works at an electronics assembly plant. The father left first, in the hopes of earning some money for his family. A year or two later, he sent for his wife and two older children, who quickly adapt to life in Italy, thriving in Italian and soaking up knowledge and culture.
For about three years, the family is separated from the youngest son, who did not have a birth certificate or some other identity document and was not able to join the family in Italy. (In a particularly compelling scene, the boy takes a piece of scrap paper and fills it with geometric shapes, calling it his papers.) Filmmaker Fabio Caramaschi captured the intense reunion of father and young son in the desert, when the softening, westernizing father returns to collect his Tuareg son, who was left with grandpa to work the camel train and survive in the harsh Saharan climate. The son, al-Kassoum, is a brilliant 6-year-old upon his arrival in Italy, and is able to reflect on the stark cultural differences and opine that he’d rather return to Niger, to the desert.
On Saturday, we went to a birthday party for 1-year-old Sara, whose parents, Veronica and Juan, will appear in Amor and Exile. Sara has never met her father because he is in Mexico and barred from returning to the United States for a long time. Juan called from Mexico while we were at the house and spent a long time on the phone with his brother, his nieces and singing Happy Birthday to his baby. While he was emotional about missing the pink cake and kid games (as was I), Juan and Veronica are planning to reunite in Mexico before year’s end and their excitement was palpable.
Then we rushed home to meet another friend, a man from the Congo who had a kind of life changing experience this past week that is nearly unimaginable to me. I am just going to give the rough outlines here, because I think he is going to be telling his own story soon, but on Friday, Benjamin located his wife and two daughters in Kampala, Uganda after 14 years of searching. They spoke on the phone—well hardly spoke, they mostly cried on the phone, both in a state of shock. Benjamin lived in a refugee camp in Zambia after fleeing the Congo in 1997 and recently resettled in Boise. He had spoken to my wife, who works for a refugee organization here, about being unsure when to admit that he would never see his family again. And then, all of a sudden, some newly resettled Congolese refugees in Ohio got to talking and connected the dots between Benjamin in Idaho and his wife and kids in Uganda and all of a sudden they were on the phone, talking to one another again. Now he is trying to figure out how to meet them, again.
These disparate, yet related stories of family separation—whether through government policy, economics, war or some combination of the three—are all connected in my mind. And they serve as a reminder that the conservative talking point of “Family Values” is perhaps a good starting point, or re-starting point, for a national discussion on migration policy. The stories I have been reporting for the past year and a half all make that point and my discussions this weekend make the same point on a global scale: in a world of globalized culture and markets, the family is still a basic unit that requires some basic protections.
While brushing my 6-year-old’s teeth last night I was careful to avoid the two, extremely loose front chompers. She asked me if kids in the Congo lose their teeth because Benjamin had been quite impressed with the way she pushed them out with her tongue. I choked up a bit explaining that he missed his own daughters’ tooth-losing period. But I am confident that he will soon find a way to reunite with his now-teenage daughters and that Juan will soon get to meet his baby and that Sidi’s family’s one-way trip will not rob them of the essential wisdom of the desert.