So there I was in the courtroom. I walked up to the witness stand, put my right hand up in the air and my left hand on the Bible, and I promised to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. . . .
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This isn’t just a story about my time in court, facing a judge on behalf of my client, whose life, and perhaps those of her daughters, depended on the outcome of this immigration hearing. And, maybe surprisingly these days, this isn’t just a story about our country’s broken immigration system. It’s a story about a client who became so firmly lodged in my heart and mind that, for a time, her survival felt interchangeable with my own.
The night I first saw Adèle, I was volunteering at a walk-in counseling center. She was with an interpreter, who asked if there were any counselors who spoke Somali or French.
I speak French, I thought, and so I introduced myself to her. “Bonsoir. Je m’appelle Kirsten.”
“Je m’appelle Adèle,” she answered, and we walked back to one of the counseling rooms. She was a small woman, not more than five feet tall, wearing a dark flowing skirt that touched the floor and a hijab to cover her hair. Her face was drawn and sad. I could almost feel the weight that seemed to surround her.
In the tiny interview room at the clinic, we sat down. I waited, and waited, and waited some more. Finally, she looked at me and said, “Pourquoi vous parlez francais? Why do you speak French?”
I told her that I was born in Holland and raised in Rangoon, and that when I was a teenager, I’d worked in Paris as an au pair.
“Ah,” she said, and then fell silent again.
“And how is it that you speak French?” I asked.
She told me that the country she was from is a Francophone country, and that she was a professor of French there.
“And what brings you here tonight?” I asked.
She looked down at the ground for a long while. Finally, she said, “Je veux me tuer. I want to kill myself. I don’t know what else to do. I’ve been here for two years waiting for my hearing for asylum, and it keeps getting pushed back. I have four children but no money, and the only way I can get food for them is to see the men.” She stopped and kept her eyes on the floor.
“See the men?” I asked.
She responded sadly, “They come to my house and bring food for my children. Then I go with them into the bedroom.”
As Adèle looked over at me, I held her gaze gently, hoping to help her bear the weight of her situation, at least a little. Not knowing what else to do, I said, “Ah, c’est dûr, ça. That’s hard.”
In the brief silence that followed, we both seemed to be fighting the gravitational pull of her despair. Then she let out a deep sigh and said, “I can’t do it anymore. It will be better for the children if I am gone. Then there will be some help for them. But for me, there’s no help.”
I took a breath and leaned toward her. “Your children need you,” I told her. “I think I can help you find ways to take care of them so you don’t have to go with the men. Shall we try?”
She burst into tears and nodded. And that was our first moment of intense connection.
Looking back, I realize now how different it felt for me to be speaking French in session. My mother and I spoke French together, so maybe it felt more like my mother tongue. Whatever the reason, I found myself drawn into an unusually deep personal bond with Adèle. Because of this, and almost without realizing it, I began to feel responsible for her, as if only I could guide her out of isolation and despair; as if only I could help her figure out how to find community resources, get boots for her kids—keep herself alive as she waited for an asylum hearing that would decide her future. How could I not ride to the rescue?
In addition to meeting with Adèle every week, between sessions I often found myself thinking about her and her children. I wondered if they were eating enough, if they were warm enough, if the resources I’d been able to offer her were enough to keep her going until the hearing, when she would either be allowed to stay or forced to leave.
And the pull I felt to ride to Adèle’s rescue only increased when, after several months of working together, I found out why she’d fled to the US with her children in the first place. “Quand j’avais neuf ans, ma mère ma pris on vacances toute seule,” she said to me one afternoon. “When I was nine years old, my mother took me on vacation into the bush, where my grandmother lives. When we got to her house, my aunties took me and held me down and cut me with a rusty razor.” (We had to pause here because I didn’t know the French word for razor, and Adèle had to mime it until I understood.)
“It hurt so, so much,” she continued when I finally did understand, realizing the horror of what she was telling me. “Then when it was over, they tied my legs together for three days, and my mother gave me a lot of water to drink so I would urinate. That hurt even worse, but she told me that it was good for me, and this would help me heal. I never want my daughters to go through that—never! So I came here and brought them with me.”
My heart broke for her. Adèle was a survivor of female genital mutilation, a brutal cultural ritual still practiced in many parts of the globe, even though it’s internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women and defined as torture. Sitting there across from Adèle, I could hardly bear the thought of it. There was a long pause. Then I reached for something, anything, to connect around the experience she’d just shared with me.
“Where I grew up, in Burma,” I offered lamely, “the only thing they did to girls was pierce their ears when they were babies.”
“In my country,” she said, “the boys are circumcised, too, but that’s done in the hospital with anesthetic when they’re babies. But not the girls. The girls go out into the bush and their aunties do this to them.”
“You wanted to save your girls from this,” I replied, still struggling to know what to say.
“Yes,” she said, “And my husband agreed. He gave us the money and stayed behind so that no one would suspect until we were on the plane and in the air.”
I shook my head and tried not to cry, as I thought about how hard it all must have been for her, how much courage it must’ve taken to leave everything she knew behind and chance it for her children’s sake.
As the time for the asylum hearing approached, I accompanied Adèle to a meeting with her lawyer to go over the questions he’d ask her on the stand. Even though some of his questions about why she’d lied in her paperwork about details on her passport left her distressed and agitated, she seemed okay when we parted.
Half an hour later, I was standing in my kitchen making a sandwich when my client phone rang. Recognizing Adèle’s number, I answered, “Âllo?”
In a faint voice, she said, “C’est fini. It’s finished, over. J’ai pris tout les médicaments dans la maison. I have taken all the medicine in the house.”
My heart dropped, and I could hardly breathe. I’d been afraid of this all along.
“I have to call the police,” I told her immediately.
“No, no,” she said. “It’s not worth it. You don’t have to. C’est pas important. Now we don’t have to worry about the hearing.”
“No,” I said, “You don’t understand. I do have to.”
Keeping her on the line, I got out my other phone and dialed 911. After explaining to the operator several times who I was and what had happened, officers were dispatched to her apartment. I stayed on the phone with Adèle until she faded out entirely and stopped answering me. I tried to control my mounting panic, especially when the operator came back to report, “Ma’am, the officers are there, but there’s no response to their knocking.”
“Of course there’s no response to their knocking,” I yelled, trying to stay calm. “She’s taken a lot of medication and probably isn’t even conscious anymore. Please do something!”
“Are you a friend of this person’s?” asked the operator.
“No, I’m her therapist!” I said for the fifth time. “She’s very depressed, and she’s in there, and she’s taken all the pills in the house, and she needs help! Tell them to break down the door!”
Which is what they did. They found her inside and took her to the hospital, where they stabilized her and put her on enough antidepressants to help her manage in the weeks before the hearing. Still, I woke up several times a night, panicked, thinking, What will she do if she’s not granted asylum?
She’d already told me in no uncertain terms that she’d rather die than go back to her home country, but after her suicide attempt, I began to realize the gravity of the situation. The usual boundaries I’ve always put in place to help me separate myself from my clients wouldn’t hold with Adèle. What will she do? What will I do? It felt as if her life was literally in my hands.
Finally, the day of the asylum hearing arrived. The court had all her documents, including a letter from me spelling out her diagnosis of PTSD and my worries that she’d try to kill herself again if she were sent back to her home country. When I caught her eye as I entered the courtroom, I gave her an awkward thumbs-up and immediately felt silly. But what is the etiquette in a situation like this?
The lawyers began their arguments, back and forth, disagreeing fervently over details of the paperwork as Adèle sat there, frozen, and the interpreter whispered in her ear. Finally, the arguments got so heated that the judge asked everyone to leave the courtroom. We trooped out to the waiting room—and waited. After a long while, her lawyer came out and beckoned to me.
“The judge wants you to testify on the client’s behalf,” he whispered.
So I told her story to the court—the day we’d first connected at the clinic through French, the trauma she’d shared with me about the mutilation she’d undergone, the suicide attempt, all of it. And then my part was done. Everyone else came back into the courtroom and we all watched the judge shuffle papers around for a few minutes. And then, matter of factly, almost blandly, the judge announced, “The court finds for the plaintiff. She is granted asylum in this country.”
Adèle stood up and turned around to face me, an amazed expression on her face. “Yes,” I nodded, “yes that’s right! You won!” We hugged each other and cried and cried. And then my knees actually buckled from the relief I felt. Now I wouldn’t have to see what she’d do if she couldn’t stay in the country, because she could, she could, she could!
More than with any case I’d ever worked on, I felt I’d shared a profound and ultimately triumphant journey with my client. We therapists like to believe that what we do matters and, maybe sometimes, even changes our clients’ lives. With Adèle, this had actually happened. And in our last session, when she told me about sending away for her Social Security card, she was lit up from within—just completely lit up. And so was I.
Photo by Sam Levitan
Kirsten Lind Seal
Kirsten Lind Seal, PhD, is a marriage and family therapist in private practice and an adjunct associate professor of MFT at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. Her research has been published in JMFT and Psychology Today, and she is a regular contributor on WCCO (CBS) TV’s Midmorning show.