They didn’t believe the rebels were coming until it was almost too late. Everyone in Kabala, a town in the north of Sierra Leone, had been talking about the rebels for so long it was hard to decide how afraid they were supposed to be. Were the rebels really that close? Was today the day they would come and loot everyone’s homes and kill anyone who resisted? Some townspeople had already fled. Others, like Umaru Jalloh and his wife, Idjatu, were more reluctant. They had two small children; traveling wouldn’t be easy.
Everything changed the day they heard their 3-year-old son, Mohamed, screaming in pain. He ran inside, his right arm dangling beside him, the bottom half of it twisted, his forearm facing the wrong direction. Nobody seemed to know what had happened, and there was no time for questions. Word of the rebels’ arrival was just then sweeping through the village, their gunfire growing louder. Everyone fled in different directions. Mahen! Mahen! they shouted to one another in Fulani. Let’s go!
The Jallohs took nothing with them but their children. Mohamed, still crying, rode atop his father’s shoulders. His baby sister, Issatu, traveled on their mother’s back. Neither child would remember this journey, but years later they would learn how the rebels had devastated their homeland: kidnapping children, torching entire villages, amputating hands and feet with machetes, killing civilians young and old.
In the nineties, like everyone around them, the Jalloh family was trying to get out of Sierra Leone as quickly as they could. They had no map, no car, no idea how to get where they were going. All they knew was that they had to stay ahead of the rebels, to reach the border of Guinea before the rebels reached them. Day after day, the parents carried their children along dirt roads, fighting hunger and fatigue, aching feet and an unrelenting sun.
One night, the family stopped in a village and found an old man who could treat Mohamed’s arm. He snapped the limb back into place, and the family kept going. Fear pushed them north, and in the end, the trip to Guinea by foot took nearly two weeks.
Once they crossed the border, the family boarded a minibus to Guinea’s capital, Conakry, where they had relatives. They settled near the airport, but even in Conakry the father was still afraid. What if somehow the rebels found a way to cross into Guinea and kill them all? He decided the family should move once again, this time to America. It took him about three years, but finally he secured a visa.
The Jallohs are Fulani, part of a tight-knit tribe that has members all over West Africa. When Umaru arrived at JFK in 2000, he headed straight for the Bronx, where the few Fulani people he knew lived. He had worked as a shopkeeper in Sierra Leone, but he had no formal schooling and spoke no English. Nonetheless, he found a job: stockperson in a 99-cent store at 149th Street and Third Avenue. Later he began commuting to Queens, where he set up a table on Jamaica Avenue to sell socks. Some days he made only $50; other days he did a little better.
Saving money wasn’t easy, but eventually he had enough to buy plane tickets for the rest of his family. On March 27, 2002, his wife, son, and daughter flew to New York. Mohamed, now 9 years old, wore a brand-new outfit: a denim jacket and a pair of jeans his father had sent from America. Umaru would later describe the moment Delta Flight 119 arrived at JFK—the moment he saw his family once again—as one of the happiest of his life. For him, this day marked the end of five years of fear, the end of the journey that had begun the day they all left Kabala.
Finally, he thought, they would now all be safe. “I stopped being afraid,” he says, “when they reached JFK.”
At the time, Umaru was renting a room in an apartment he shared with other Fulani people from Guinea. The apartment was in the West Bronx, on the 35th floor of a building in River Park Towers. The whole family moved into his one room, the two children sleeping in bunk beds. It was cramped, of course, but in some ways it felt luxurious. Back in Sierra Leone, they’d had no electricity or running water.
Umaru chose a new line of work—driving a livery cab—and Idjatu decided to stay home, so she could pick up her kids from school and ensure they stayed out of trouble. About River Park Towers, the father says, “We didn’t know if it was a good place or not.” But after a while, they figured it out. The elevators were always breaking down—or running so slowly that Umaru had to sprint down 35 flights of stairs to make it to work on time. The stench of cigarettes dominated the halls. Gangs and drugs were everywhere.