Torn Asunder in War, Then Peace

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lemlem Tadesse, a hotel worker in Wheaton and a refugee from Ethiopia, keeps a snapshot of a girl with long black braids and a hopeful smile. It was taken more than a decade ago, when her daughter Marta was 10 and Tadesse fled abroad, promising to send for her as soon as she could.

They have not seen each other since. For the past several years, Tadesse has been navigating the U.S. immigration system, filing forms, paying fees and sending samples of her DNA. But because of a series of miscommunications, complicated by what U.S. officials say is a major problem of fraud in family reunification cases from African countries, Marta's application to come to the United States has been denied repeatedly.

"She's 21 now," Tadesse, 50, said. "She stopped going to school, and she doesn't want to get married. She just sits and waits. She keeps telling her friends: 'I'm going to America to be with my mom tomorrow.' I have done everything the right way, but they keep turning us down. I miss her a lot, but all I can tell her is to keep praying."

Marta's case is unlikely to be solved soon. Six weeks ago, the State Department suspended all family reunification applications from U.S.-based refugees, saying DNA testing in several African countries had found a "significant prevalence of fraud." Officials said they need to "reform and strengthen" the procedures that test for biological relationships before accepting new applicants.

Under the reunification program, refugees from 17 countries in conflict are allowed to bring their children, spouses and parents to the United States without long waiting periods. The countries range from Burma to Uzbekistan, but most applicants come from Somalia, Ethiopia or Liberia. Since 2003, more than 36,000 Africans have been admitted as immediate relatives.

Last summer, suspicions of massive cheating -- often where unrelated children were presented at U.S. embassies as the sons or daughters of a refugee -- led to special testing of 3,000 applicants from seven African countries. In 86 percent of those cases, people claiming to be a relative either had DNA that did not match or refused to take a DNA test, for which they must pay $400 to $1,000.

"We were alarmed that the rate was so high," said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity as a matter of departmental policy. "In fewer than 20 percent of cases did the applicant take the test and it checked out."

The official said that in the case of spouses, in which no DNA link would exist, other testing methods were used, such as personal questions about relationships.

The problem with this scientific and legal approach, say refugee advocates, is that it does not always mesh with the culture in conflicted African countries, where children are often adopted informally, definitions of family are elastic and chaotic conditions often leave orphans or lost children in other people's permanent care.

"A village is burning. People are running. Someone grabs a child and ends up raising him. The DNA may not be the same, but in every other way, he is the parent," said Seyoum Berhe, an official of refugee services for the Catholic Archdiocese of Arlington. "We certainly do not support fraud, but there is a human aspect, too. If my brother were killed in Somalia and I saved his child, according to our culture, that child is mine."

In a dozen interviews last week, refugees and advocates in the Washington area and other regions of the country told wrenching tales of fleeing violence, being separated from their families or raising other people's children for years, only to be turned down when they tried to bring them to the United States.

Teshaye Teferra, director of the Ethiopian Community Development Council in Arlington County, told of one man who was forced to flee Ethiopia years ago. For years, he faithfully supported the girl he thought was his daughter, paying for her education and sending birthday gifts. But when he applied to bring her here recently, it turned out that their DNA did not match and the case was rejected.

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