For years, Adelaide Abankwah's picture of the American landscape consisted of gray highways, boarded-up buildings and the weed-filled vacant lots that lay between Wackenhut Detention Center and Jamaica Hospital. The distance was seven miles, her only travel since she arrived in the United States in 1997 seeking asylum.
Before that, Abankwah's journey was thousands of miles long. She traveled across Africa and Europe, winding her way toward Kennedy International Airport and away from the small rural village in Ghana where she feared she would be a victim of female genital mutilation. Her trip stopped short when Immigration and Naturalization Service officials confiscated her fake passport and sent her to the nearby detention center.
After two years and five months and repeated rejections of her asylum petition, Abankwah finally has glimpsed freedom.
A week after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that immigration judges had been wrong to decide that there wasn't enough evidence to grant Abankwah asylum, she was temporarily paroled by the INS while her case is reconsidered.
Other women have claimed asylum on grounds that they would be subjected to female genital-cutting. In a ground-breaking case in 1996, the Board of Immigration Appeals granted asylum to Fauziya Kassindja, a young woman from Togo who said she had fled to avoid ritual female genital mutilation. In its decision in that case, binding on all U.S. immigration judges, the board ruled for the first time that female genital cutting could be grounds for granting asylum.
Abankwah's story drew much public sympathy in New York. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), Gloria Steinem, Julia Roberts and the human rights group Equality Now are among those who championed her cause.
The INS had refused to grant Abankwah temporary parole while the case was being resolved because authorities questioned her identity and wondered whether she might flee. Until her release late Monday night, Abankwah's hospital visits--to treat ulcers and ovarian cysts--were the only times she had left the building since March 1997.
"When I am in the car to hospital, I say to myself, 'When am I going to walk free in this place?' " Abankwah said in an interview.
As the asylum petition was argued, much of Abankwah's faith in a happy ending slipped away. Her scenery remained the same: blue cinder block walls and one hour a day in a barred courtyard. Abankwah herself became the scenery, as Wackenhut's longest-serving detainee.
Before news of the release reached her, Abankwah's week began like all the others: waiting. But Monday morning she felt torn between despair and the glimmer of hope brought by the federal ruling.
"I know the U.S. is good," she said. "Back home, people know America is good. They help you if you have a problem. They will help."
Abankwah's problems began when her mother, who was the "Queen Mother" of Abankwah's Nkumssa tribe, died in 1996. After her death, Abankwah was told by village elders that she would inherit the ceremonial position--and to be ready. To be ready meant to be a virgin at initiation. Abankwah was not.
Abankwah remembers her panic.
"My grandmother told me I have to watch myself because if I don't, they will not forgive me. They will cut me," she recalled. "So I have to leave, so I am safe."
Abankwah fled to the capital city of Accra. Friends she made there helped her buy a ticket and a fake passport to travel from Rome to New York, she said.
Over the two years that she has been detained, immigration judges rejected Abankwah's petition repeatedly on grounds that she didn't have the evidence to prove the cutting would happen and that her fear was unreasonable in a country that outlawed genital cutting in 1994.
Last week a federal court rejected these conclusions.
"Abankwah's position is particularly compelling in light of the general conditions present in Ghana," U.S. District Judge Robert W. Sweet wrote. "In 1997, the United States Department of State estimated that between 15 and 30 percent of all women and girls in Ghana had been subjected to female genital mutilation."
The government has only made seven arrests for the crime since 1994, according to the State Department report.
According to Abankwah's attorney, Jonathan W. Rauchway, it was the first time a federal court has recognized fear of genital mutilation as a legitimate reason for asylum.
As a result of Abankwah's case, Maloney has introduced legislation that would change guidelines for handling gender-based persecution, such as female genital mutilation, into regulations that immigration judges must obey when granting asylum.
Though the immigration judges are bound by the federal court ruling, Rauchway is bracing himself and his client for the possibility that Abankwah's asylum may be again denied on different grounds. But they celebrate her parole as a turning point.
"I have to believe--I wait," she says over and over. "I read the Bible and feel it will end and I will be free."
Staff writer William Branigan contributed to this report.
CAPTION: GENITAL MUTILATION IN AFRICA (This graphic was not available)