James has an extraordinary tale to tell.
He came to Buffalo last summer to seek the help of Vive, a shelter in Buffalo for immigrants seeking asylum in Canada. But with no close relatives in Canada, he learned there was only a slim chance he’d be given asylum.
Seeking asylum in the U.S. can take years. People who applied for asylum in January and February of 2015 had to wait until April of this year just to be interviewed, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“I don’t know what tomorrow holds,” the 29-year-old from Zimbabwe said.
But he explained he cannot go back to his home country.
James shared his story with The Buffalo News. His name has been changed to protect his identity. The original version of the story contained his real name and photos but has been removed after James said threats were made to his family back home.
James grew up in a middle class family, the son of a political “big shot” in Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s party, he said. While in university, he was part of the ruling party’s youth movement but he was later kicked out. He joined the opposition movement and took to the streets to protest Mugabe’s authoritarian government.
The protests sometimes turned violent, and the police would open fire on the protesters.
One day, James said he took down the sign of a street named after the president and laid it next to the rotting remains of a dead dog. Someone took a photo and it went viral, he said. “I was trying to cover my face,” he said, “but they got me.”
He said the police took him into custody, and he endured daily beatings and torture in jail.
“They beat you on the foot. They beat you on the back. Torture, with high voltage electricity,” he said. He described one particularly cruel torture he endured. Jail guards pushed thumbtacks under his fingernails “and they leave them like that for an hour or two,” he said. Then, they’d come back and put them under a different set of nails. “Just to make you feel pain,” he said.
James was released and arrested two more times, he said. In the meantime, he said, a “kill squad,” assassins dressed in black suits who drive black cars with tinted windows, were given his name.
He hatched a plan to flee to the U.S. Before he could leave, he said, someone in a car that pulled up next to him at a red light tried to shoot him.
When James arrived home, a tenant told him that some people had come looking for him. “He said if I knew what’s good for me, I wouldn’t sleep in the house,” James said.
Through his political connections, he was able to get a new passport and a visa.
After more gunmen came to his house and shot his dog, Rex, James made his way to the bus depot and hid for three hours in a filthy bathroom stall until it was time for his bus to leave for South Africa. He got on board and explained his plans to the driver. But when they got to the border, the person who was supposed to sneak him into South Africa was not there. Along with the other passengers, he handed over this passport to the driver, who went to check in with the border officials.
The bus driver came back on the bus and started handing passports back. The driver didn’t call out his name. He just handed the passport to him quietly and winked.
From Johannesburg, James and two friends boarded a flight to New York City.
One of James’ friends had a sister in Canada who got there with help from Vive.
They arrived at the downtown bus station in the middle of the night. They slept on a bench until they could get a taxi.
Immigration advocates at Vive's shelter told them the shelter was full that day. They huddled on the steps of the shelter while a fellow Zimbabweans at the shelter called a friend with a house in Buffalo. He came to get them. James eventually was able to get a bed at Vive, where he was interviewed by The Buffalo News.
The News was not able to verify James' account of his life in Zimbabwe.
James said he considered trying to sneak across the border into Canada. But he said if he’s deported, he’s a dead man. So James had been hoping the U.S. would allow him to stay.
“I will not get on the plane,” he said. “I will fight because I know what awaits me in Zimbabwe.”
About a week ago, James left Vive and went to Canada where he is now seeking asylum.
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