Mohamed Jalloh and his family fled rebels in Sierra Leone for the relative safety of New York. Then the danger caught up with them.
New York | November 8, 2010
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.
Mohamed’s parents told him never to hang around with the American kids who gathered outside. In the afternoon, his mother made sure he and his sister did their homework and read the Koran. For a Fulani kid like Mohamed, who knew no English, those early days were especially lonely: sitting in class with no idea what the teacher was saying, having nobody to ask for help, feeling like an alien, spending every afternoon in the apartment. At least his cousin Amadou was around. The two boys were the same age, and Amadou lived nearby.
FOUR AND A HALF YEARS LATER, on his first day of high school, Mohamed wore an American Eagle shirt, Buffalo jeans, and a pair of Nikes. “I thought he must be the only American person here,” says his classmate Mamadou Diallo, who’d just arrived from Guinea. It wasn’t until Mohamed spoke to him in Fulani—Ko a Pullo? Are you Fulani?—that he realized they were from the same part of the world. The two teenagers were enrolled in a new school for immigrant kids: International Community High School.
Over the last two decades, so many people have migrated from West Africa to the Bronx that the borough is now home to one of the largest concentrations of African immigrants in the U.S. While the latest Census estimate put the Bronx’s African-born population at 44,484, the group’s true size is likely much higher. Nobody knows for certain how many are Fulani, but community leaders estimate there are about 5,000 or 6,000. The borough’s Fulani mosque, known as the Futa Islamic Center, is one of the largest in the Bronx.
Today, Fulani surnames pop up again and again in the Bronx phone book: Jalloh, Diallo (the French version of Jalloh), Barry, Bah, Sow, Tall, etc. With so many parents giving their kids similar first names, like Mohamed or Mamadou or Amadou, it isn’t easy keeping everyone straight. In one social circle, there could be five Amadou Diallos. (Of course, the best-known Amadou Diallo is still the 23-year-old from Guinea killed by the NYPD in 1999.) One solution: nicknames. Eventually Mohamed Jalloh became known by his initials: M.J.
In his ninth-grade class, there were seven Fulani kids at the start, mostly from Guinea, with more joining through the year. The new kids spoke French, Fulani, and maybe a few tribal languages, but no English, so Mohamed would translate the teachers’ words for them. Within this group, Mohamed was a leader, albeit a quiet one. When a new girl from Guinea got frustrated or upset, he sidled up to her: “Just keep your head up. Everything will be fine.” And when a boy new to America came to school with a red bandanna tied around his head, Mohamed informed him that red was the color of the Bloods: “You better take that off before they shoot you.”
At lunchtime, the Fulani kids sat together in the cafeteria. Whenever the girls brought in food they’d cooked at home—cassava, fufu, couscous, peanut sauce, rice with red oil—the boys would hurry over, spoons in hand, everyone digging into everyone else’s plate. The other students thought they were weird, but no matter. Everybody missed home. They missed their grandmothers, their cousins, their friends. And they missed the storytelling sessions, too, when they would go outside after dinner, sit under the moon, and listen to their elders tell tales about the family’s past.
“I want to go back to Africa,” they’d say.
“I want to go back, too,” Mohamed would reply. “But we have to stay and learn as much as we can.”
The other students considered Mohamed lucky. Not just because he could speak English, but because he’d been living with both parents for years. (One schoolmate had grown up alone on the streets of Guinea; another had listened as both parents were shot to death.) Mohamed’s family appeared to be relatively affluent, too. He seemed to have no trouble persuading his parents to buy him the latest gadgets and brand-name clothes. And now the family was out of River Park Towers and living in a quiet part of Highbridge.
TO BE AN AFRICAN BOY growing up in the Bronx is to endure every prejudice and insult your fellow teens can dream up. In recent years, the rise of Akon, the Senegalese hip-hop star, has helped tamp down some of the xenophobia, but every Fulani boy still has stories of being harassed, taunted, and, more often than not, attacked.
“You’re coming to our land and taking everything!”
In the fall of 2008, International Community High School moved to Brook Avenue in Mott Haven, across the street from three bodegas. Not too long afterward, African students began coming to school with stories—and scars—from run-ins they’d had with the young men who hung out across the street. “Once we get out at 3:55, they’re there,” says Habi Balde, a former student. “It’s like their territory.”
At lunchtime, a frequent topic of conversation among the Fulani boys was what to do if you got jumped. Was it better to run or to stay and fight? Nobody wanted to look like a wimp. But, at the same time, the African kids were usually so outnumbered that running seemed the only sane option. As for Mohamed, his friend Mamadou Diallo recalls: “He never started a fight. But whenever a fight started, he’d never run.”
The worst incident occurred this past February, when a group of students ran into the school seeking refuge from a brawl outside, only to be followed by six young men. The intruders sprinted past the security desk, caught a teen from Togo in the lobby, and smashed him in the head with a hammer.
Compared with his classmates, Mohamed often wore more expensive clothes, which at times made him a target, too. Neighborhood kids coveted his pea-green Marmot parka, which everyone referred to as his “Big Boy.” For an African boy, the parka was a way to survive the New York winter, but it was also a status symbol.
One day, as Mohamed walked from school, a group of young men tried to strip him of it, slamming him on the head with a walking stick. Another time, a would-be thief slid his hand inside his own coat to reveal what looked like a gun, but Mohamed got away.
ALL OF MOHAMED’S FRIENDS knew what sort of mother he had. If you called looking for him and she didn’t already know you, she would pepper you with questions: What’s your name? Who are your parents? How do you know my son? If she thought you were a positive influence, she’d invite you over all the time. She’d ask about your family, your after-school job. And, of course, she’d always feed you. Sometimes there would be so many boys over she’d hand them each a bowl of food, then send them into the hall to eat since there were too many to squeeze into the living room.
Her welcoming ways were part of a calculated strategy: Better her son and his friends were indoors where she could watch them than outside. She put the numbers of Mohamed’s friends into her phone, and if she didn’t know where her son was at any given moment, she’d start dialing. “Is Mohamed with you?” she’d ask one boy after another, until she got an answer. And she tried to enlist his friends in her campaign, telling them, “Please, if you see Mohamed doing something wrong, let me know.”
Friday nights often found Mohamed on Tinton Avenue, hanging out in front of an African grocery store with 20 or 30 teenage boys, everybody speaking Fulani. To anyone walking by, it would look like nothing serious was going on—just a bunch of kids joking around, slap-boxing, knocking each other’s baseball hats off. But, in fact, these gatherings were meetings of an organization called “African Family United.”
A group of Fulani teens had started AFU in 2006, and the idea behind it is a sort of reverse peer pressure: If you spend your Friday nights with other Fulani kids—and you encourage one another not to give up on school—you’ll be better off. The strategy seems to be working: Today AFU members are enrolled in SUNY-Albany, John Jay, Brooklyn College, and elsewhere.
When Mohamed discovered that his classmate Mamadou Diallo was hanging out with a group of American kids who often got into fights and at one point asked him to carry a gun, Mohamed intervened. “These kids are not your friends,” he said. To steer Mamadou in the right direction, he brought him to an AFU meeting. Mamadou became the captain of AFU’s soccer team, and he now plays soccer for Suffolk County Community College.
Despite Mohamed’s best efforts, there was one person he could not keep out of trouble: his cousin Amadou. He’d become the sort of teenager other African parents talked about, a cautionary tale. One night in the spring of 2009, the police stopped him and found a .25-caliber pistol in his book bag. He spent almost the entire 2009-10 school year on Rikers Island.
Mohamed visited him, put money in his commissary account, and brought him clothes. “Mohamed was not feeling good about all of this,” says his classmate Mamadou, who made four trips to Rikers with him. “All the time he’d say, ‘I hope Amadou comes home. It’s not life in there. I hope he changes.’ ”
While Mohamed would often complain about his own mother’s constant surveillance, one friend thought he knew the root of her fear: “She was scared Mohamed would be like his cousin.”
ON SATURDAY JUNE 19, 2010, Mohamed woke around 1 p.m. It had been a grueling week—four days of Regents tests, tough for any student, but extra tough when English is not your first language—and now, finally, the school year was over. Most of his classmates were at Six Flags for their senior-class trip, but he’d decided not to go. Right now he was much more focused on his own upcoming trip: In seventeen days, he would be leaving for Africa. Already his father had gone over to find a place for them to stay.
The plan was for the whole family to spend the summer in Guinea, visiting Mohamed’s grandmother and other relatives. Mohamed was so excited he’d been talking about the trip nonstop; he had not been back since coming to New York. The fact that his father was going to take the whole family to Guinea represented an extraordinary achievement; four round-trip tickets in the summer can run more than $5,000. He had been saving for two years.
As the July 6 departure date neared, Mohamed had begun carrying the Koran in his book bag and attending Koran classes with a friend. He’d also been shopping for new clothes—most of which bore his favorite label, Nautica—to wear once he got to Africa. And he had been spending as much time as he could with Amadou, who had just been released from Rikers. His cousin had slept over the prior night, and in the afternoon, the two went shopping at Macy’s. They returned in the early evening, then left again around 9 p.m. “Come back by eleven,” Mohamed’s mother said.
AROUND 1 A.M., the two teenagers were in Manhattan at a McDonald’s on 181st Street. Later, the police would ask Amadou not to talk to reporters about what happened next, but according to the story he told a friend, after they left McDonald’s a group of young men challenged them to a fight. Amadou said they weren’t going to fight—they were outnumbered—but two of the kids wouldn’t let up. When Amadou and Mohamed tried to get away, the two chased after them.
Mohamed stopped. “Let’s fight back!” he said.
It might have seemed like a winnable fight—the other two kids weren’t that big—but soon they were surrounded by the whole gang, a total of eight or nine boys. Amadou got away, circled back to look for Mohamed, and saw a body sprawled in front of a 99-cent store. He knew who it was as soon as he saw the copper-colored Nikes. Mohamed’s left arm was broken. Blood spilled from a cut on his arm and another beneath his heart.
As the paramedics loaded Mohamed into an ambulance, Amadou called one of his cousin’s friends. “I think M.J.’s dead,” he said.
Later that night, a 16-year-old named Andy Henriquez walked into the same hospital where Mohamed had been taken. He had a cut on his hand; somebody notified the police. At first, the teen said he’d been robbed, but later he changed his story. He’d been with a group of friends who’d challenged some “black guys” to a fight, he told the cops. While he was punching one of them (identified by the police as Mohamed), “another guy” took out a weapon “and swung it at him.”
What he swung—a weapon favored by street gangs in Washington Heights—was smaller in size than those used by the rebels back in Sierra Leone, with a thinner blade. But its shape was unmistakable. Mohamed had been killed by a machete.
WORD OF MOHAMED’S DEATH spread quickly in the Fulani community, triggering mass confusion about exactly who had been killed. Which Mohamed were they talking about? The notion that M.J. would’ve been slain in the street at 17 just seemed too unlikely to accept. What had he ever done wrong? Over the next few days, hundreds of people visited the family’s apartment to offer condolences, and later so many showed up at the Fulani mosque to mourn his death—an estimated 1,500—that his mother’s arm went limp from shaking hands.
In early July, Mohamed’s family shipped his body back to Guinea. When his pine coffin arrived at the airport in Conakry, some 100 people came to meet the body. Who were they all? Mohamed’s parents had no idea. Apparently Fulani people in New York had called their friends and relatives, sending them to the airport. When it came time to bury Mohamed, more than 1,000 people went to the cemetery.
At the end of the summer, his parents and sister flew back to New York, just in time for Issatu to start her sophomore year. One afternoon in late September, all three sat in their living room. Idjatu, 36, slumped on a leather sofa, the same sofa where she used to wait at night for her son to come home. She looked as if she hadn’t smiled in months. Umaru, 41, stared at the TV, tuned to CNN but with the volume off.
Neither parent felt ready yet to go back to work. The father is not even sure he can drive a livery cab anymore. Whenever he is at the wheel and sees a large vehicle coming toward him, he is seized with terror, imagining it’s about to smash into him. His wife, who’d become a home health aide, struggles with new fears, too. “Any boy I see, I don’t trust them,” she says. “Maybe they have something to kill somebody in a minute.”
Three teenagers, including Henriquez, are now on Rikers, charged with murder or gang assault; the other boys who were involved remain at large. In the Jalloh family’s first weeks back in New York, more than 100 people came by to pay their respects. But no matter how many people offer them sympathy, it seems they cannot shake the feeling of being newly adrift in a foreign land. “I brought my son here to save him,” Umaru says. “I do my best to make sure nothing happen to him. But now, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Someday, maybe it will be Mohamed Jalloh that the old folks back in Africa talk about when everyone gathers after dinner, seated around a fire beneath the stars: Here is the story of a young man who survived Sierra Leone’s civil war, who fled the country atop his father’s shoulders, who made it all the way to New York, only to confront the same fate he’d so narrowly escaped as a boy.