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Looking out for Roberta

Her mom died a half a world away on Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, the battle has been over her mom’s wishes, money and legacy.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published September 2, 2006


At dusk on Sept. 11, 2001, a breathless, barefoot child appeared at the mud house of Sophia Addo’s mother in Kukurantumi, Ghana. He had come with bad news from the only house in the village with a phone.

There had been a terrible disaster in New York. The twin towers, where her oldest child had gone to work that morning, had been hit by planes and collapsed. Sophia Addo was missing.

Sophia Addo: great-great-granddaughter of Attah Boafaa, the esteemed queen mother of Nsuta near Mampond, in the Ashanti region.

Sophia Addo: bathroom attendant at Windows on the World restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, one of 65 anonymous, undocumented workers from 12 different countries who were inside the buildings that morning.

Her husband, in New York, brought a toothpick from her night stand to the forensic investigators trying to match DNA samples to the pulverized bodies in the rubble. Three weeks later, once testing had confirmed what the family already suspected, two powerful processes were set in motion.

One was distinctly American: legalistic, focused on fair compensation and the fulfillment of ambitions for a better life.

The other was distinctly Ghanaian: no less concerned with fairness but rooted in thousands of years of family and tribal traditions.

These two forces ultimately would clash, trapping in the middle a young girl who did not even know her mother was dead.

***

Three days before her death, Sophia Addo, 36, had made the traditional Saturday morning call to her only child, Roberta Opoku, 10, in Accra, the capital of Ghana.The child remembers every detail of what her mother said: “Mummy misses you so, but, baby, you will be here in New York soon. Your room is ready for you, with a bookshelf of fairy tale books, and your very own bed with a teddy bear on it.”Sophia had come to New York from Ghana on a tourist visa five years before, in 1996. Roberta, then 5, stayed behind in Ghana and lived with an uncle in
Kukurantumi, the family village 60 miles north of Accra.At 8, the child had moved in with her father, Osei Opoku, the former boyfriend of Sophia Addo, and his wife and small children in the capital, where he worked as a middle manager for the water company.In Accra, Roberta went to an English-speaking school to prepare to join her mother someday in New York.Meanwhile, Addo overstayed her tourist visa in New York, taking a job at Windows on the World. Six days a week, she wiped the sinks, sponged the toilets and mopped the floor of the bathrooms, telling her family in Ghana: “I work in a beautiful office in a very tall building.”

Every year, she applied for the visa lottery, which, if she were among the small percentage chosen, would enable her to become a U.S. citizen and actually work in a “beautiful office” — as well as bring Roberta over.

In 1999 or 2000 — her attorneys are not sure which year — Sophia Addo won the visa lottery, becoming one of about 55,000 people out of 5-million annual applicants eligible for a green card and U.S. citizenship.

When she talked to her daughter once a week, she soothed her by saying she would be coming to New York soon. But on Sept. 8, she really meant it. According to an affidavit her husband signed after her death, Sophia had an appointment with immigration officials on Sept. 12, 2001, to sign papers for Roberta.

***

In December 2001, the family in Kukurantumi held the traditional Ashanti funeral, which was attended by hundreds of people, including tribal leaders from all over Ghana. They each provided drummers, dancers and music and gathered in a makeshift pavilion in a parking lot in the center of town.

Three people were conspicuously absent from the four-day service: the dead woman’s husband, the body of the dead woman herself and her only child, Roberta.Sophia’s husband, Joseph Ameyaw, could not leave the United States because he did not have papers to re-enter if he left. What offended Sophia’s family was not his absence, but that he did not call to explain the details of her death or offer his condolences.“The husband of my oldest daughter no longer exists for us in Kukurantumi,” said Addo’s mother, Sarah Antwiaa, through a translator, during a recent phone call to the village.At the Kukurantumi funeral, a large photo of Addo, propped up against the back of a lawn chair, took the place of her body. At dawn, people came to the family home to stare at the photo and weep.

Mourners ate the traditional meal of boiled yams and corn mash, served with fish and tomato sauce. They drank palm wine and local gin. The reigning queen mother from Nsuta led a chant, asking their great-great-grandmother Attah Boafaa to welcome Sophia among the dead.

Roberta witnessed none of these age-old traditions in her mother’s honor. Her father, Osei Opoku, had decided she was too young to learn of her mother’s death.

“I wanted to keep my precious girl from being psychologically damaged,” he said.

He concocted a story about his former girlfriend, Roberta’s mother. Sophia, he said, had become a nanny in Switzerland and couldn’t afford to call. She could, however, write letters and mail packages, which he carefully put together about every six weeks and gave to Roberta.

***

Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, dozens of lawyers were working pro bono to help the families of the undocumented workers killed in the World Trade Center get fair amounts of compensation.The families of thousands of American citizens killed were getting between $1-million and $6-million each.Four lawyers represented the family of Sophia Addo at the Victim’s Compensation Fund hearing in late 2003. They asked for money for her husband, Joseph, for her daughter, Roberta, and for Addo’s mother in Kukurantumi.

“For the families we represented, this money meant something very different from what it meant to most American citizens who received money,” said lawyer Saralyn Cohen. “For the families of undocumented workers, it meant shoes for all of the children, not just the oldest. It meant meat every day, instead of Cheerios.”Because Addo’s tribe honored a matrilineal tradition, where the family of the mother is the inheritor, her family in Ghana expected the mother’s family to get all of the money and distribute it.“In Ghana, tradition is law, and this is what everyone honors,” said Hilda Bromley, a cousin of Addo’s, who has lived in Ohio for 40 years but returns to Kukurantumi every autumn, to stock the library she founded.

But, as the family in Ghana discovered, U.S. courts honor U.S. law, not Ghanaian tradition. A federal magistrate ruled in late 2003 that the mother had not been financially dependent enough on her adult daughter to figure in the roughly $900,000 award, which was based on a complex computation of future earnings and other factors.

About two-thirds of the money should go to the husband, the judge ruled, and the rest to Roberta.
To the shock and outrage of the family in Ghana, Sophia Addo’s mother and sister received nothing. It was the duty of the husband to make it right, they said. But Joseph Ameyaw changed his phone number.

“We cannot make sense of this behavior,” said Doris Quarty, Sophia’s younger sister in Kukurantumi.
(Ameyaw sent a message through his lawyer that he did not want to be interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times for this story. Information about him comes from court documents, sworn affidavits and interviews with others.)
In early 2004, Scott Small, an attorney and trust administrator for Mellon Bank, which was part of the pro bono team, wrote Roberta’s father in Accra telling him of the settlement.

With the news of Roberta’s fortune, Osei Opoku knew he had to tell Roberta her mother had been killed. To prepare her, he took his 13-year-old daughter to a psychiatrist in Accra, whom she saw twice a week for a month before learning the shocking news: Her mother had been dead for three years.

The child did not get upset with her father: “I was not mad at my daddy because I knew he wanted to protect me,” she said.

But she said she had always found the contents of the phony packages slightly suspicious: “I did not think those cotton dresses with sashes were from New York City.”

When her mother was alive, she sent Roberta jeans with rhinestone studs on the pockets, tennis shoes with check marks on them and T-shirts “of that lady in the crown with her hand up,” said the child.

With the settlement, which Small has doled out cautiously — about $7,500 a year — Roberta can afford everything her mother sent her and more.

Last year, she wrote Small and requested that $50,000 of her trust be given to her grandmother and family, in keeping with the traditions of Ghana.

From her letter: “It is very urgent that you help my grandmother with my money. … She is in her 70s and destitute and sick. Because she is attached to my heart, I cannot afford to lose her this early, after already losing my mother.”

Hoping to end the family acrimony and honor Roberta’s wish, Small transferred $25,000 of Roberta’s money to an Accra bank account, controlled by Roberta’s father. It was to be taken to the grandmother.

“I only received $15,000 of it, and I don’t know where the rest is,” the grandmother says.
How Opoku distributes Roberta’s money is up to him, Small says.

“But the story of Sophia Addo, which was classical tragedy, has become part soap opera.”

***

The lawyers in New York weren’t done.After securing the compensation money, they set their sights on another good deed: fulfilling Sophia’s dream of bringing Roberta to the United States. They hired an immigration attorney for Roberta.Richard Burke, Roberta’s immigration lawyer, went to Accra last year and met with the child, her father and a local immigration lawyer. The goal: to persuade U.S. consular officials in Ghana to give Roberta a U.S. visa.“The voice from the dead says, 'I want her here,’” said Burke.But just when everything seemed a go, Opoku applied the brakes. Like many Ghanaians, he reads “News About Ghanaians in New York” on the Web: “Ex-Con Kills Ghanaian Cab Driver” and “Ghanaian Killed by a Beer Truck” and “Visiting Student from Ghana Missing.”
Maybe sending Roberta over here may not be the best thing for her, he told Burke.

“She has no close family in America, and she is too young to be there without close family,” he said.

Undaunted and wanting Roberta here, Scott Small suggested that Roberta, who’s an excellent student, could be a boarder at a good Northeast prep school. Then, when she finished, thought Small, she could go to an Ivy League university.

But, again, Opoku said no. Roberta couldn’t go to boarding school in America unless he could accompany her.

“There is no way U.S. immigration will allow that,” Burke told Opoku.

“I believe the father has Roberta’s best interest at heart,” said Small. “But a very small, very cynical part of me has to ask: 'Is he afraid to lose the gravy train?’”

Ann Pincess-Berman, the lawyer who argued for Roberta’s compensation and won, calls the story of Sophia Addo “one friggin’ tragedy after another.”

“First she gets killed. Then the family argues over the money, and, now, her daughter can’t get here. What a travesty,” she says.

But Sophia’s cousin, Hilda Bromley, who has lived in both Ghana and the United States, says the plan for Roberta may work out yet.

Bromley, 59, who came to the United States in her early 20s, says she knows from experience how difficult it is for a young girl from a village in Ghana to adjust to life here, especially with no close family.

“Being 15 in Ghana is not like being 15 in New York,” says Bromley.

Better for the child to go to a good boarding school in Ghana and then come to a U.S. university in three years, she says.

“I would allow this plan,” says Roberta’s father.

“I respect whatever my daddy thinks is best,” says the child.

But, in three years, Roberta will still face the hurdle of getting a visa from the U.S. Consulate in Ghana, which rarely gives them out.

“She has no legal right to come, but I think in three years I can make a strong case for her,” said Burke.

***

In the meantime, the only child of Sophia Addo — great-great-granddaughter of the esteemed queen mother of Nsuta and former bathroom attendant at Windows on the World — goes to a private middle school in Accra and is hoping to get into Aburi, one of the country’s best boarding schools.On weekends, she wears what she calls “New York-style clothes” and talks on her state-of-the-art cell phone. At night, she sleeps in her very own bed, in a room with two half-sisters who share a bed.She dreams sometimes, she says, of a mother, who called her “baby” and died on the other side of the world.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 2, 2006, 23:34:22]


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