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Family together once more

Separated by thousands of miles, a woman wait ed four years to be reunited with her husband and four children. Now the wait is over.

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published November 24, 2006


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TAMPA - For four long years, Florence Akiti spent her nights gazing at pictures and worrying about her family thousands of miles away.

She fled her home in the politically unstable West African Republic of Togo in 2002 to protect the safety of her husband and four young children. But her new life in the United States couldn't really begin without them by her side.

So Akiti began the long process of petitioning for their asylum. There was a seemingly endless mountain of paperwork to complete. Success was never guaranteed.

But late Wednesday night, after months of prayers, Akiti's dream finally came true. She hardly believed it was real until she saw her family walking toward her at Tampa International Airport.

Reunited at last, Akiti and her family spent their first Thanksgiving in their adopted country with something to truly celebrate.

"I am so happy," said Akiti, 39. "Finally, my family is here. God is good."

In Togo, Akiti owned a hair salon. She was also active in a political party that opposed the government.

Outspoken and passionate in her beliefs, she tried to convert others to her cause. She aroused the attention of the police, who would frequently beat her. Once, she was so brutally beaten she spent three weeks in a hospital drifting in and out of consciousness.

Akiti refused to back down and was thrown in prison where she was tortured and raped. Her husband, Robert, also was imprisoned.

When police beat her 14-year-old son, Pascal, so badly he suffered several broken bones, Akiti knew it was time to escape.

Akiti landed in Chicago but soon moved to Florida in search of a warmer climate. Once in Tampa, she was befriended by representatives from Clearwater's Florida Center for Victims of Torture.

The center, a branch of Gulf Coast Jewish Services, helped Akiti find a home and a job. Staffers also linked Akiti with other services, including English lessons and psychological counseling.

"There are cultural issues, there are language issues and there are issues from being tortured," said Niki Kelly, the center's program director. "Trauma is one thing, but torture is something completely different. You lose your faith in humanity."

At last, good news

With assistance from Lutheran Services Florida, Akiti applied for political asylum in the United States. Once that was granted, she focused on her family.

By then, Akiti had a job as a janitor at the Hard Rock Casino, and she began to save money for their plane tickets from Togo. She scraped together $2,500. An additional $2,500 was provided through donations.

Reuniting refugees with their loved ones is tricky, Kelly said. There are lots of rules, and coordinating with a foreign country can be difficult. Even under the best of circumstances, it's easy for something to go awry, she said.

So when word came Akiti's family would be coming to the United States, staffers from the center couldn't help but cheer.

"It's so exciting for everyone," Kelly said. "This has been the best news we've had in quite a while."

First Thanksgiving

After a brief sleep, the family - 18-year-old Pascal, 15-year-old Chiguita, 13-year-old Chimene and 8-year-old Chimia - attended services at St. John's Lutheran Church Thursday morning.

Akiti said she planned to spend most of the day driving her family around Tampa to show them the area.

While relaxing at home around noon, an unexpected visitor arrived: Norbel Charley, a friend of Akiti's and a refugee from Cameroon who arrived in the United States in 2003.

Like Akiti, Charley was separated from his family for three years while trying to arrange their asylum.

"It's very difficult to be away from your family for a long time," Charley said. "The excitement level when they arrive is so great, it's hard to express in words."

As the children stacked cans of vegetables and tins of cocoa in the kitchen cupboards, Akiti and her husband snuggled next to each other on the couch.

"I am so happy today," said Robert Akiti, 38, a teacher. "I am finally with my whole family."

His wife whispered in his ear and the couple laughed.

"She said she wants another baby as soon as possible," Robert Akiti said. "I told her, 'God willing.' "

Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.

[Last modified November 24, 2006, 01:00:01]


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