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An Immigration Story


The Sandwidi family.

Questions by Mikenna Pierotti
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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When Teewende Sandwidi decided to leave his home in Burkina Faso — for good — it wasn’t a choice he made lightly. He grew up in a large family, with 21 siblings and strong community ties. But he felt he had no alternative. In his tribe, female genital mutilation, sometimes referred to as female castration, is a common cultural practice. After seeing his sisters and, later, his wife, Monique, go through the trauma, he knew he couldn’t stand by, especially after his wife gave birth to their first child — a girl, Danika. Although Sandwidi was able to secure a student visa to attend WVU as a graduate teaching assistant in the College of Education and Human Services teaching French, he and his family could only stay in the United States temporarily, and the thought of what might happen to his daughter back home haunted him. Then the family found the WVU College of Law Immigration Clinic. There, law students and attorneys quickly helped him and his family secure refuge. Mikenna Pierotti spoke with Sandwidi about his experience, what it was like to achieve asylum and permanent resident status, and his newfound hope for the future.

Tell me about your decision to leave Burkina Faso.

My wife and I had a daughter, and in my culture, when you have a daughter, it is difficult to abide by certain customs. In my ethnic group, we still practice female circumcision as a ritual or ceremony. I saw her mother go through the pain of losing a child and having difficulty with childbirth because of having gone through that trauma, and I did not want my daughter to have to go through that. The timing of the ritual varies. Sometimes it can be as early as 6 or 7 years old — up to 10. They usually do it in groups. For girls, the ritual is usually performed at home. When my daughter was three or four, I knew it was going to come soon. Every time I was informed that there would be a ceremony, my wife would take our daughter on a trip to keep her away. That was how we avoided it for a while. Some time after I came to WVU as a teaching assistant and graduate student, I got a call from home. My daughter was in tears crying. She wanted to see me. I knew I was planning to go for my PhD, which would keep me away for years. So I told a friend at WVU about our situation, about our customs. He told me about the WVU Law Clinic.

So you took your family out of Burkina Faso and brought them to Morgantown. Can you describe the process you and your family went through at the clinic? I understand it took over a year. 

We first got to meet with [Visiting Professor of Law] Michael Blumenthal, and he assigned several students to help us. Three of them immediately began helping us write the story of our lives — after just our first interview. Every time we met, they asked for more details, more precision. Every time they needed to know more so they could complete the applications. They also traveled with my wife and helped her through her interview with immigration officers in Washington, D.C. We weren’t treated as clients, but as members of their families. From the professor to the students. They never hesitated to offer their assistance, even outside the clinic. Professor Blumenthal would pay us visits, take us to restaurants — he became like a father to us. 

What was it like hearing you’d finally obtained your green cards? 

It is so very difficult for most people to come to America unless they have a very specific reason, such as coming in as a student. So when we found out we could stay, I felt such relief. It was like a weight had been lifted. When you’re in this process, it’s like carrying a constant heavy load and then someone just takes it off your shoulders and you can breathe. I don’t have the words to thank them for everything they did. They changed our lives.

We asked then clinic director Michael Blumenthal to give thoughts on the case:

They came to the clinic. They simply made an appointment and came. He was teaching as a graduate assistant, and his wife and daughter had come to the U.S. They wanted to know if we could help them stay. They told us their story and what goes on [in their village in Burkina Faso), and we immediately wanted to help them. Luckily we were able to.

They had a good case and a really moving story. His wife, at the time, didn’t speak that much English. She had to have an interview with an immigration officer in Washington, so a couple of our students went with her to help.

They built a strong case and strong documentation. It was compelling. But I don’t know, under the present climate, what would have happened. Nothing seems like it is going to be simple now.

The climate is really, really changing. Everyone is more fearful. They are doing more checks and putting people through a lot more hoops. People are much more scared and frightened to take chances.

It was a great experience for the students involved with the case. They really liked the family as people, and they were totally into their case. One of the students was an African-American woman, and she is still in touch with them. Two of the other students are, too. [The Sandwidis] invited us to their house, and they became almost like family to my wife and I. We became so close with them.

You don’t always get cases like this. I know they will do something great here.