Her body is a map that reveals a lifetime of torture.
Scars from multiple beatings are etched into her back, her legs, and her arms — from her hands to her forearms to her elbows.
From the moment of her birth, Camille’s religion set her apart from others in her tribe in Burkina Faso. Her parents were Catholic. They raised Camille to share their religion, but they did not protect her from life-threatening customs that prevailed in her community.
At age 7, Camille was sent to a hut in the woods. Inside, a villager cut her genitals with a rudimentary blade. She walked back to her village with blood streaming down her legs. At age 19, Camille was forced into marriage and had to leave behind her family and friends to live in her husband’s village.
Upon her arrival, her sister-in-law examined her genitals and declared that she must undergo another cutting. A few days later, a group of women attacked Camille, sitting on her stomach and pinning down her arms and legs as a second FGM was performed. A month later, Camille and her husband moved into the city.
Once the new couple was away from home, their relationship took a surprising turn; it flourished. Her husband broke away from the traditions of the men of his community. He refused to take a second wife, and he eventually converted to Catholicism for Camille. The birth of their first child — a girl — was difficult, likely as a result of complications from FGM, and Camille was in labor for three days. With an intimate understanding of the dangers of FGM and the support of her husband, Camille became a traveling nurse, educating people in rural villages about the life-threatening effects of FGM.
Camille’s career as a nurse, however, did little to prepare her for the sudden death of her husband. Doctors told her he died of a heart attack or stroke.
“My world died with him that day,” Camille recalls.
When Camille returned to her husband’s village for his funeral, his family forced her to undergo a humiliating ritual. They shaved her head and paraded her naked around the village while people beat her with sticks to exorcise the demons that they believed had killed her husband. According to the tribe’s tradition, Camille now belong to the family, like a piece of property passed from one person to next. The family demanded that Camille marry her late husband’s younger brother, in part so that he would inherit her husband’s money. Camille refused.
Her defiance enraged the brother and marked the beginning of a violent 12-year campaign against Camille and her children. The family sold her home in the city without her knowledge. Camille was forced to move. She sought help from her family and several governmental agencies, including the police, but no one was able to protect her.
The abuse, led by her husband’s brother, escalated. He stalked her at home and at work. On one occasion, he came into her house, grabbed her by the neck, and took out a knife. Camille’s youngest son tried to save her and was stabbed. Less than a year later, her tormenter attacked her with a stick outside the hospital where she worked, threatening to kill her with his bare hands.
Camille had two choices: escape or die.
“There was nowhere safe in my country for me,” she says. “I fought for 12 years, and I cannot fight any longer.”
Determined to create a new life for herself and children, Camille sought asylum in the United States. Tahirih Houston provided Camille with free legal and social services. Staff connected Camille with a pro bono attorney. The team tracked down Camille’s medical records, which documented her brutal abuse. They connected Camille with vital medical care, including medicine and eyeglasses that Camille had long needed.
After waiting 13 months for an interview with an asylum officer, Camille was finally granted asylum in early 2015.
Today, she looks forward to learning English and is excited to help her children, who are now adults, obtain safety and dignity in the United States.
“There are some cases that are difficult to close because we inevitably miss working with the client. Camille’s case is such a case. It is bittersweet,” reflected her Tahirih attorney.