Koumba’s fight for justice began when she was raped at the age of 11 by a man from her father’s village. She was raped a second time four years later by a different man, and learned that she had been promised to this man in marriage.
Koumba suffered for a long time with the shame of the rape, but tried to establish a normal life. She may have been left in peace for a number of years afterwards, free from further rapes, but still remained “promised” to her rapist. She eventually attended university, earned her degree, and worked as a human resources professional for an insurance company. A decade passed and she fell in love with a man from her church and married him. Koumba put her past abuse behind her and built a happy new life with her husband.
In 2010, Koumba’s world was violently uprooted when the rapist to whom she had been promised passed away. He and his family had never forgotten the fact that Koumba had been promised to him. Now, upon the rapist’s death, his brother “inherited” Koumba. At his direction, members of the voodoo sect from his village kidnapped her. Koumba was forced to perform widow rituals, which included washing the dead man’s body and her own intimate parts with the same water and then spending the night lying next to the corpse. She knew she would get no help from the local police, so at the first opportunity she fled to another town.
Unfortunately, her safety was temporary. A few months later, she was kidnapped again. This time, the dead man’s brother kept her in a dark hut with her arms and legs tied to a bed and raped her every day. Once again she escaped, this time the night before their formal marriage ceremony was to take place. Because she knew that she could no longer live in Benin in safety, she gave up her career and everything she had worked for in her native land and fled to the U.S., where she was soon joined by her husband.
When she arrived in the United States, Koumba had few resources, but had found a new religious home at a local church. She sought advice from her fellow congregation members as she struggled to understand the asylum application process. Although her competence in English was weak, she was encouraged by church members to file for asylum without an attorney.
Without access to competent legal advice, Koumba was tricked into paying a fellow church member $500 for the application to apply for asylum, even though it was available online for free. She filled it out herself, but without information and assistance, her asylum application was returned three times due to errors and inadequacies—one time she hadn’t included the required number of photocopies and another time she had not checked the correct boxes. Eventually, still without representation, she attended her asylum interview. Koumba was unsuccessful and soon faced a referral to immigration court on Feb. 7, 2012.
Koumba fell into a deep depression, knowing that her case was no closer to resolution. She dreaded having to re-tell her story to the immigration court and re-live the trauma she had suffered.
On Sunday morning, Feb. 12, 2012, her fortunes finally changed.
Koumba stayed home from church that day because she was still so upset about her asylum case that she couldn’t bear to get out of bed. If her husband had stayed home with her instead of going to church on his own, he would not have learned that an attorney was coming to the church that day to talk about immigration issues for African women. He called Koumba excitedly and told her to come down to the church. Koumba arrived at the church, breathless, with all of her paperwork in hand, and consulted with staff members from Tahirih Justice Center.
Tahirih was able to persuade the asylum office that Koumba’s case had been denied due to a technicality and that she should be allowed a rare second interview, rather than be referred to court. The asylum office then asked the Department of Homeland Security’s trial attorney to terminate proceedings. Tahirih prepared Koumba’s asylum application at lightning speed and represented her at her second interview in April. Thankfully, empowered with competent representation, Koumba was granted asylum. After she received the good news that she now had legal standing to rebuild her life, she wrote and shared a poem in French, which translates as:
“The darkest hours of night sometimes precede the brightest days,
The morning of Sunday February 12, 2012 were the darkest hours of my night.
But suddenly the dark clouds parted a little and a little bit of light filtered through,
A very small ray of hope.
That light was a white dove,
An angel from the sky sent by God,
That little dove…”