New York Times Neediest Cases

Harassed in Guinea, Homeless in New York and Happy to Be Together - New York Times

When a friend of Mariama Koulibaley’s told her about a man who had just graduated from a university in their native Guinea though legally blind and deaf, she was intrigued.

She met Mamadou Drame in 2010, and was smitten by his charm and the strength she saw in his self-sufficiency. She was impressed by how passionately he spoke about the need for women’s rights in Guinea.

“People said: ‘You are a beautiful woman. Why are you choosing to marry a blind and deaf man?’” Ms. Koulibaley said during an interview in the Bronx. “But I made the right decision.”

In that regard Ms. Koulibaley, 33, remains steadfast, despite the poverty and displacement she has endured as his wife over the last five years.

Mr. Drame, 34, said he was a public figure in Guinea, a human-rights activist who was regularly interviewed on the radio and television about the discrimination faced by women and people with disabilities.

“In Guinea, if you’re an activist, you’re considered to be against the government; you become a target,” he said, in his native French.

In July 2013, he was invited to speak at a United Nations conference in New York about improving the lives of disabled people in West Africa. Ms. Koulibaley stayed behind in Guinea with the couple’s biological daughter, Aissata Drame, then 18 months old; the daughter they had adopted together, Fatou Bobo Barry, who was 5; and the teenage son Mr. Drame had adopted before they were married, Lansana Diaby.

While Mr. Drame was away, an unsigned note was pushed under the family’s door. It warned that if he returned to Guinea he would be killed, the couple said.

Knowing he could not go home, Mr. Drame went to a mosque in Brooklyn to pray, accompanied by a guide who had traveled with him to help him navigate in New York. The guide vanished, leaving Mr. Drame, who did not speak English and knew no one, alone in the mosque.

After about three hours, Mr. Drame said, a Guinean man offered to help. The man gave him a place to sleep and, through friends, connected him to Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

Mr. Drame said he stayed in the man’s apartment for 20 months, and he gained political asylum. He also had a series of operations that allowed him to hear for the first time, thanks to the Program for Survivors of Torture, sponsored by New York University School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital Center.

“I was so happy, I couldn’t stop smiling,” he said.

His wife said with a laugh: “He gets mad at me sometimes. I still shout at him out of habit, even though he can hear me now.”

In March 2015, after 20 months spent apart from Mr. Drame, Ms. Koulibaley and the three children flew to New York, with help from Catholic Charities. The family moved into a homeless shelter in the Bronx called Gloria’s House.

In July, Mr. Drame got a job handing out amNewYork newspapers at 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue. As the seasons changed, standing in the cold threatened to damage his ears, he said, and he quit in October.

The family receives monthly $460 each from Supplemental Security Income, public assistance and food stamps.

Mr. Drame’s English is improving rapidly, but being legally blind makes finding work difficult. Through Catholic Charities he has enrolled in a career preparation course and attends weekly computer and English-language classes at the organization’s offices.

He remains in close contact with activists in West Africa, mentoring them by phone. In October, Catholic Charities used $150 from the Neediest Cases Fund to pay the family’s monthly cellphone bill.

Mr. Drame talks passionately about injustices done to young women forced into marriage in West Africa. He hopes one day to study international law at an American university and to continue his advocacy work.

The two older children, who are learning English with relative ease, attend public schools.

“It’s hard to keep up with the pace here; everything moves at a much faster pace than in Africa,” Lansana, 17, said. “I’m getting used to it, little by little.”

Ms. Koulibaley is pregnant with a boy, who is due in January. She does not leave the shelter much because she lacks a support or social network outside her family in the city, and she is often sick because of her pregnancy. Despite its current hardships, she is just happy to have the family back together.

“Being with my husband changes everything,” she said. “Without him, it is all very difficult.”

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