His flight halfway across the world finally over, a bleary-eyed 9-year-old loped through a Delta Air Lines gate Saturday, heard a familiar voice and froze.
"Hey, Ramzi ... "
The boy fell into his father's arms and didn't let go.
Six years after Alassani Ouro-Akondo arrived in America from the western African nation of Togo anguished over his decision to leave Ramzi, his youngest son, behind, his family was finally whole.
Ramzi's reunion with his parents and five siblings at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was more than a long-awaited happy ending for Alassani, 46, a soft-spoken janitor at the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis known to his co-workers as Al. It was also the result of hard work by a team of courthouse regulars who worked for more than a year to clear complicated bureaucratic and legal hurdles to bring the boy to Minnesota.
"It's an exciting day," Alassani said, laughing and clutching his twin daughters Samira and Amira as Ramzi bear-hugged his mother, Nafissatou. "I'm so full of joy now."
Six years ago, Alassani applied for a visa to bring his family to the United States. A passport photo of Ramzi was somehow lost in transit. When Alassani found he had won the visa lottery, an official at the U.S. Consulate in Togo warned him not to say anything about the boy or the whole family would be denied entry.
He told his wife the news.
"It took us a long time to make the decision to leave him out," he said, dropping his head to hide his tears. "It's still very, very hard. I can remember that day."
The family, minus Ramzi, went to an interview with U.S. immigration officials, and in sworn statements acted as if the boy didn't exist. They were approved for green cards.
Alassani came to Minnesota in 2005. Two months later, Nafissatou and their two oldest children joined him. They left Ramzi in the care of an aunt. "When they arrived, I asked [Nafissatou], 'How did you do it, how did you leave him?'" he asked. "She couldn't say goodbye. She didn't want him to know."
Shortly after arriving on U.S. soil, Alassani went to see a lawyer about bringing his son over. He was told that because he lied during the hearing, he not only could not bring his son here, but he might even be deported.
Years passed. He got the job at the Government Center. He and his wife had three more children. He started school at the Minnesota School of Business, where he studies digital media. Occasionally, he asked for help for his son. He was repeatedly told that nothing could be done.
A 'Sophie's Choice' moment
It was more than a year ago when Alassani shared his dilemma with Mary Kay Long, a now-retired information desk clerk at the Government Center. She spread the word to a few others until it reached Sanjee Weliwitigoda, then a law clerk with the immigration department at Fredrikson & Byron, a firm that takes on a number of pro-bono immigration cases each year.
Weliwitigoda told the department's head, Laura Danielson, and they took on the case at no charge. Their first step, Weliwitigoda said, was for Alassani to apply for U.S. citizenship so he could sponsor his son to bring him to the United States. Even that brought an inherent risk of deportation.
Alassani was scared, but appeared at his citizenship interview fully prepared. After he breezed through his exam, he and his attorneys told immigration officials about Ramzi. The decision rested entirely in the hands of the immigration officer, Danielson said.
"It was like that 'Sophie's Choice' moment for him, to decide whether to give it all up for everyone or to go without their baby, and because of the conditions in their lives, they had to make that terrible choice," Danielson said, referring to William Styron's story of a mother forced to choose between her children in a Nazi concentration camp. "There really has to be some kind of intent to defraud when there's fraud, and in this case, I think the immigration service felt he's paid enough."
Alassani's citizenship was approved. Ramzi was granted a visa in December.
On Friday, he and an escort boarded a plane.
'How the world should be'
At the airport, Ramzi took in his family with amazement. He hoisted his young sister in the air and laughed as his 5-year-old brother Abdul bolted for an escalator as his uncles gave frantic chase. His older brother, Faydane, 12, handed him a picture he'd drawn of the Statute of Liberty. His oldest sister, Oubeida, 14, stood back and smiled.
Ramzi doesn't speak English, but early next week, his family plans to enroll him in school. Assimilation shouldn't be a problem, his family members said, what with so many siblings to coach him.
"Six years!" Nafissatou exclaimed, wrapping her son in another hug. "He's so much bigger!"
On Saturday night, the party room in the family's south Minneapolis apartment building buzzed. Attorneys, judges and courthouse staffers mingled with Alassani's family and friends over a feast of African food.
Long, the retired court information clerk, beamed. To witness such joy, she said, was indescribable. "It's deeper than joy," she said. "It's about relationships and the meaningful way we treat each other through the little things we can do. It's about wanting the best for others."
"This," she said, gesturing to the room, "is exactly how the world should be."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921