Bangkok, 29 March 2011 – Anyone looking at Zena would want to be friends with her. With a background in law and language, she radiates self-confidence and has a magnetic warmth. Her fun, youthful style could easily be misinterpreted as carefree.
But Zena is anything but carefree. Seven months ago, she started her life over from scratch in Bangkok.
Facing execution or life imprisonment for fabricated political associations, she fled her homeland of Ethiopia for Thailand, without a word to anyone. She had visited years before and felt that she could be safe here while seeking resettlement as a refugee.
Luckier than most asylum seekers, Zena is able to teach English. Because of years of experience teaching at a language school in Ethiopia, she was able to support herself as soon as she arrived.
“I got lucky. There was a language school next to the hotel… They just hired me. That was really wonderful,” she said.
But then Zena’s health started to fail.“I started being sick here, I was vomiting in the morning, swollen legs, my whole stomach aches all the time. I thought it was the change of weather.”
After spending all her savings on medical tests — which revealed nothing out of the ordinary — Zena was shocked to find out she was four months pregnant. It came to her then, a memory she was trying to forget.
“Everything just came to me like a flash,” said Zena, (who won’t discuss the father) “I ran a home pregnancy test and it was positive. I took it more than 20 times, thinking that it would be a dream.”
Zena was absent from her job for three days as she tried to come to grips with her situation. She considered having an abortion.
“Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t think of doing that, but this is a very scary thing,” she said. “I cannot have a child by myself… I hated everything about it. It was crazy.”
After discovering abortion was not legal in Thailand, she considered giving her child up for adoption, but giving up a child for adoption is almost impossible for a foreigner.
Although discouraged, Zena was determined to overcome her problems and focus on daily survival. But when she returned to her job, she found that she had been fired for missing work.
Her employer was processing a work permit for her, which was canceled. Without the money needed to renew her visa to stay in Thailand, or even to pay for the next month’s rent, Zena sank into despair.
“I wanted to kill myself. God knows how many times I looked down from the balcony of my apartment, but I couldn’t get the courage,” she said. She started thinking about her life and how it should have been, and how she must find the strength to give a better life to her baby.
She found a second job teaching in Northern Thailand but was unable to hold onto it because of her deteriorating health. As her pregnancy progressed, the pain from the swelling in her legs worsened daily. Debilitating headaches, meanwhile, started to blur her vision. Forced to return to Bangkok empty-handed, Zena finally asked for help and a local NGO found her a place to stay in a shelter for a short time.
After exhausting all other options, Zena braced herself for giving birth alone in a foreign hospital and having a baby to take care of without help or any source of income. She hoped that after the baby was born, both would be recognized refugees and could receive a stipend from UNHCR and be resettled to a western country.
Due to the volume of cases in Thailand, (over 2,000 asylum seekers at any given time), the waiting period for UNHCR to determine someone as a refugee can be anywhere from three months to a year or more.
Zena’s pregnancy was considered ‘high-risk’ because of her health problems, and she was admitted into the hospital on bed rest. Ten days later, her complications forced her to have an emergency cesarean section. The baby was rushed to the infant intensive care unit due to excessive vomiting and Zena didn’t see her baby for three days.
Her maternal instincts overcame her and she demanded to see her baby girl, Johanna.
At first sight a flood of love washed over her. “There she was in the incubator, she looked so beautiful… I even regretted that I thought about giving her up. I just wanted to keep her to myself,” she said.
Seeing her for the first time, in an incubator with an IV taped to her head and a tube in her mouth leading to her stomach, she was desperate to care for her “precious gift from God,” which is the Hebrew translation of Johanna’s name.
Zena was discharged from the hospital with her daughter, in a stable condition, 15 days after birth. JRS found Zena an apartment with other asylum-seeking women with children and provided her with the first month’s rent and supplies for her baby.
Zena will get back on her feet and do the best she can while she awaits resettlement to another country because Johanna has inspired hope in her life.
An overwhelming experience by anyone’s standards, and the added insecurity of the future, and not even a familiar culture to fall back on, Zena was still able to summon strength.
“I have no family, and no friends here but if I have a life, life should go on. I have to have a family, so the family starts from me,” she said.
* names changed to protect the identity