When Teewende Sandwidi decided to
leave his home in Burkina Faso — for good — it wasn’t a
choice he made lightly. He grew up in a large family, with
21 siblings and strong community ties. But he felt he had
no alternative. In his tribe, female genital mutilation,
sometimes referred to as female castration, is a common
cultural practice. After seeing his sisters and, later,
his wife, Monique, go through the trauma, he knew he
couldn’t stand by, especially after his wife gave birth to
their first child — a girl, Danika.
Although Sandwidi was able to secure a student
visa to attend WVU as a graduate teaching assistant in
the College of Education and Human Services teaching
French, he and his family could only stay in the United
States temporarily, and the thought of what might happen
to his daughter back home haunted him.
Then the family found the WVU College of Law
Immigration Clinic. There, law students and attorneys
quickly helped him and his family secure refuge. Mikenna Pierotti spoke with Sandwidi about his experience, what it was
like to achieve asylum and permanent resident status, and
his newfound hope for the future.
QTell me about your decision to leave Burkina Faso.
AMy wife and I had a daughter, and in my culture, when you have a daughter, it is
difficult to abide by certain customs. In my ethnic group, we still practice female
circumcision as a ritual or ceremony. I saw her mother go through the pain of losing
a child and having difficulty with childbirth because of having gone through that
trauma, and I did not want my daughter to have to go through that. The timing of the ritual varies. Sometimes it can be as early as 6 or 7 years old
— up to 10. They usually do it in groups. For girls, the ritual is usually performed
at home. When my daughter was three or four, I knew it was going to come soon.
Every time I was informed that there would be a ceremony, my wife would take our
daughter on a trip to keep her away. That was how we avoided it for a while. Some time after I came to WVU as a teaching assistant and graduate student, I got
a call from home. My daughter was in tears crying. She wanted to see me. I knew
I was planning to go for my PhD, which would keep me away for years. So I told
a friend at WVU about our situation, about our customs. He told me about the WVU
So you took your family out of Burkina Faso and brought them to Morgantown. Can you
describe the process you and your family went through at the clinic? I understand
it took over a year.
We first got to meet with [Visiting Professor of Law] Michael Blumenthal, and he
assigned several students to help us. Three of them immediately began helping us
write the story of our lives — after just our first interview. Every time we met,
they asked for more details, more precision. Every time they needed to know more
so they could complete the applications. They also traveled with my wife and helped
her through her interview with immigration officers in Washington, D.C. We weren’t
treated as clients, but as members of their families. From the professor to the
students. They never hesitated to offer their assistance, even outside the clinic.
Professor Blumenthal would pay us visits, take us to restaurants — he became like
a father to us.
What was it like hearing you’d finally obtained your green cards?
It is so very difficult for most people to come to America unless they have a very
specific reason, such as coming in as a student. So when we found out we could
stay, I felt such relief. It was like a weight had been lifted. When you’re in
this process, it’s like carrying a constant heavy load and then someone just takes
it off your shoulders and you can breathe. I don’t have the words to thank them
for everything they did. They changed our lives.
We asked then clinic director Michael Blumenthal to give thoughts on the case:
They came to the clinic. They simply made an appointment and came. He
was teaching as a graduate assistant, and his wife and daughter had come to the
U.S. They wanted to know if we could help them stay. They told us their story
and what goes on [in their village in Burkina Faso), and we immediately wanted
to help them. Luckily we were able to.
They had a good case and a really moving story. His wife, at the time,
didn’t speak that much English. She had to have an interview with an immigration
officer in Washington, so a couple of our students went with her to help.
They built a strong case and strong documentation. It was compelling.
But I don’t know, under the present climate, what would have happened. Nothing
seems like it is going to be simple now.
The climate is really, really changing.
Everyone is more fearful.
They are doing more checks and putting people through a lot more hoops. People
are much more scared and frightened to take chances.
It was a great experience for the students involved with the case. They
really liked the family as people, and they were totally into their case. One
of the students was an African-American woman, and she is still in touch with
them. Two of the other students are, too. [The Sandwidis] invited us to their
house, and they became almost like family to my wife and I. We became so close
You don’t always get cases like this. I know they will do something great here.
The Sandwidi family
is happily settled in Pennsylvania today. Monique
is studying to become a nurse, Danika is attending school and they
welcomed their second child into the world — a boy. Read a Q&A with
Michael Blumenthal at our website or learn more about the WVU
Immigration Law Clinic at go.wvu.edu/immigration
. (Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.)
We’re listening. You are our greatest voice. So use it. Use this form
to send us story ideas, letters to the editor, questions for a
future guest on Ask an Expert, memories for the Flashback section or tales for the
Ask an Expert Archive
An Immigration Story
Teewende Sandwidi wanted to protect his daughter from female genital mutilation. He found help from the WVU College of Law Immigration Clinic.
Greg Dahle puts dollar values on West Virginia's urban forests.
Election Law 101
Law professor Atiba Ellis explains how voting rights laws surprisingly have something in common with Monty Python.
Guns, Drugs and Science
Firing pistols and burning drugs. That's another day at the office for WVU Chemistry Professor Suzanne Bell.
Humans and Computers
For Saiph Savage, the intersection of humans and computers is as much an exploration of sociology and psychology as it is numbers and data.
Bob Tallaksen teaches students to study human lungs and hearts via X-ray, CT scan and MRI. In his spare time, he studies other images, namely handwriting from the medieval period to the Renaissance.
No Fear of Physics
Physicist Alan Bristow answers our pressing questions on the future of technology and tells why we shouldn’t be scared of physics.
The Evolution of Digital Publishing
Cheryl Ball says people panned the move of book publishing from monasteries just like they’re challenging digital media. Read how she’s making information more open to the public.
'The Simpsons' and Economics
Economics professor Joshua Hall uses one of TV's most recognizable shows to teach economics. Who is this band of helpers? The Simpsons.
Michael McCawley has been in the public health trenches from the fiery oil fields of Kuwait to the aftermath of the Mount St. Helens eruption. Right now, he's got some ideas about how to avoid water crises like the one in Flint, Mich.