Between Everything and Nothing: The Journey of Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal and the Quest for Asylum

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‘Between Everything and Nothing’: Featured Nonfiction from Joe Meno


In today’s installment of featured nonfiction—curated by none other than our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Joe Meno’s Between Everything and Nothing: The Journey of Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal and the Quest for Asylum.

The book, which follows two Ghanaian refugees, 24-year-old Seidu Mohammed and 32-year-old Razak Iyal, in their quest for political asylum, received a starred review from Kirkus, which called the book and “Ambitious exposé of the troubled immigration system” and “A well-paced and engaging account, highly relevant…”

Month after month went by at the Eloy detention facility with Razak wondering when he would finally face the immigration judge and be freed. After the attempt on his life by thugs hired by a corrupt member of parliament and his half-siblings, he had fled Ghana for Brazil, had crossed border after border on foot and by bus, and survived being robbed of his birth certificate, passport, and other documents. But nothing prepared him for this endless waiting.

Finally, after eight months of detention, Razak stood at his third hearing before the same judge who, having reviewed Razak’s documents, stated he needed to see evidence of the threats against Razak’s life before he was able to make a ruling. “Please prepare any and all evidence that you have,” the judge ordered. 

Razak felt despondent and decided to speak directly to the judge in English. “I can’t make long-distance calls back home. The calling cards only give you two minutes. I can’t use the internet. What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to get evidence?” 

“I understand your concerns but I need proof that what you claim in these documents actually happened. If you get me the proof, then we can figure out how to proceed. You have one month to show me some kind of evidence.” 

After the hearing, Razak tried to contact the immigration lawyer he had spoken with but got no response. He spoke with other detainees; all of them were facing the same impossibility. None of them had any answer on how to attain evidence while being held inside a detainment facility. 

Because there was no newspaper article or specific police report documenting Razak’s assault, because he could not materialize demonstrable proof of the corruption of the local police and the involvement of the member of parliament in his family’s inheritance of land, he had no way to proceed. If he had been given access to the internet, there would have been a trove of newspaper articles about Parliament Member Mustapha’s predilection for corruption, and criticism by members of his own political party.

If he had been allowed long-distance phone calls back to Africa, he could have gathered testimonies from witnesses—his mother and aunt and fiancee Cynthia or the local Islamic elders. He could have asked for their help in gathering documentation from Accra, such as his hospital records.

But without any basic privileges and lacking the support of an attorney, Razak could see no way to supply evidence for his claim.

By then he had only two weeks left before meeting with the judge again. He called his uncle Malik in New York and explained the situation.

“Would you be willing to write a letter on my behalf?”

As it turned out, Malik had gone back to Ghana in 2014 and spent three weeks there. During that time Malik learned what had occurred between Razak and his half-siblings.

His uncle agreed to write a letter explaining the complications of Razak’s case, arguing that if Razak was sent back to Ghana his life would be in danger. He then had it notarized and mailed it on to Razak in Arizona. Razak had the letter sent to the judge. In the meantime, Razak’s uncle had contacted Razak’s mother, who wrote a letter of her own, describing what happened, which was sent to the judge as well.

During his fifth and final hearing on August 1, 2014, nearly one year after arriving in the United States, Razak stood before the immigration judge and was deeply disturbed to hear his asylum had been denied. 

“You have failed to produce any necessary evidence.”

“But my uncle sent a letter explaining everything.”

“All you’d been able to show are letters from your relatives. We need actual evidence to decide your case. I’m sorry, but there’s just not enough evidence to continue. You don’t have an attorney, so we’re going to have to deny your case.”

One year after presenting himself at the border, after one year of being incarcerated, the judge formally denied Razak’s asylum plea. Razak was furious.

“How can you keep me here for one year and then deny my case? You want to send me back home? Why didn’t you send me back home from the beginning? You let me waste my life here for one year!”

The judge slowly removed his glasses and looked over at him. “Would you like to appeal my decision?”

“How long does the appeal take?”

“It’s nine months before a decision is reached. But you’d have to stay here during that time.”

Razak did not need to think about it for a single second. “No.”

“If you say no, then you will be deported back to Ghana. The deportation order will be final.”

Razak lowered his head and with a deep sense of grief and frustration, said, “I understand.”

The judge put his glasses back on and said, “We will send all the necessary documents on to your deportation officer.”

Razak was led back to his unit, where the walls themselves seem to crumble beneath the wave of anger he was feeling.

One week later, Razak’s asylum officer appeared with a number of documents for him to sign. Razak looked over the paperwork and said, “I’m not going to sign anything.”

“If you don’t sign, they’re going to keep you here a long time. You better sign it, then we can go from there.” 

“If I don’t sign it, how long will I be here?”

“I don’t know. A long time.”

Razak eventually conceded and signed the papers, accepting the ruling of the immigration judge, giving up his right for appeal. His bond was also immediately canceled.

“We’re going to send all of these documents to the Ghanaian consulate in D.C. It’ll take a few weeks. We’ll see what the consulate says.”

One month later, at the beginning of September 2014, Razak was called in by ICE officers for an interview with his consulate on the phone. On the telephone, a woman at the embassy asked Razak several questions first in English, then in Twi, an Akan dialect spoken in Ghana.

How are they treating you over there?

I’m doing okay.

Did you get an attorney?


What did you have when you came into the United States? Your birth certificate? Your passport? Your ID from Ghana?

No, all of that was stolen from me in Mexico.

What do you have to prove you’re from Ghana?

I was born in Rich hospital in Accra.

Anybody can say that.

I grew up in Ghana, I went to school at Kanda Estate.

Okay, I can check on that. You’ll hear from us. Can I please talk to the officer?

Razak handed the phone back to the ICE officer and listened carefully to the officer’s responses. The Ghanaian embassy needed to verify Razak’s identity in order to issue travel documents. Without the travel documents, the U.S. could not deport him. But Razak had no faith in either institution. From the officer’s expressions, there was no way to know how much longer he would be detained.

By then something had shifted. Razak’s frustration at having lost his asylum case turned to a disquieting sense of disbelief. Although his plea had been denied months before, he was still unable to be released. His dream of staying in the U.S. was now superseded by the much more pressing reality of needing to escape the detention facility, of returning to some version of life, even if it meant facing a grave, mortal threat from his siblings and the unfair political system back home.

But there was no end in sight, no sign of reprieve, only more days, pacing the halls at Eloy.

One day Razak spoke with his asylum officer who—also frustrated by the lack of response from the Ghanaian embassy in Washington D.C.—asked Razak to write a letter to the Ghanian consulates in D.C., New York City, and Houston, in order to verify his identity so that he could be released. Razak wrote three letters, knowing that by doing so, he would be deported and returned to a corrupt political system and the certain danger he had already faced back home. 

In his cell, Razak came to the conclusion that he let everyone down, his fiancée, his mother, his family, that he had been removed from them for so long. He had been unable to start a new life in a new country, could not find a way to support them, or even hear their voice. It would be better to face whatever he had too face in Ghana than to go on, separated from them, detained at Eloy for another year, another month, another day.

One of his back teeth began to hurt a few weeks later. A medical staffer inspected Razak’s tooth and decided it would have to be pulled. In order to receive proper dental care, he would have to be sent out of the detention facility to a county hospital nearby.

In the morning an ICE officer called his name and brought him to a separate room, where they instructed him to put on an orange jumpsuit—the uniform convicted criminals wore in the facility.

“Why do I have to put this on?”

“We’re taking you out of the prison.”

“But I already have my green uniform.”

“Listen, I’m just doing my job. Just do what I ask you to do.”

“I’m not going to wear that.”

“If you don’t put it on, you’re not going to the hospital.”

Razak stared at the jumpsuit again and said, “Then I’m not going.” The ICE officer nodded grimly and then brought Razak back to his unit.

Later that same day, another ICE officer found Razak and told him the van had arrived to take him to the medical facility.

“The van is here. You need to put on that uniform.”

“Why are you making me wear that uniform? Why do you want people to look at me like I’m some kind of criminal?”

“No, you’re going right to the hospital. You’re not walking around the city.”

The pain in his tooth was unrelenting. He looked at the uniform and, against his better judgment, put it on. Once he was dressed, the officers bound him in chains, handcuffing his wrists to his waist and putting manacles on his ankles. It was worse than he had imagined. It took three officers to lead Razak into the modest county hospital. Two of the officers carried rifles. Razak entered the waiting room, having difficulty walking with the chains about his ankles. Everyone looked up and began to gawk—adults, children, the elderly—while some moved away, a look of pure terror crossing their face. Deeply ashamed, Razak lowered his head, afraid to make eye contact with anyone.

In the dentist’s examination room, Razak was led to a reclining seat. The officers waited uncomfortably in chairs like exhausted parents. Finally the dentist appeared, looked at Razak, and asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m from Ghana. I’m here for asylum.”

“And how are you finding our country?”

Razak frowned and the officers gave the dentist a look of discouragement. Even here, in this small, unseen place, in this most common and mundane of human moments, he would not be allowed to be treated like a person, to engage in a basic, civil conversation. The dentist began his examination and eventually concurred that Razak’s tooth would need to be removed.

The dentist turned to one of the officers and asked, “I need to remove this man’s tooth. Can you unlock his handcuffs please?”

The officer glanced at his partner and then shook his head. “I’m sorry. That’s against protocol.”

“Really?” the dentist asked.

“I’m sorry,” the officer responded. 

Razak shook his head.

The tooth would have to come out with Razak bound in the chair like a victim of some outdated torture.

Later, after the procedure, Razak asked to use the bathroom. One of the ICE officers escorted him to the lavatory.

One day at the library, Razak met another asylum seeker who asked how long he had been detained.

“For more than a year and a half.”

“You’re here for asylum?”


The other man studied him for a moment and said, “You know, there’s an organization called the Florence Project. They help refugees get released.”

“How can I talk to them?”

“I have a number and address. I can give them to you.”

The man opened his bag and gave the phone number and an address with a name. Benjamin Harville. “Write to Benjamin or call him. Here.” Reaching into his bag again, the other man produced a stamp—which at the moment seemed like a small, magical thing—and handed it to Razak.

Razak wrote furiously, explaining his case and how he had been in detention for more than a year. He sent it to the Florence Project, a not-for-profit agency that provided legal aid and social services for detained migrants throughout Arizona. After a week, he received a response saying someone from the organization was planning to come to visit him on December 15, 2014.

Benjamin Harville, a tall young man in his early thirties who was a staff attorney for the Florence Project, arrived with a legal assistant and asked to look over Razak’s documents. Benjamin went through his asylum application, looked over his other paperwork, and then asked, “Do you know that they’ve violated your rights?”


“The Department of Homeland Security has violated your rights.”

“How did they do that?”

“If you lose your asylum case, they have three months to coordinate with your embassy to deport you. If they are unable to produce the necessary documents, they have another three months to comply or they have to release you. But they’re still keeping you here.”

Razak sat at the table, stunned. He felt a jolt of shock and relief overcome him. 

“You know what, Razak? We’re going to write a letter to the District Court of Arizona. We’re going to send a copy to you. We’re going to send one to the warden, and we’re going to send a copy to your deportation officer. These people are violating your rights. Do you understand?”

Razak nodded.

“It might take a week or two, but we’re going to file these documents and send it to you.”

“No problem. I can wait.”

“Usually you have to pay to submit these documents to the court, but we’re going to pay it for you. We’ll send you the receipt that it’s been paid.”

One year and nine months after first being detained at Eloy, Razak received a receipt saying the letter had been received by the District Court of Arizona, along with a copy of the petition. The petition challenged Jon Gurule, the warden of the Eloy facility, for Razak’s immediate release based on the U.S. Supreme Court case Zadvydas v. Davis, 533 U.S. 678 (2001), which successfully argued that aliens with a final order of removal could not be detained beyond a 180-day period unless the alien’s removal was significantly likely to occur in the foreseeable future.

One week after that, the court replied, asking Razak’s asylum officer why he was still being detained, and giving ICE twenty days to comply with his release.

The asylum officer approached Razak in his cell, asking, “What are you trying to do? Are you trying to mess with my job?”

“Why are you keeping me here?”

“You should have talked to me before you went to them,” the officer complained.

“Why do I have to talk to you? I did everything you asked me to do. Now I’m doing everything I can to get out of here.”

The warden of Eloy invited Razak into his office. Uneasily, Razak he sat down across from the desk as the warden announced, “The court has already issued its response, so you have to be patient. They’re working to get you released.”

“I want to go back. I’d rather go back to Ghana then be here any longer.”

Days later Razak found out that Fred, who was also from Ghana and who had also lost his asylum plea, had written to the District Court of Arizona and had successfully petitioned for his release. 

A few weeks later, Razak was sitting in the common room watching the news when a correction officer named Peterson told him he had a visitor. 

“It’s someone from USCIS. Good luck.”

“Thank you.”

Razak was led to a small conference room and immediately saw a different asylum officer. A tall African American man sat across from him and smiled. “Razak. You’re going to be released.”

“Released to where? Am I being sent back home or somewhere else?”

“You’re going to New York.”

Tears welled up in Razak’s eyes and creased his cheeks.

“I’m sorry. I know you’ve been here a long time, but it was part of the process.”

Razak was too stunned to speak.

“You know where I’m from?” the officer asked. “I’m from New York. I see your uncle’s address here. He’s close to Yankee Stadium. That’s where I grew up. When you get there, there’s a lot of bad guys, troublemakers, make sure you don’t get mixed up with them.”

On the way back to the unit, a female correctional officer who worked near the visitation area stopped him to say, “I know you’re a good guy. You’ve never gotten in trouble with anybody. They kept you here a long time. I’m so sorry for that.”

Razak stopped, nodded, then kept walking.

Although he had lost his asylum plea, the Department of Homeland Security was legally obligated to release Razak while the U.S. government continued its deportation proceedings. It was a complicated victory, knowing he would be freed from Eloy but could be sent back to Ghana at any moment. 

Immigration officers contacted Razak’s uncle in New York, asking if he would provide money for a bus ticket across the country. Malik had no idea his nephew was still in the United States: he thought he had already been deported.

“Can I talk to him, please?” his uncle asked the immigration officer.

Razak took the phone and listened.

“Razak, is that really you? I thought they had deported you. I haven’t heard from you. Is it really you?”

“It’s me. They released me today. They want to know if you’d be willing to buy me a bus ticket to New York. I’m so sorry to call you like this.”

“Of course, don’t be sorry,” his uncle said. “Ask them what I need to do.”

The ICE officer helped Razak’s uncle send a wire through Western Union for the bus ticket.

Razak’s uncle also spoke with Razak’s friend from Ghana, Munil, who then contacted his fiancée Cynthia back in Accra and gave her the news.

On May 6, 2015, Razak was freed from the Eloy detention facility. Before his release, he signed an Order of Supervision, agreeing to report in person to the DHS/ICE field office in New York City. He also agreed that he would assist ICE in obtaining any necessary travel documents and that he would not leave New York for more than forty-eight hours without first contacting ICE. Once he had signed his release papers, once he was finally able to remove the khaki jumpsuit, he told himself he would not allow anyone to put him through anything like that again. No imprisonment, no shackles. Never.

It would be a two-and-a-half-day bus ride from Phoenix to New York. ICE officers returned Razak’s meager belongings to him, some clothes, his diary, and his portable Koran, but he had no other documents, nothing but his asylum applications and release papers. Officers brought Razak along with a few other men who had been released to the bus station. He took his seat in the middle of the bus and waited for the sound of the door closing. He could not believe he was finally free. A cold sense of disquiet set in. Once the bus pulled away, he stared out at the passing terrain, feeling as uncertain and as lost as ever.

Published June 2020 by Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2020 Joe Meno. All rights reserved.

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