Reporter's Notebook: Repatriation

Published on
May 16, 2010

My source is scared.  The story on repatriation I reported for The World airs tomorrow, and ever since our interview, Ibrahima Diaite has only gotten more and more nervous. 

I just got off the phone with Ibrahima.  He's the reason I was able to do this story at all, because he was the only person involved in repatriation who would talk to me about it.   He called because he's seriously worried about people hearing his voice on the radio. You see, in his community, you're not supposed to talk about mental illness, and you're definitely not supposed to speak critically about the community itself.  Ibrahima said that all he can do now is pray-that people will be ready to start a conversation.  "If they are open to it, the conversation could be easy," Ibrahima said.  "If not "  He trailed off. 

This March, I sat down with Ibrahima because I heard he was a go-to guy in his community, someone everybody knows.  After eight months of showing my face at community events and African Student Union meetings, mining every personal contact I had, and reaching out to hospitals and health clinics, I still hadn't found someone willing to talk on the record.  When I would introduce myself as a reporter doing a story on mental health in New York's West African community, people would pull me aside, nod, and lean in to speak in a lowered voice. 

"That is so important.  But no one is going to talk to you about it."

But Ibrahima told me he had helped organize several repatriations, and he wanted to talk.  When severe mental illness strikes in the West African community, repatriation is one strategy for dealing with it.  Here's how it works: people organize and scrape together money to pay for a one-way plane ticket back to West Africa.  Then, the person with mental illness is taken to the airport and sent home, usually to live with family.  But people are sent back whether or not they want to leave the US.  For many immigrants, without papers or outside support, there is no way to resist the process.      

Ibrahima was late to our first appointment, tied up on his cell phone.  The next time we met, he put out one big hand to shake mine, gesturing to the phone he held up to his ear.  He tucked the phone under his chin.  "Just a few minutes," he told me.  When I finally sat down with Ibrahima and started recording, he talked for almost two hours.  He told me that he has a full-time job and runs three businesses, but he spends all his free time acting as an informal liaison and all-around helper for people in his community who need to find a doctor, a way to sign up for food stamps, a new apartment, a job, or anything else in the foreign landscape of New York City.  That's why he's always on the phone, speaking one of the eight West African languages he knows.  And that's why he's helped out with repatriation-because he can't stand to see someone who needs help and do nothing.  But the thing is, the more he's thought about repatriation, the more he wonders whether he believes in it or not.   

Ibrahima told me that he knew two of the people he'd helped send home.  One of them was a close friend.  As he talked, guilt and sadness crossed his face.  He said that he wished people in his community could consider other options-including the idea that, with help, maybe people with mental illness could find a way to stay in the US.

When Ibrahima called me just now, he wanted reassurance.  The truth is I don't know what the repercussions might be for him.  He'd told me from the beginning that his community needs to break the silence around mental illness.  But he said that when he tried to get other people to talk to me too, they warned him that he shouldn't be speaking to a reporter at all.  The risks of coming forward have been weighing on his mind ever since. 

But still, Ibrahima said, he wants people to hear his story.  And he hopes that there will be a real debate about how his community handles mental illness, so that the risk he took will be worth it.

Laura Starecheski's story, Repatriation, airs May 17, 2010 on The World.  For local broadcast times, visit  The story will be followed by an interview with Ethan Watters, author of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche.  Listeners are invited to participate in a special online Science Forum discussion with Ethan Watters about global mental health and culture at….