Eyes on the Future

After coming here as teen in 1990, Ivory Coast woman achieves independence from Modesto family, finds love

02/24/2008 3:15 AM

02/24/2008 10:18 AM

Every night, throughout the summer and fall of last year, Juliette whispered the same prayer.

"Please, God, let my passport arrive."

Not to travel, but to leave behind a life anchored by a lack of power and freedom most in this country take for granted.

In 1990, Juliette came to Modesto as a wide-eyed teenager from Africa, eager to spend three months in a country she had dreamed of visiting.

Instead, she spent the next 14 years in the home of a Modesto family as their "domestic," cleaning house, washing laundry and baby-sitting the children, feeling helpless to do anything about her situation out of fear of deportation.

Her years often were "lonely" -- a naive teenager, living with a family she didn't know, listening to a language she didn't speak. She said she sought help from the family to gain independence, but got none.

The family, the Farrans, who came to the United States from Lebanon in 1981, said they welcomed Juliette into their home as their own daughter and treated her no differently from their other four children.

But all of that is behind Juliette, who harbors no ill will toward the Farrans. Her long, black hair is weaved into thin braids. She speaks English fluently, but with an accent tinged by French and Arabic.

She's 34. It's the summer of 2007, three years after she left the Farrans. A former Muslim from Africa who knew nothing of the Bible is now a devout Christian, rooted in Modesto. She's deeply in love, about to be married.

She sits down and writes a letter, addressed to the Washington, D.C., office of the ambassador of the Ivory Coast.

It's her only hope to get the passport that will serve as her identification, that will allow her to marry, begin the process of becoming an American citizen and finally step out of the shadows.


My name is Juliette. I came to the United States when I was sixteen years of age. I came with the Farran family as a domestic. I was their baby-sitter.

Juliette's hometown of Abidjan is a congested metropolis of about 5 million people, the largest city in the Ivory Coast, a former French colony in west Africa.

The city is a mesh of poverty and culture, known as the "Paris of West Africa" because of its cosmopolitan atmosphere and large French and Lebanese communities. It's also home to thousands of refugees from nearby war-torn Libya.

This is where Juliette was born.

It's 1974. Juliette's mother is Muslim, 18, and pregnant out of wedlock. If she keeps the baby, it will make her an undesirable candidate for marriage in the largely Muslim region.

So Juliette is given to her grandparents to raise. No one tells her about her birth parents.

She speaks Arabic at home and learns French at school. As a child, she shares her grandparents' one-bedroom home in Abidjan with other cousins, aunts and uncles.

One of her aunts, Diallo Fatomata, pays more attention to Juliette than the rest. She dotes on her niece, bringing soup when she's sick, wrapping her in a blanket on chilly nights.

When Juliette is 10, someone tells her a secret: her favorite aunt isn't really her aunt. She's her mother.

Juliette is shocked. She wants a relationship with her mother, so she visits Fatomata's house.

But her mother's husband is outraged, saying he doesn't want a "bastard child" in his house.

He beats his wife in front of Juliette each time she visits.

"Why does he hit you every time I'm here?" Juliette finally asks her mother.

"Because you are not his child," Fatomata replies.

Juliette blames herself. She wants him to stop hitting her mother. She breaks off contact with the family.

A few years later, her grandfather dies. Her grandmother has little money, so Juliette, who is in her early teens, takes on a job baby-sitting with the Farran family.

The family is Lebanese, headed by a businessman with family in America. Juliette soon begins living with the family during the week. She is paid weekly.

At 16, she's invited by the family to come with them as a baby-sitter to visit their relatives in Modesto. She eagerly accepts, with her grandmother's blessing.

"It was like a dream come true," Juliette says.

She obtains a passport and short-term visa. The trip is supposed to last three months.

When I arrived in June, 1990, I stayed with the Farran family at Mr. Farran's brother's home. After one month, the Farran family left the USA and returned to Lebanon.

I was left at Mr. Farran's brother's home.

Ahmad and Wahibia Farran, who open their Modesto home to Juliette, give her the choice of staying in America with them indefinitely and she agrees, according to Juliette and the Farrans.

Chad Farran, 32, a son who was in middle school when Juliette arrived in Modesto, speaks on behalf of his parents, with whom Juliette is no longer in contact.

Chad Farran says his family knew Juliette because she had been living with their relatives in the Ivory Coast, baby-sitting their children and taking care of Ahmad Farran's mother.

Growing up, she was like a big sister, he says. She contributed to household chores like everyone else, he says, and was seen as one of their own.

"Even my friends know her as my sister," he says.

Wahibia Farran, who has difficulty with her English, says in a brief phone conversation that she was like a mother to Juliette. "She don't have nobody," she says. "She didn't have anything back to Africa. She came and live with us."

My life with them was purely domestic. I cleaned, baby-sat, did laundry, and walked their children to and from school. I did not receive pay for my duties. I was just given a place to live and food to eat.

Juliette says she feels no animosity toward the family. Their greatest fault, in her eyes, was not helping her become independent.

Many times over the years, Juliette says, she asked the Farrans about green cards, birth certificates and immigration papers. Juliette wanted to become a U.S. citizen who could legally work, attend school and live on her own.

"They told me I had to wait five years (for immigration papers). Five years come, and they say the law changed. I had to wait five more years. The laws, every year, they seem to change," says Juliette, who came to the country with a valid passport. But it expired after five years.

Chad Farran says the family tried to help her several times.

"We spoke to lawyers, but it was harder than we thought," he says.

Juliette wrote letters to her family in Africa, but the envelopes always came back, unopened. She tried calling her grandmother and mother, but was told: "Nobody lives here anymore."

The days and years Juliette spent living in Modesto often seem to blend together.

This is her account: Each morning, she walks the children to school, cleans the house, washes the laundry and the dishes. She watches television during the day. In the evening, Wahibia Farran cooks dinner. Juliette eats meals with the family, then cleans up afterward.

Juliette goes on short vacations with the family to Pinecrest and the Bay Area. She works odd jobs -- mostly cleaning or baby-sitting -- for neighbors or family friends for cash to buy personal items, such as clothes.

Juliette grows from a teenager to a twentysomething to a 30-year-old woman, still living in the Farrans' house, where she shares a bedroom with their daughter. The sons have their own room.

"I just will be patient," Juliette thinks during those years.

She has no money, no legal form of identification and nowhere to go.

"I had no other choice."

Meanwhile, Juliette's life is increasingly shaped by American television.

Soap operas, especially. They are easy to follow, even for an immigrant who speaks only Arabic and French.

Her favorite is "The Young and the Restless." It's how Juliette begins to understand some English.

"Dawson's Creek" begins airing in 1998. Juliette, who is in her mid-20s, loves watching the drama unfold around four high school friends living in generic small-town America.

It raises nagging questions in Juliette's mind: Why didn't she attend high school in America? Why didn't she go to a prom, or out on dates?

The watershed moment for Juliette comes while she is in her 30s and watching a movie on Lifetime, a feel-good cable network geared toward women.

The movie features a strong mother-daughter relationship, one full of "love and attention."

Juliette is hit with a pang of realization. Unlike this television family, she doesn't feel she belongs to the family that she's living with.

From 1990 until 2004, I lived under these conditions. I convinced the people with whom I lived that I should go to school at Modesto Junior College.

I learned how to speak English. ... I met a friend at school who offered to help me and I moved away from the family and moved in with my friend and her husband.

"Hello. How are you? Where are you from?" Juliette asks Karem Valenzuela, a native of Chile and a classmate in her English as a second language class at MJC.

"Hello. How are you? Where are you from?" Valenzuela repeats to Juliette, reciting the only English phrases they've learned so far.

They quickly become friends and visit each other's homes. At first, Juliette tells Valenzuela the Farrans are her family, Valenzuela remembers.

"But when I saw them, there was nothing similar. They had nothing in common, beginning with their color," Valenzuela says.

Juliette then told Valenzuela she was their adopted daughter.

Over the years, as their English improves and friendship grows, Juliette begins to share details of her life with Valenzuela. They spend time at each other's homes.

Valenzuela remembers her visits to the house where Juliette lived: "They (the Farrans) would say hello. I would always see Juliette cleaning or attending the kids or something, but she was always busy. I never wanted to go there because I knew she was busy. ...

"All the house is her responsibility -- the kids going to school, laundry, dishes. The only thing that wasn't her responsibility was the meals. She told me whenever she had money, she had to help out with the expenses with the house, and I was like, 'Oh, my God.' "

Valenzuela and Juliette have a close group of friends. They share stories, and some try to persuade Juliette that she should move out.

But Juliette fears deportation. She won't go to businesses where identification cards are required, such as bars, and she avoids places where she might draw attention to herself.

"She wouldn't go anywhere," Valenzuela remembers.

In 2004, with encouragement from her friends, Juliette moves out of the Farrans' house. The decision was born of a realization that, "I have no boyfriend, no children. I want to move on with my life," Juliette says. "They (the Farrans) have a house, they have citizenship. I have nothing."

She moves into Valenzuela's apartment that she shares with her husband.

A month later, Juliette moves back in with the Farrans because she doesn't want to become a burden on her friends. She lives at the Farrans' for three more months before leaving again, for the last time.

Today, I live with a woman who is a widow. I have met a man with whom I've fallen in love and plan to marry. However, I do not have the proper papers in my possession.

I want to reach my family in Africa, but I have had no contacts with them since I came to the United States.

I would like to get in contact with my mother or my grandmother, but I don't know where they are or even if they are still alive.

Please help me. ...

Sincerely, Juliette

Juliette mails her letter to the ambassador of the Ivory Coast in the summer of 2007. She's living with Marilyn Prescott, a friend who opened her house to Juliette for free.

Prescott believes the Farrans took advantage of Juliette.

"I was saddened," she says.

"I was floored. That is not how you treat a child. My heart went out to her."

It will be weeks before Juliette gets a call back from the ambassador's office about her letter. When she does, Juliette tells a representative that she needs a government- issued identification so she

can get married and begin paperwork to become an American citizen.

But, she tells him, she doesn't know her mother's address, or even if she's still alive. He promises to send the police to try to find her mother in the Ivory Coast and, hopefully, a birth certificate.

Juliette begins to wait. And pray.

She has no desire to return to her homeland. It's a place she wouldn't recognize, she says. Political turmoil and civil unrest have spread through the Ivory Coast in the past decade.

"I don't know anybody there. Where would I go? I haven't been there since 1990. This has become my home," Juliette says.

In the three years since Juliette left the Farrans' house, she has become an almost unrecognizable version of her former self, her friends say.

"Her attitude changed, her energy changed, and she was more happy all the time. I told her she even looked prettier," Valenzuela says.

Juliette attributes it to God and love, neither of which she says she previously knew. Her friends introduce her in 2004 to Greater True Light Baptist Church in west Modesto.

"I didn't understand church, but I knew that there I feel safe," Juliette says after her first visit to a church service. She wakes up early the following Sunday, eager to attend church again. Juliette feels protected for the first time in more than a decade.

"You would never have known she was in the situation she was in," says the church's pastor, Velton Johnson. "She's never blue, she's always sunshine. She's meek and mild and humble."

Church members greet each other with hugs every Sunday.

At first, Juliette pushes them away with the palms of her hands.

"I never before had someone give me a hug," she says.

It is at church she meets Eric Prescott.

He's a well-dressed, tall, attractive man who caught her eye while singing in the choir. He's Marilyn Prescott's nephew.

Eric Prescott hugs her one day at church. Juliette begins to push him away, but he playfully pushes her back. They begin to date.

"Eric showed me what love was," Juliette says.

As their courtship develops, church members pray for Juliette to be able to legally marry her boyfriend. She can't because she doesn't have valid identification.

"Ever since she began going to the church and after she met Eric, her husband, everything for her started to change," Valenzuela says. "She started trying to find ways to get her situation legalized, and she was going for it."

Juliette contacts the ambassador's office again in September, several weeks after they told her they would try to contact her family. They tell Juliette they had no luck finding her mother. But they arrange to send her an updated passport.

Juliette waits for it to arrive in the mail. She prays nightly. It finally arrives in late November.

"I cry and scream. I have African ID! I had nothing before. I was so excited. This is the best," Juliette says. "I thank God every morning. All

I wanted was the passport."

Juliette and Eric Prescott go to the Stanislaus County clerk-recorder and show Juliette's new passport as her identification.

They are licensed to wed in December, and a few days later they tie the knot in front of a small group of friends at the church where they met. She still has legal hurdles to jump over to become a citizen, but the journey to this point has her prepared for anything in her future.

To Juliette, "It's been like a fairy tale."

Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at csalerno@modbee.com or 238-4574.

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