Out of Africa
In the summer of 2005, 53-year-old Malika Oufkir stepped out of the oppressive 100-plus-degree heat in Marrakesh and into an orphanage where the air was equally stifling filled with the odor of soiled diapers, medicine, and milk.
It was the beginning of the exotic, Moroccan-born beauty's third life, a day she had envisaged for years. She didn't care that most women her age were preparing for menopause and grandchildren. She was adopting her first child. In doing so, she would finally banish all traces of her barren womb, a grave consequence and daily reminder of her horrific past.
"I felt finally like I am a woman and I don't have to be ashamed," Malika says in her beautifully modulated and heavily accented voice as she sits in the living room of her modest three-bedroom home in Surfside. "The meaning of having a child in my life is a victory ... my chance to go on and not just to have survived my past."
Indeed Malika's past is a twisted mix of romantic fairy tale and haunting nightmare, brought to life in her memoir, Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail. First published in 1999 in French as La Prisonirre, the book later became an Oprah's Book Club selection and a New York Times nonfiction best seller. But Malika and husband Eric Bordreuil needed to move forward with their lives. So about three years ago they relocated to the United States and bought a home on Byron Avenue. Eric established a North American outpost for his architecture company, and Malika began work on her second book, Freedom: The Story of My Second Life.
But owing to an absurd adoption law, Malika's quest for a normal family life in Miami has recently become almost as traumatic as the rest of her bizarre existence.
The eldest child of Morocco's much-feared General Muhammad Oufkir, who became minister of the interior for King Hassan II, Malika was unofficially adopted by King Muhammad V (Hassan's father, who died in 1961) at age five. For eleven years, she was a princess's confidant who lived in the unfathomable luxury of the royal palace in Rabat and had little contact with her real family. In 1972 the towering General Oufkir led a failed coup d'état against the regime and tried to assassinate Hassan. Oufkir was executed, and the king ordered the general's wife Fatima and six children imprisoned in several secret locations. Malika and her family would spend the next fifteen years incarcerated, existing at the whim of guards and surviving largely on vermin-infested soup.
One torturous night in 1986, after an eight-year stint in solitary confinement and having not eaten properly for 47 days, the family members collectively tried to kill themselves by cutting open each other's veins with fragments of knitting needles. But their suicide failed. Desperate, they began to dig with their bare hands.
In 1987 the family completed a tunnel and staged an escape, only to be recaptured five days later and placed under house arrest. In 1991 the Oufkirs were released, but Hassan's oppressive regime prohibited them from leaving Morocco. In 1996 Maria Oufkir, Malika's younger sister, fled on a boat to Spain a highly publicized escape that attracted international attention and finally secured the Oufkirs' freedom to travel abroad. Malika left for France and in 1998 married the baby-faced Bordreuil.
For seven years the couple tried to conceive. Malika was tested, monitored, injected, and implanted, but, she explains, French fertility doctors warned that illnesses left unattended during her torturous twenty-year ordeal had caused irreparable damage. And although the couple had already adopted Malika's ten-year-old niece whose mother's battle with epilepsy rendered her unable to care for the girl they wanted a baby of their own. Adoption was the only way. Malika insisted on a Moroccan orphan.
"Once we made up our minds, Malika was off," says Bordreuil. "She didn't want to lose a second."
Within two weeks of their decision, in July 2005, Malika and her mother who like her daughter has a slender frame, dark shoulder-length hair, model-high cheekbones, and seemingly ageless skin were in Marrakesh scanning 30 wooden cribs on the second floor of the city's principal orphanage.
"I really wanted a little girl, but as a mother who is going to adopt, you are looking for a feeling," Malika says, sitting with her hands clasped atop her white ankle-length skirt, her expressive eyes flickering. "I was holding the little girl, and I was ashamed to say it, but I had no connection."
In the rear of the room was a two-week-old boy who barely weighed six pounds. His skeletal body was cloaked in a white one-piece out of which poked two matchsticks miscast as legs. Dark circles encased his puffy eyes. His skin showed signs of severe dehydration.
It was love at first sight.
"He was so tiny, and the second I took him, it was really something exceptional," Malika gushes.
She would later learn that police had found Adam, as she named him, tucked in the armpit of an elderly beggar woman; he was still bundled in the hospital-issued garb. They posted his photo at all the precincts in Marrakesh to give his mother a chance to come forward. She never did.
"He looked like a shrimp," Bordreuil jokes as he flicks through hundreds of photos of his doe-eyed baby.
The couple immediately began proceedings to become the boy's legal guardians (adoption as practiced in the West is prohibited by Islamic law). Though the process took more than six months and cost thousands of dollars, they finally moved Adam out of the orphanage.
"It was the first time in my life that I did not feel like a prisoner," beams Malika.
But no toys litter the floor of their Surfside home. And there is neither burbling laughter nor infant sobbing. The reason: This past September, at a court hearing in Marrakesh, American officials abruptly halted Malika's life-long dream. They denied Adam a visa to enter the States, citing the fact that both parents are permanent U.S. residents, not citizens.
"I was suicidal," laments Malika, who forbids any of her young son's belongings in the house.
"I tell you, we can't bear the separation," echoes Bordreuil.
But the law is clear, says immigration attorney Ira Kurzban: "A legal permanent resident does not have the same rights as a citizen." Residents must apply for a visa for adopted children. "The wait time is four and a half years."
It would take the better part of Adam's childhood to yield a result.
Today the baby resides with Malika's elderly mother in Marrakesh while the couple pursues their only other option for securing their son's imminent arrival: humanitarian parole. Decided on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, it is a mysterious contest of human suffering. Extra points are given for narrative novelty, news-media buzz, and Congressional intervention.
Of the more than 7000 requests for humanitarian parole the government has received since January 2000, officials say, only about 25 percent have been approved.
Dan McLaughlin, spokesperson for Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, whom Malika contacted about Adam's case this past October, says Senator Nelson will use his voice to help unite the family. "All we need to do is know that they filed it, and then we can try to seek an expedited decision on behalf of the State Department and hopefully a favorable decision," McLaughlin says.
Meanwhile Malika must wait a familiar experience for her. Except now, power doesn't lie in the hands of a tyrannical monarch or abusive prison guard, but the U.S. government.
Only time will tell if the paragon of democracy shows more leniency.
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