She started writing her book in jail.
At the time, Ruth Marimo didn't know that's what she was doing. Didn't know that these scraps of paper, the backs of TV listing cards, any paper she could get her hands on at the Cass County Jail in Plattsmouth, would become a 248-page book.
Didn't know that it would result in invitations to speak at places like the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Yale University.
Or that, painful as this whole experience was, it would ultimately land her in the happiest, most secure spot she had ever known.
With a supportive partner instead of an abusive husband. With her own small business that pays the bills and creative projects that nourish her soul. With federal government approval on a green card, her ticket to America now finally legal.
No, four years ago, there were many dark days in the Cass County Jail.
Ruth sat there, shrinking in an orange jumpsuit as weight melted off her tiny frame. Days were turning into weeks as she waited, and she had grown despondent.
Then 29, the mother of two young children faced the real possibility of being deported to Zimbabwe, which she hadn't seen in a decade.
Resigned and somewhat hopeless, Ruth started to write.
This was going to be a letter to her children, Chido and Simba. She wanted to explain to them what her own mother had done years earlier, killing herself and leaving a fatherless Ruth orphaned.
Ruth was just 5, scarcely older than her daughter, Chido, when her mother lay down on some railroad tracks. Ruth's only sibling, a sister named Chido, died a month later of German measles. That left Ruth alone, bouncing from relative to relative until landing here, in Omaha, where she had built a decent life.
Now facing probable permanent separation from her children, Ruth wanted to tell them who she was. So that they would know their mother.
“If they grow up without me,” she said, “maybe they will understand why I couldn't be there for them.”
You could say the trouble started Dec. 31, 2008, when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement people woke them all up early in the morning, told Ruth to get dressed, asked for her paperwork and then handcuffed her outside. They put her into one of the black SUVs blocking her driveway and took her to a cold, concrete room at Omaha's immigration headquarters. Then she was taken to the Cass County Jail.
Or you could say the trouble started in 1999, when Ruth landed in Omaha with a six-month travel visa. She was 19. Her connection to this city was a distant friend of a friend of a friend, who not only didn't pick Ruth up from the airport, but also went to work early the next morning, leaving her crying baby for Ruth to watch.
Ruth had come to America fluent in English but with little more than her wits and pluck. She had no idea how to exchange her British currency for dollars. Nor did she know where to start when it came to extending her visa.
And it wasn't as if she could fly back home. Unrest was spreading through Zimbabwe. It was one reason relatives had sent Ruth first to Great Britain and then to Omaha.
As quickly as she could, Ruth found another place to stay and a nursing home job. She slowly saved her money and got a car, improved her education and eventually became licensed as a registered nurse, which boosted her wages. She met an older man who sometimes worked construction. He was nice at first, then abusive.
But when he proposed, Ruth said yes. She cried on her wedding day but wiped her tears and nonetheless said “I do” at the Sarpy County Courthouse.
One upshot, she figured, was getting her immigration status settled once and for all.
In retrospect, she sees the mistakes.
But at the time, she says she was young and scared and in survival mode. By then, she was also responsible for two cousins and an aunt who had fled from Zimbabwe and come to Omaha.
The couple had two children, but after six years, Ruth wanted out, and they separated.
In November 2008, her husband broke into their house in La Vista, “beat me to a pulp, choked me, and when I woke up, he was on the phone with police saying I attempted to stab him.”
A month later, the immigration police stood in her living room. Her husband had turned her in.
Those first days in jail, Ruth was relatively relaxed. Of course the officials would figure it out. Of course they would see that she was a full-time nurse, a taxpaying homeowner who had been married for six years to a U.S. citizen. Of course they'd see the protection order she'd received.
Just a misunderstanding. Just a mistake.
But the longer she sat in jail, the more panicked she grew.
What if she was deported?
She poured her heart onto paper at the jail.
After a month and some good lawyering, Ruth was released.
She was handed a plastic bag of her belongings, which included some 50 odd pieces of paper. That letter she had written to her children.
The next two years passed in a blur of court proceedings. She prevailed in her divorce and got custody of the children, now ages 8 and 6. She got the deportation stopped. Her petition for a green card, which conveys permanent residence status, was approved. And she embraced her sexual orientation, which she had hidden even from herself.
|FROM THE NOTEBOOK|
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.|
After all that, Ruth dug out the letter she had written in jail.
She spent the next three months writing, and she wound up with a 248-page book.
She shipped it to publishers but wanted total control and decided to publish it herself. “Freedom of an Illegal Immigrant” came out last year.
The 33-year-old still writes. She writes poetry, which she reads publicly each month.
She makes other public appearances, such as her talk at noon today at UNO's student center.
She has plans for more books.
“I'm just trying to use my voice,” she says, “to make change.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH