Zimbabwean teen flees to Steamboat

— When Nicola Jane Reynolds thinks about her home city of Chiredzi, Zimbabwe, she remembers the sunsets.

"Life is so much slower there," said Reynolds, 18, as she recalled climbing hills in undeveloped bush land to watch the sky. "It makes you count your blessings so much more."

In Zimbabwe, a nation long under the rule of dictatorial president Rob--ert Mugabe, blessings can be hard to find. In 2003, President Bush imposed economic sanctions against Zimbabwe in response to alleged human rights abuses against members of minority tribes such as the Ndebeles, white landowners and supporters of the opposition party MDC -- Movement for Democratic Change. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called Mugabe "a caricature of an African dictator," and numerous journalists attempting to investigate the Mugabe regime have reported threats, intimidation and even torture. Controversial land reclamations directed by Mugabe often are sudden and violent.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Bush included Zim--babwe in a list of non-democratic, unstable nations, along with Iran, Syria and North Korea.

Reynolds' parents live in the neighboring country of Zambia. Her three brothers also have left Zimbabwe and live in Zambia, South Africa and Kentucky.

"Nicky" arrived Monday at Denver International Airport. She is here on a three-month student visa and is staying in Steamboat Springs with the family of Keri Couchoud, director of development at the Christian Heritage School.

On Wednesday morning, Reynolds, Couchoud and Shane Gilbert -- a former Christian Heritage teacher who met Reynolds in Zimbabwe -- sat down with Steamboat Pilot & Today reporters to talk about a nation in turmoil, Reynolds' 10,000-mile journey and her uncertain plans for the future.

Dispatch to Africa

Gilbert traveled halfway around the world to meet Reynolds' gardener.

A documentary filmmaker, Gilbert decided to film her search for an African man named Elias, made famous in a song by Dispatch. When Gilbert found Elias working in a garden in Zimbabwe, she also found an 18-year-old woman staying with the family that employed the gardener who was looking for a way to continue her education.

"There was no more education for Nicky to go to in Zim--babwe without lots of money and lots of help," Couchoud said.

Reynolds finished her last year of high school and is waiting for the results of her A-Level exams, the British equivalent of college entrance exams for people living internationally. The results should arrive at the end of the month, Couchoud said.

The idea of Reynolds coming to America to pursue higher education appealed to her family.

"They recognized that it would be a fantastic opportunity," Reynolds said in her soft British accent. "And I was really happy about it."

She had been to America once before, for her brother's wedding in 2002, but this trip would be much more uncertain, with no length of stay or return date.

And no definitive way into the United States.

Ticket to ride

Looking for help, Gilbert contacted Couchoud at the Christian Heritage School. As Couchoud researched visa policies and immigration laws, she realized getting Reynolds through customs, let alone to Steamboat, would not be easy.

"Just filling out a form and sending it off to the U.S. Emb--assy in Africa wasn't going to cut it," she said last week.

So she contacted state Sen. Jack Taylor of Steamboat, who directed Couchoud to the office of U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard.

The response Couchoud got from Allard staffer Heather Gierhart was grim.

"(Reynolds) was denied yesterday for a student visa, and there is no visitor visa showing as approved," Gierhart wrote in a Jan. 27 e-mail to Couchoud. "The liaison cautioned (very strongly) that when she gets to the U.S., customs will see her student visa denial within the last week and will most likely not allow her into the U.S. Her chances of being turned around in Atlanta are very great."

The problem with getting a student visa, Gierhart wrote, is that Christian Heritage School could not provide a form denoting accreditation with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Such forms are usually reserved for colleges and universities, Gierhart wrote, and are "very difficult" for high schools to provide.

"I was devastated," Couch--oud said.

But somehow, in a way Couchoud could not explain, it worked.

After a four-hour wait in Atlanta, Reynolds passed through customs with a three-month visitor's visa. Hours later, with airfare paid for by Betty and Ty Lockhart of Steamboat, Reynolds arrived in Colorado.

She had never seen snow.

Things fall apart

Chiredzi is a city of about 23,000 people in the southeast corner of Zimbabwe, which is west of Mozambique and Madagascar and just north of South Africa.

Reynolds said she remembers riding to school past ranchlands and watching as Mugabe took more and more of them from their owners.

"It was heartbreaking to see those people with nowhere to go, in winter -- he chose to do it in winter," she said.

In 1999 and 2000, Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe Afri--can National Union-Patriotic Front party took land from white landowners and transferred ownership to black members of the party. The reclamations disrupted farms and plunged Zimbabwe into widespread food shortages, which Mugabe attributed to Western sanctions such as those imposed by Bush.

"Zimbabwe has moved into a Rwanda-type situation," Gilbert said. "It is just a gigantic downward political spiral. They call it a silent genocide."

Reynolds said the loss of her family's farm in the early 1990s was not related to the reclamations, which she said have disrupted the entire country.

"So many people have suffered," Reynolds said. "It's (Mugabe's) own people he's punishing. Now, it's much less black-versus-white as (it is) the government versus the others."

Sitting in a room at the Christian Heritage School, halfway around the world from Zim--babwe, Reynolds paused while speaking about her country's leader.

"No one likes him," she said. "It's weird saying that out loud. At school, we were not allowed to talk about politics.

"You never know, really, how safe it is."

Africa is home

Reynolds has spoken with her parents one time since arriving in the United States. They can only access e-mail more than an hour from where they live in Zambia.

"I miss home a lot, being here," Reynolds said Wednes--day.

Couchoud and many Routt County residents are doing their best to make Reynolds feel welcome in Steamboat. The Hayden Congregational Church donated more than $400 for food and clothing, Couchoud said, adding that several other local churches have pitched in. Students at Christian Heritage prepared gift baskets for Reynolds, and families have given her boots, coats and sweaters.

In addition to the airfare, the Lockhart's gave Reynolds gift certificates to F.M. Light & Sons, Soda Creek Western Mercantile and Bushwhackers.

"Our ultimate goal is to find a way to get her a student visa," Couchoud said. "A full-ride scholarship is our prayer."

A more immediate goal is making sure Reynolds can stay for the three months of her visa. Her return flight is scheduled Feb. 28. Couchoud said she is working to change the flight.

Reynolds said she wants to study medicine so she can return to her native continent and work toward positive change.

"There's always a need; you see it every day," she said, citing Zimbabwe's status, along with neighboring South Africa and Botswana, as one of the most AIDS-stricken nations in the world.

Although Reynolds said she is "waiting to see how things unfold" for her next step, be it college in America or elsewhere, she is certain to return to her roots.

"I definitely have no plans to live in a First World country permanently," Reynolds said. "Africa is home. It's difficult, but it's worth being there -- I wouldn't change it."

-- To reach Mike Lawrence call 871-4203 or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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