NEW YORK — Natasha Smalls ’02 returned to her native Queens and her mother’s embrace early Sunday morning, but her parents are only beginning to piece together what happened to the 20-year-old in Africa over the past month. While complaining that Yale University and the State Department did not do enough to locate Smalls, who had been missing for 23 days, her mother, Glory Smalls, was elated to have her daughter home.
Still, her parents said the ordeal, which included a stay at a Zimbabwean mental hospital, has left Smalls physically and mentally broken. They said their daughter, a senior in Calhoun College, did not plan on attending classes in September.
Her term abroad as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa, was first interrupted in March. She had been in South Africa since Feb. 8, but in March she told police she was assaulted in Durban. Her mother flew to Durban and urged her to return to America, but Smalls was committed to finishing the term in order to graduate on time.
Then, after completing the spring term in late June, Smalls stayed in Africa to sightsee and attend a conference in August. But on July 26 Smalls called her mother in Far Rockaway, Queens, and told her she was being held in a Zimbabwean mental hospital and had been drugged.
Smalls’ mother was already concerned because her daughter had not called on her birthday, July 22.
“When you have an individual who was a Yale student — a person like that does not disappear off the face of the earth,” Glory Smalls said.
Natasha Smalls said she planned to fly from South Africa to New York on a July 31 flight. She made arrangements in Durban on July 30 to return home, but when Smalls did not arrive in New York Aug. 1, her mother contacted her congressman, Gregory W. Meeks, and Yale.
No one is certain, however, what happened to Natasha Smalls until Aug. 23 when she again called her mother, this time from Johannesburg.
Investigators believe Smalls had been wandering around Johannesburg for some time before she called her mother, but on Aug. 23 a cab-driver friend of Smalls picked her up and took her to the airport, from where she flew back to Durban. There another friend of Smalls drove her back to the university, where they made preparations for Smalls to fly back this weekend.
The friend in Durban described Smalls’ mental condition as having regressed to that of a 3-year-old.
Smalls flew into John F. Kennedy International Airport on a South African Airways flight with Sandra Sanneh, a senior lector in Yale’s African Studies Department who had been traveling in South Africa. They arrived around 6 a.m. Sunday. Smalls went from JFK to an hospital.
Glory Smalls and Meeks both faulted Yale for not being more concerned about Smalls’ well-being.
“When they send these students to a foreign country they should be more involved,” Smalls said. “They had no idea what the University of Natal was doing.”
Yale does not directly administer its study-abroad programs; instead students can petition the college to accept credits from any foreign university. Students pay their tuition directly to the foreign universities.
But administrators from Yale’s Office of International Education and
Fellowship Programs do monitor the oversees schools in some fashion and Karyn A. Jones, the office’s associate director, visited the University of Durban in August, a long-planned trip that was made more urgent by Smalls’ disappearance.
“We were very concerned. We were doing all that we could,” Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said “There were people here who were involved on a daily basis. The most important thing is that we’re absolutely delighted to have her back.”
Meeks, a member of the House International Relations Committee’s subcommittee on Africa, said he is working with South African law enforcement and the American ambassador there to determine what happened to Smalls.