By Mariana Briones
This is M’s story. A brave survivor who traveled almost 3,000 miles from Ecuador to Texas, her journey included a week long walk through The Darién Gap, which is considered one of the world’s most harrowing treks, a lawless wilderness on the border of Colombia and Panama teeming with everything from deadly snakes to traffickers to antigovernment guerrillas. But like most migrants escaping violence or abject poverty in their native countries, she did not have a choice. At only 30 years old, it took all of her courage and determination to escape a death sentence in Cameroon. Guided by hope she conquered insurmountable obstacles to reach the US safely, and yet she is now trapped in a system where her humanity is questioned and where her fight for basic human rights is considered a threat.
"...it is basically impossible to have a fair hearing or trial [in Cameroon]."
I start my conversation with M with the assumption that her decision to migrate to the United States was driven by a desire for better opportunities. “I made this journey because it was my only option to stay alive,” she corrects me. “I came here for safety.” The Republic of Cameroon is a deeply divided nation and a bilingual country with French and English as its official languages, which is one of the sources of conflict. “As Anglophones we are tired,” M explains. “The Constitution does not favor us, and this conflict worsened when Francophone teachers and judges were assigned to the Anglophone region. They do not speak English, which makes the education system very difficult, and it is basically impossible to have a fair hearing or trial. That is why Anglophones want independence."
Hard-working and entrepreneurial, M had thrived despite her country’s chaos. She owned a clothing shop in Bamenda that a sales girl attended to during the week, and she also worked as a legal secretary in Douala, commuting between the two cities, which are about 5 hours away. She had managed to build a stable life for herself.
"The next day military trucks parked across the street and two men came into my shop."
But it all changed on October 23, 2018. “Every Monday the North Anglophone region is declared a ghost town. There is a curfew and a total shutdown of the city, and no one can be found on the streets. That week I had gone to check on my shop. Following curfew orders I did not open on Monday, October 22. The next day military trucks parked across the street and two men came into my shop. I thought they wanted to buy clothes, but then they started questioning me about why I had remained closed the previous day. I explained that it was because of the curfew. I had been threatened before by armed men who made it clear that if I did not respect it my shop would be burned down. I knew that those who disrespected this ‘law’ had faced the consequences; their business set on fire, many others were killed. I explained this to them, but they were not listening and instead snatched my cellphone.
"In it they found pictures and videos of the military killing and brutalizing innocent civilians that had been sent to me through a group chat and downloaded from the internet,” M continues, “so they accused me of being part of the secession. Before I even realized it they had slapped me and I was on the floor. They started kicking me with their military boots and hitting me with their baton; then they dragged me across the floor and threw me into the truck. There were many of us in there and we were tied, blindfolded and driven for about 5 hours to an unknown destination. When we arrived it was already dark so I couldn’t see anything, just that it was an isolated place in the bushes.
"They told me if said anything I should consider myself dead."
"They put us all in a room," M tells me. "Later that night two military men sneaked me into a dark corner and and said I better have someone to pay for my release so that I did not end up in the Kondengui prison. I know people who have been detained in this jail for over 10 years without explanation. There are no protections or legal procedures and most never come out. So I was very scared and told them that the only person that could pay was my uncle. They allowed me to call him but he did not pick up, so they put me back with the others, fearing retaliation they told me if said anything I should consider myself dead.
"In the evening they came and took three girls… the girls never came back.”
“The next day we were fingerprinted and photographed. In the room where we were held there was nothing but a dirty bucket which we had to use as a toilet. We were fed a loaf of bread once a day, and they brought a second bucket with water which we all had to drink from. In the evening they came and took three girls… the girls never came back.”
A loaf of bread and bucket of water were again distributed by the military the following day, and at night they returned for three girls, but this time M was among them. “They took us to a hall where they were smoking and drinking, and when they saw us they started laughing and calling us prostitutes and said things like ‘We are going to finish with all of you Anglophones’. I was crying from fear and the pain from the bruises of the previous day. They demanded we undress. I started pleading and they slapped me. They said that if I opened my mouth again what had happened to the other girls would happen to me. I knew then that the girls were dead. I was really scared, I had to do what they told me to. They started touching us, fingering us and I stared bleeding… when they were done they put us back in the room.
"...we were instructed to keep digging what was clearly intended to be our own graves."
"We went through the same routine the day after that and again they took three girls," M continues. "I was relieved not to be in this group, but after a few minutes they came for me. This time they took us for a walk in the bushes, made us undress and gave us shovels to dig three rectangular holes. They threatened our lives and abused us, touching our private parts as we were instructed to keep digging what was clearly intended to be our own graves. I thought this would be my last day alive, but then one of the men received a call. He kept answering Yes Boss and No Boss. As soon as he hung up he told us get dressed quickly, then they took us back. Later that night the two men that had demanded money said my uncle had paid for my release, so they put me in a truck and drove me for hours to an isolated area. Suddenly they stopped and ordered me to get out and run towards Nigeria as fast as I could. They said if I was caught anywhere near Cameroon they would kill me before I implicated them. I told them I didn't know where I was and I didn’t have any money, so one of them gave me 20,000 CFA, which is equivalent of about $30 US, to make sure I would leave.”
"... by then it was clear that I would eventually be killed if I didn’t leave Cameroon."
M took the money but instead of running to Nigeria, which was also very dangerous, she decided to find her parents. It took her two days hitchhiking in hiding and risking her life to get to their home in Douala. Her parents had been terrified so they made arrangements for a family friend to take her to a remote motel where she could be safe. “Once there I was treated by a doctor and then a nurse cared for me, but by then it was clear that I would eventually be killed if I didn’t leave Cameroon," M says. "I received my travel documents on November 7, 2018 and planned to fly to Ecuador that same day. I finally felt some relief, but then I was told that my uncle had been killed. The men that had held me captive went to his house searching for me, and because they couldn’t find me they killed him. I was devastated as I boarded my plane.”
"We were risking getting lost, robbed, kidnapped or murdered every single day.”
In spite of all her challenges M arrived in Quito ready for a new beginning. But the language barrier made finding work very difficult: “As I was trying for jobs in African restaurants I met three boys who were going south. They told me Mexico had a large English-speaking population, so I decided to go with them. At times it seemed impossible that we would ever make it, especially crossing the jungle from Colombia to Panama; we were risking getting lost, robbed, kidnapped or murdered every single day.”
Once in Mexico M studied US immigration policies, which inspired her to keep going. “This gave me hope. It seemed like the US was very welcoming to immigrants and protective of human rights, so I was determined to get there, which took another five months.”After crossing the jungles, deserts, mountains and roadless paths of eight countries M finally reached San Isidro,TX, surrendering to the authorities and requesting asylum upon arrival. It had taken her a full year to get there.
“I was immediately placed in a detention center for 14 days, sleeping on mats on the floor and treated like a prisoner,” she recounts. Transfers to detention centers in Arizona and California followed, and a month later M had her first court date. “I didn’t have an attorney so I went alone. I had my charges read and was asked whether I understood that I was guilty of entering the US illegally. They gave me an official asylum form and detained me for another 6 months. It was a very difficult experience and I was surprised that asylum seekers are treated like criminals when we are just seeking safety and the opportunity to work hard for a better life.”
Now I have a community behind me… I never expected this.”
With no support M was lost in the system until Freedom for Immigrants began assisting with her case. One of her US-based cousins, together with Dorothy Steinicke, a former penpal though FFI, raised the funds for her bond and she was finally released. Dorothy also had M stay at her home while waiting for news on her case. “She has been more than a mother to me,” says M of her former host “So caring and loving. She has not made me feel that I am from a different country, always accepting me. Now I have a community behind me… I never expected this.”
For Dorothy this was also a life-changing experience: “My relationship with M began with us as pen pals. I sent her a letter offering encouragement and friendship and she replied with a beautiful heart-shaped ornament made of foil candy wrappers."
"We are in awe of her courage and deep-rooted optimism."
Letters led to phone calls and then visits: “When there was a possibility of bond, I offered my home, and having M with us was a wonderful experience. She is between the ages of our two daughters and I imagined what it would be like if one of them had to endure the trials M has gone through. We are in awe of her courage and deep-rooted optimism. She taught me Cameroonian recipes and was always good company. We have a dog and M, who had never been around them, became very fond of her. We got to introduce her to Halloween and also accompanied her to Catholic Mass; she is very devout.”
M has now moved to Silver Spring, Maryland in order to be closer to family. “Now that she has moved we miss her a lot and hope that we will have the opportunity to see her again," Dorothy told me. "She is the first detained person that I interacted with. I have long felt appalled at the way our country is treating refugees but that was in the abstract. Putting real faces on people who are fleeing terrible situations has made it much more real and urgent.”
M’s request for asylum was denied on October 22nd of 2019. Her previous lawyer failed to present key evidence, including proof that a second attack on a family member by the military was a result of their ongoing search for her. This, she believes, would have changed the outcome. She has filed her appeal with a new lawyer who specializes in this area. In the meantime she is monitored 24/7 and has to wear a GPS device.
“I can’t plan for the future yet. I am just taking it one step at time."
When I ask about her plans, the effects of her journey are evident. “I can’t plan for the future yet. I am just taking it one step at time. All I want is to live in a place where I am no longer in danger, where I will no longer feel what I felt in the past.”
Mariana Briones is the Director of Latino Leaders Magazine, and contributor to publications such as Elle, Marie Claire and Cinepremiere among others, with published articles in Spain, Mexico and the US. She is also a TV producer and is a freelance correspondent for outlets like Canal +. Born and raised in Mexico City she hopes that by sharing these stories she can help raise awareness about the issues facing immigrants today.