We’re continuing with our story of the young Cameroonian asylum seeker we are calling Ari. If you missed last week’s beginning, Part I can be found here.
Wednesday, January 6, 2021, as we all became transfixed watching the US Capital under attack, our thoughts stayed on Ari. We knew he’d been flown out of Texas and had spent the night at a detention center in Virginia. We also knew Cathy, his Texas attorney, had been in touch with him by phone and had told him to refuse boarding the flight to Cameroon. We knew he’d told her that the two ICE officers accompanying him had threatened him with Federal Prison if he refused to board. Don’t worry about it, she’d told him, refuse to board.
We didn’t know what he’d decided and we had no way to reach him.
As evening drew near, we still did not know what he had decided. In case he had boarded, Madeleine offered Ari’s wife (via WhatsApp, as we were) financial support if she could negotiate a bribe once he landed in Cameroon. She agreed.
Thursday morning, January 7 I awoke to an email from Ari. I’d given him my email address months earlier, back when we expected him to be released to a cousin; we wanted to stay in touch.
He was in Ethiopia! He’d simply walked off the plane in Addis Ababa when it landed en route and asked for asylum. His two ICE transport marshals had accompanied him as far as Dulles International Airport in Washington DC. Once he was on the flight out of the country, they’d handed his various documents to the airline personnel and returned to Texas.
Sitting in the airport, he wrote me. He had $100 on him — what was left of the $125 I’d put into his commissary account — when he landed. It was quickly down to $40 when the Ethiopian airport officials insisted he pay for a Covid test. His test was negative, of course; it was negative before he left Texas but they had given him no documentation.
While he waited for their decision on his asylum request, he received vouchers for food. I was impressed to hear they did that. It would take them three days to return a denial and put him on a flight to Yaoundé Airport, Cameroon. Food is important.
Ari wrote that he needed a screenshot of his passport and asked if I could send it to him as a photo. I knew a screenshot is two buttons on my phone, but which two buttons, I didn’t recall. I called my son Jon in Ohio who walked me through it and off the photo went to Ari. Alas, whatever the screenshot was for, Ari would l still fly out of Ethiopia on Sunday.
However, as the airport officials were writing up his plane ticket, he asked them to change the destination from Douala, where the military police would be expecting him, to Yaoundé, where Eunice, his wife, would be waiting, with the bribe money. Resourceful, yes.
Madeleine’s plan to get money to Eunice kicked into place. But how much to send? We had agreed each of would give $100, and hoped that was enough. Then we learned it was not. But how much more was needed? None of were particularly wealthy, though we were all comfortable and very aware of our privilege and comfort. We could afford more, if necessary, probably. But how much was needed? How does one determine what a man’s life is worth? THAT was where Nancy’s question, What is a man’s life worth? emerged.
A few hours later we heard from Ari: it would cost $480 to bribe the airport officials. Madeleine sent Eunice $500 using Boss Revolution. But with the exchange rate and fees higher than we expected, the $500 melted down to $436. Madeleine quickly sent more money, Eunice paid the right people, and less than an hour after we sent the final money, Ari walked out the airport door on January 12, nearly a week after leaving the US.
Now, to get Ari out of Cameroon became our mission.
“The police commissioner wants to buy my head,” he told me when we communicated again. I asked him to explain and he did. “Once they get you, they say ‘your head is gone.’ That is a way of saying you are in great danger.”
“I’ve met someone who can take me to Nigeria,” he added. “But they are too expensive.”
What’s too expensive? I wondered. Again.
And so began the real saga as we strove to get him out of the country.
On Friday, January 15, Ari reconnected on a new phone number. He sent me two photos of himself — one with a beard and a more recent one with it off. The next day I sent him one of my Statue of Liberty photos, the one we used in Part 1; I was getting quite good.
The next day he sent photos of his daughter who was then two years old. “I’d really love to stay with them,” he wrote. “But for security reasons I must leave.” Then he told me that he had seen his daughter, during a brief visit with Eunice. “But she is running away from me since I fled when she was just 12 days old.” How heartbroken he must have felt; but I felt only a sense of stoicism from him.
“I’m sure she’s quite confused by all this,” I wrote. “When she is older she will surely appreciate all you are doing to keep her safe.” Then we discussed the article I want to write about his story. I told him I’m thinking I’ll call him Ari.
“Ari is OK by me,” he replied, and introduced me to the WhatsApp microphone. It’s faster and easier for him, he said. I replied the next morning with an audio describing my day and a photo of Jeffrey, the name I’ll use for my first asylum seeker, a young Ugandan man who was then living with us. Jeffrey and Ari had known each other in the Texas detention center. Even more, Jeffrey told me that Ari was “my best friend” while there.
Back and forth we went, playing with the audio feature. I was impressed at how much I learned each day by having these two young men from faraway lands in my life.
Ari was focused on leaving Cameroon as soon as was possible, crossing the border to a safer Nigeria. Curious how he would travel — car, truck, or convoy — I asked him. But all he told me was that, “They are able to circumvent security.” Would he get to sit upright on a seat or would he be inside a container? Would it take hours? Or days? Or weeks? He told me only that “they go by boat and road, including passing in the bushes.” I no longer pressed him.
When I asked if these people could be trusted, he relayed the story of a family whose son, now safely in Nigeria, was also wanted for insurrection. I relay the Economics 101 adage about price, quality, and speed: you get to pick only two.
“I want fast and cheap,” he replied quickly. “Time is not on my side.”
“To help me escape,” he said to me, “cheap would be about $600 but there are lines that will ask “$1300.” And he planned to talk to other Cameroonian detainees, now in Nigeria. “Maybe they know a cheaper means.”
Finally, I asked him, “If I were to raise the money, how would I get it to you?”
“Boss Revolution,” he tells me. This was the app that Madeleine used to send the airport bribe money to Eunice. It had worked so well. He sent me his mobile number, which he said “is available on Mobile Money.” I had no idea why we needed this too. Wasn’t Boss Revolution enough? So I asked him.
“With Mobile Money I don’t need any identification document to get my money. I don’t need to go to town or any bank to take the money because there are Mobile Money outlets even deep inside the quarters.”
I still didn’t understand the difference and remembered that when Jeffrey sent money to his family in Uganda, he’d had me use something called Send Wave; which took about two minutes to set up and send. No secondary “mobile money” thing. But Send Wave, I learned quickly, didn’t work in Cameroon.
NEXT: PART 3: Moving the Money
QUESTIONS FOR CONVERSATION: How did the idea of such overt, blatant bribery strike you? Could you see yourself in a situation like I was in? Why or why not?