The Saga Begins: Part 1

Part I: How to Determine the Value of a Man’s Life

This sums up my feelings pretty well.

“What is a man’s life worth?”

Nancy’s question made the three of us pause.

Nancy, a local Vermonter as am I, ran the local penpal program that matched writers here in Vermont with asylum seekers held in detention centers in Texas. Madeleine, the third in our trio, was active with the Angry Tias y Abeulas of the Rio Grande Valley, funneling our detainee pen pals to Nancy after she and other volunteers in her group have met them, reminding them they are not alone.

Or so it worked before CoVid hit.

I was a pen pal back then. My days of sponsoring and hosting asylum seekers would begin a few months later.

We three gathered on our smart phones to save the life of Ari, what we’ll call this particular 30-something young man with whom I’d been writing.

When I began to write this series of posts, over a year ago,
I’d had reason to believe it would end on a positive note.
I can no longer promise that. But, let’s get back to the story.
His story. But first, our story

Nancy’s Pen Pal program expanded Madeleine’s support. The 27 local writers in the program often sent money to their penpals via the detention center’s commissary account so they could purchase toothbrushes, soap, and other life essentials. Some wrote daily.

Ari was one of many with whom I then corresponded. I found him thoughtful, curious, and articulate. Growing up in the Anglophone region of Cameroon, English came more naturally to him than some of the others we wrote to. Over the weeks this story covers, we came to learn how resourceful he also was.

We all knew Ari. Madeleine had met him at the center and Nancy had been writing to him before she paired him with me. We all liked him. A gentle man, he was quite surprised to find himself in the situation he was in, and deeply disturbed at his captivity. But, as I often reminded him, at least he was alive.

Ari had fled his native Cameroon in June of 2019 in fear of his life, making his way through eight countries — and surviving Panama’s infamous Darien Gap — before presenting himself to our immigration authorities in Brownsville, Texas on October 29.

For those new to this immigration-as-a-disgrace-to-our-country issue,
this link to a ten-minutes news clip from The Public Broadcasting Service
will introduce you to some of the dangers involved in crossing the Darien Gap

An asylum seeker, by definition, is someone with a “credible fear” of violence, persecution, or torture if they remain in their home country. In order to receive asylum in the United States you must (1) be physically present on US soil when you ask for it and (2) apply for it within one year of your arrival. At least that was the situation when Ari first arrived in the US.

For a quick and perhaps more current overview of the complexity of
our immigration system (it changes with each new administration
and often more subtly within administrations) see this link from
USCIS or this one from the American Immigration Council.

Ari entered the US the way asylum seekers are supposed to. True, he did not have a visa. Imagine please how impossible it is to get a visa when you are running for your life. But, he made it to our border, waited his turn, was interviewed by a custom’s official at the border, and then sent to the El Valle Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas.

Imagine his surprise when he found himself locked away in what amounted to a prison, surrounded by barbed wire, counted five times a day, even during the night, and treated like a criminal. Keep in mind many of these detention centers are privately owned and operated, charging our government over $200 per person per day.

By June of 2020 when we began to write, Ari had been in the US for a year and was then in the Port Isabel Detention Center, where Madeleine’s Angry Tias had gotten to know him. In the six months that we wrote, we accumulated over 200 short messages over the Internet (each limited to 100 characters, except for the occasional 500 characters allowed from time to time for reasons that I never understood) and a dozen lengthier snail mail letters. During those six months I came to respect his honesty.

“You can always ask as many questions as you would want me to answer,” he wrote me early on. “I may not be too good at asking questions, but I am ready to respond anytime.” I took him at his word.

Once, after I’d mentioned the new dog we’d recently acquired, he sent me a four-page, typed, single-spaced response entitled, “A comparative study between dogs in the US and dogs in Cameroon.”

Ari had a lot of time on his hands while in the detention center. And I benefitted.

I was quickly impressed with his level of self-awareness. We quickly discovered we held very different views on religion. He patiently guided me to understand his beliefs as I believed he heard and understood mine.

“Religion is more important to the African,” he wrote once. “We need it more than you in the West. . . We have so many problems in Africa . . . poverty, sickness . . . thus any avenue like the Bible that offers salvation or freedom from these predicaments will automatically get widespread acceptance.”

In another letter he wrote, “I don’t think I have ever had the privilege of experiencing a good healthcare system, so I mostly trust in the supernatural.”

“We tend to see Christianity and the teachings of the Bible as an escape route from satanic attacks,” he’d explain. “What a typical westerner would see as a coincidence or luck, I and most Africans would see as divinely orchestrated.”

I had to smile when he wrote, “I have lost my zeal of pushing things on people,” shortly before our correspondence came to an end. “I will try not to think of converting you, but just know that I will have to fight to keep myself from trying to do so.” He then told me I was an answer to his prayers.

One month, he wrote that he was working on an article about what the Bible says about angels, attaching a two-page listing of “prayer points” on that topic. He closed that letter with the statement, “I do not claim that my belief is the best or the only way of seeing things; I can be sincerely wrong, so I am open for corrections and to learn or even unlearn if need be.”

At the detention center, Ari once came across a copy of The Alchemist, by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. He wrote me, “The book says that our heart would stop speaking to us about our ‘Personal Legend’ if we neglect to follow its bidding and settle for something else for a long time. I have given myself an assignment to search my heart and know what my own ‘Personal Legend’ truly is.”

In the full year Ari had been in the US before we met, his asylum case had been heard and denied. (The Angry Tias also matched pro and low bono attorneys to those detainees with strong cases.) His Texas attorney, Cathy, appealed immediately on the grounds that the presiding judge had been untenably incompetent and heartless (I’m paraphrasing here; she was a bit more professional), ignoring overwhelming evidence. This sent Ari’s case to the Board of Immigration Appeals, where it sat.

ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) control every aspect of these detainees’ life and shortly after New Year’s 2001, and one week after Cathy submitted my documents to become his sponsor, Ari was deported.

Perhaps you have read about the issue of en masse deportations
of Africas, particularly those from Cameroon; it’s received
quite a bit of press. Check the San DiegoTribune,
The Guardian in the UK, and the Dallas News.

Once Madeleine learned of the pending deportation, we three begin our cell phone saga. Old TV tapes of Benigno Aquino’s murder as he stepped off the plane at Manila Airport, Philippines in 1988, ran through my mind. If Ari fell into the hands of the Cameroonian military, we feared he’d be executed as many of his political compatriots had been.

We had to find a way to keep him alive and that meant getting him out of Cameroon. First though, he’d have to retrieve his documents from the airline personnel who were under instructions from our own State Department to turn them (and Ari) over to the Cameroonian authorities as soon as he landed.

Ari’s wife was in Cameroon and, Madeleine thought, would be able to bribe the airport officials. We each put in a few hundred dollars and Madeleine sent it on to Eunice, what we’re calling Ari’s wife. The bigger problem would be getting Ari out of Cameroon. But I’m jumping ahead of myself here.

A Bit of Backstory

Ari is an Anglophile from Cameroon, a country in the heat of division between the French speaking majority and the English speaking minority, in the northwest and southwest regions of the country.

Well-educated, with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a Master’s in food production, Ari first worked in food processing with Guinness Beverages in Doula, the economic center of the country — something akin to our NYC’s financial district. That job was followed by a step up with IDAAS in Yaoundé. His marriage followed in April, 2018.

Life was good, though tensions were rising as the Francophone majority imposed their rule increasingly over the Anglophone minority. The final straw was the attempt to impose the French language on the English speaking minority. Anglophone teachers and students, along with members of the Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC), organized a peaceful, legally permitted demonstration on October 1, 2018 in Bamenda City, the capital of the Anglophone region. The date was also Southern Cameroon Independence Day. Demonstrators sought the return to peaceful coexistence, with Anglophones living in peace with their Francophone neighbors, a federal system under the protection of the law, as they had in earlier days.

This was Ari’s first protest rally and it was huge. He thought it went very well; he did not realize that at the other end of the crowd, Cameroonian police had fired tear gas and bullets to disperse the crowd. As he returned to the bus, he added his name and contact information to a paper as asked, so that he would be included in future plans.

Two days passed. On October 3, Ari was at work when his wife called to say two French-speaking men in military dress had come to the house looking for him. News quickly spread that military officials were arresting everyone whose names appeared on that list Ari had signed. Hundreds were already missing, including six from Ari’s bus.

Ari went to a cousin’s home that night.

The story gets condensed here. Ari’s cousin was arrested; his executed body found weeks later. Ari stayed hidden, but he was finally arrested in the spring of 2019, and tortured for four days. He was able to escape only through the help of one of the guards who knew him from their university days.

And so he fled, leaving behind his wife and a 12-day old baby girl. He arrived at our southern border on October 15, 2019 seeking asylum.

So, after spending over a year in our prison-like detention system on the Texas border, with his asylum case still active, and my documents submitted so he would have a sponsor to support him until his case was settled (which currently takes four years, in case you were wondering), our government had decided that he and all the other Cameroonians in our detention system belonged back in Cameroon.

NEXT TIME: Part II — So far and yet so close (it’s a much shorter post)


I’ve tried to introduce my readers to the way the asylum system worked (or didn’t) in the years 2019 and 2020. How much of this information was new to you? How has the immigration system changed in the years since then? Do you know how to find out?

6 Responses

  1. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet, this story is heartbreaking, even not knowing the ending. Thanks for shedding light on one man’s journey in an often cruel and indifferent world.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Glad you could join us, Tim. I’m hoping meeting an actual asylum seeker, learning his story, liking him, the media sound bites might make less of an impact.
      Janet Givens recently posted…The Saga Begins: Part 1My Profile

  2. Pamela
    | Reply

    Thank you for educating us. Important to read and understand, as sad as it is.

  3. Carolyn
    | Reply

    I echo the comment about heart-breaking. My current government in the UK does not understand or refuses to understand that it is impossible for refugees to acquire visas to come here legally as asylum seekers. The cry is “our country is too full”. Very sad

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, the tragedy of people needing to flee is worldwide. With more governments saying “not in my back yard” and very few looking at the forces that caused these unfortunates to flee from their homes. Glad you could join us.
      Janet Givens recently posted…The Saga Begins: Part 1My Profile

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