The refuge sits in a part of Matomoros that was once a trash dump and the unmistakable smell of garbage still lingers in the air. There are homes here now. Shacks by American standards, but an active community exists here along the streets. There are people selling goods along the road, from trinkets, to food, to lumber. A shop owner sweeps the dust out of his store onto the street and a youth guides a horse drawn cart down the bumpy, but paved road.
Along this road sits a refuge started two decades ago to care for the destitute in the area. Two weeks ago that focus shifted when they added migrants and refugees after Mexican Immigration officials asked them to assist with people stranded south of the U.S. border, who were waiting for their turn to apply for asylum. The refuge can adequately care for 20-25 people during normal times. At one point during the week they were housing 102 people. On this day, they are down by half to 48 and still at twice their normal operating capacity.
I am here because of the refugees. Who are they? Where did they come from? Why did they come here? Talk of migrant caravans and increased border security dominates news headlines. While social media chatter and politicians continually speculate on who these people are and what their motives are for coming, I wanted to find out for myself. I wanted to meet them face to face.
Over the past two weeks the refuge has housed migrants from 15 different countries ranging from Central America, Africa and even Russia. There are distinctions among these people from country of origin to the motivation behind this journey. There are migrants searching for better economic conditions and refugees fleeing for their lives. Today, there are two major groups of people here. Cubans and Africans. Within the migrant community these two groups often have the most trouble and deal with the greatest degrees of discrimination and harassment. They are here because another shelter refused to hold them because of their nationality. Most of the Africans are English speakers from Camaroon fleeing from violence that I would speculate most in the United States, including myself, were unaware is happening.
David is one of the refugees from Cameroon. He agreed to sit down and tell me his story with a few conditions. He asked that I not take his photo or use his real name or the name of the place he is currently staying. He is a young man in his twenties with a slight build, a college education and he is deeply afraid.
Cameroon has been spiraling into increased levels of unrest over the past two years with violence exploding toward a full civil war, over the past few months, between the elite French speaking and the lower-class English speaking Cameroonians. According to David and others in the group, English speakers have been increasingly marginalized and are regularly passed over for promotions and acceptance into universities. Schools are a particular point of contention as the teaching positions are now dominated by French speakers.
David tells me that he was part of a peaceful protest when Cameroon authorities responded violently with tear gas and live ammunition. He said he was arrested, but two of his friends were shot. One died where he fell. The other was shot in the leg and eventually bled to death in the police station without ever being given any medical treatment. In the jail he was told by the authorities that they were going to kill them all. He accepted that he was going to die in that place.
“Every day they were taking more people for questioning.” He told me. “You would only hear shouting, brutalization and then you hear gun shots. But, they would never bring them back.”
Day and night, police would pull more prisoners from the cells and no one ever returned.
There was an officer that he knew from town who asked him why he was there. Explaining the situation of his arrest, the officer told him to give him some time. A while later he came back and told David that if he stayed any longer he was going to be executed. But, he was told, if he paid the officer the equivalent of $1,800 he would help him escape. David told him he had half that amount at home he could pay him and the officer accepted. This began a long line of people offering him safety in exchange for money.
A group of officers came and got him some time after midnight and took him to his house where he got the money and paid them. He was told to leave the country that night otherwise he would be killed. They took him to the Nigerian border where he paid a driver to smuggle him past Cameroonian customs. There was no going back.
But, even in Nigeria he wasn’t safe. He told me that even there, if caught, he could be taken back to Cameroon. And so in the darkness David began what became a two-month journey to the U.S./Mexican border that would take him through 15 different countries.
From Nigeria, he traveled through Benin, Toga and Ghana where he picked up a flight to Brazil that took him through Johannesburg, South Africa. From Brazil he traveled through Peru, then to Ecuador and then to Colombia where he bought passage on a boat to Panama. Panama required a weeklong trek though jungles and mountains with other migrants. Those from Cameroon, he met along the way, began traveling together. Eventually they made it to Costa Rica where they again got passage on a boat that took them to Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, they were stopped by police and each forced to pay a $150 before they were released. Once free, they continued on to Honduras, Guatemala and finally Mexico where they crossed the final 1,000 miles to the U.S. border to present themselves for asylum.
To further convince me of their plight, one of the other Cameroonian refugees showed me photos on his phone of dozens of dead bodies of men and women who had been killed in the violence. All had been shot. Some were in a mass grave. One body was burned. And perhaps the most telling was that of a woman lying face down beside her wheelchair. Two bullet holes plainly visible in her back.
To David and his companions, they believe the only reason they are still alive is because they are here in this place. To return is a death sentence.
There are two questions that almost universally come up when you tell people this story.
1.) Why didn’t they just fly straight to the United States?
2.) Why didn’t they go somewhere else?
The first answer is a simple explanation. You can’t travel commercially to the United States without a visa. As it turns out, for a guy like David, it’s next to impossible to get a one. So they go anywhere they can get that’s connected to the United States by land. Generally, Central and South American countries are their best options. They make their way there and then work their way up.
The second answer, caused me to pause and to process his words. Slowly. Deeply.
“It is in the United States that we feel more safe.” He said. “Because even in Mexico I don’t feel safe. I don’t even trust the Mexican police. While I was coming here, the police had us stopped on the way and they asked us to show our documents to show we were legal immigrants. We gave them the documents that immigration issued to us. The police told us that the documents are fake. They said it is not original documents and they asked us to each pay them the sum of $150.
So, we don’t even know where we are safe. If our government can get into a country where the officers are easily bribed, then they can easily bribe the police to assassinate us. So even while we are here we are not even safe. But, we believe that in the United States we are given maximum security. That is why most of us are heading to the United States. Maximum security.”
And so in a refuge he and his companions wait. Papers ready to present themselves for asylum like hundreds of others. They are tired, afraid and waiting on the American Dream.