Martin hadn’t planned on coming to the U.S. He really hadn’t ever thought about leaving his native Cameroon. Part of the Anglophone minority, he grew up near Mamfe in the southwestern region of the country. The oldest of five children, he went to school and church regularly while helping on the family cocoa farm. By the time he had finished high school, Martin began his own business, hoping to become a cocoa exporter, a bridge between farmers and large companies. He got his passport with the idea of bringing Cameroon’s cocoa to the rest of the world.
But in October 2017, he used that passport to flee the only home he had ever known. Now, he’s being held at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract detention facility in Aurora, awaiting deportation back to the very place he fled.
In recent years, Cameroon has seen increasing violence in the Anglophone region, and major news outlets have reported the country is on the brink of civil war. Hundreds of people have died, and hundreds of thousands more (some estimates are as high as 500,000) have been displaced as Francophone government forces clash with Anglophone separatists.
The country is a result of decolonization in the region, whereby the French colony gained independence in 1960, with the adjacent British colony joining the new country the following year. While the two communities lived in relative harmony for decades, the Anglophone minority has repeatedly made claims of marginalization and neglect, with a lack of basic infrastructure and opportunity compared to the Francophone region.
The conflict escalated in 2016, and government forces have been accused of jailing and beating suspected separatists, as well as burning villages and shooting unarmed protesters. Groups of separatists have also been accused of violence.
Martin says he experienced some of this firsthand. Since 2016, he and his family have had to live in the bush for periods of time to escape the violence of government forces, he says. At times, they would have no electricity or internet, as the Francophone-controlled government tried to quell the protests. He became involved in the protest movement late that year, and protests continued throughout 2017. So did the violence, he says. One Sunday, Martin says he faced tear gas while leaving church along with the rest of his family. In September 2017, his father was arrested at the family farm with some of his workers, while Martin and others fled among gunfire. Martin hasn’t seen or heard from his father since.
On Oct. 1, 2017, Martin partook in a large protest, calling for an independent, English-speaking country of Ambazonia.
“It was a general peaceful protest for the independence of southern Cameroon,” Martin says. “We were holding peace flags but the government opened gunfire on the population and people were killed. I was beaten.”
In the week following the protest, as he recovered, Martin decided that in order to protect his family and save his life, he had to leave. “I told my mom I can’t continue like this,” he remembers. “And my mom, she was scared and she started crying.”
Still, he grabbed his passport and headed for the closest airport. On the way, he went to collect a debt from a friend, hoping to gather as much money for the journey as he could. When he arrived at his friend’s house, the military had it surrounded. He says a soldier tried to stun him but missed, giving Martin time to escape. It took him more than a day walking through the bush to get to the city of Douala. From there, “I figured out how to get out of the country,” he says.
Learning that Cameroonians don’t need a visa to enter Ecuador, Martin boarded a flight to Quito on Oct. 15, 2017, with stops in Liberia, Ghana and Spain.
But life in Quito wasn’t what he expected. Not only was he in an unfamiliar place, but he hadn’t realized no one would speak English, and he had no way of communicating.
“I wish I could speak Spanish, I would have stayed in Ecuador,” Martin says. “But it wasn’t easy for me, so I decided to leave.”
Martin started moving north, hoping to find a place where his English would help him communicate and he could start working. He describes a harrowing journey full of bribes, dangerous river crossings and narrow escapes. He took trains, buses and boats, sometimes walking for days on end through jungles he didn’t know. He barely ate, often going days without any food. Other times he paid to stay at refugee camps, waiting for immigration waivers to continue his journey north. At one point the group he was with was robbed by six men, four carrying machine guns, the other two with machetes.
He survived off the kindness of the other migrants with whom he was traveling, people who had access to money from back home. At one point, he contacted a German missionary he knew who sent him money to continue on his journey. He traveled through Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica. He bypassed most of dangerous Nicaragua by taking a boat in the raging seas, almost sinking multiple times, he says. He made it through Honduras and Guatemala but by the time he got to Mexico he was exhausted and sick — coughing up blood, which required spending time in the hospital.
“I was so weak,” he says.
It’s obvious the memories are difficult for Martin. As he talks, he constantly picks at his fingernails. He often pauses, shaking his head and sucking air through his teeth as he remembers these painful moments.
Eventually, Martin got on a bus to Tijuana and walked across the border into the U.S., presenting himself to immigration authorities and claiming asylum. It was Jan. 25, 2018, three and a half months since he had left home.
“I don’t think people fully understand the human diaspora exists because people are unsafe wherever they are living and that’s not just a problem centralized to the Northern Triangle and Mexico, that’s a problem across the world,” says Laura Lunn, detention program managing attorney at the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), which hosts legal orientation classes at the Aurora detention facility. “As a result, we see clients from all over the world coming to the United States to seek asylum because they’re afraid for their lives.”
Anglophone Cameroonians have been showing up at the U.S. southern border since 2015, Lunn says, but what started as just a handful of people has steadily increased, especially within the last year. Continuing protests and clashes with government forces have caused “an influx of people from Cameroon right now,” she says.
“It’s government soldiers that have been responsible for a lot of the harm we’ve heard about,” Lunn says. “Generally speaking, when somebody is being persecuted based on their political opinion or imputed political opinion, that is a pretty straightforward asylum claim.”
Martin says his first interview with the asylum officers occurred around 4 a.m. and he was completely disoriented, as he tried to explain the conditions he left back home.
“I was totally depressed, I hadn’t talked to my family yet, I didn’t even know what I was saying,” he says.
From the border he was transferred to the detention center in Aurora as his asylum claim processed. But once here in Colorado, things only got worse. He grew even more depressed as he couldn’t reach his family through the phones at the facility. “I was thinking, if I had known this is what I would have to go through, I wouldn’t have come,” he says. “Why did I even make the mistake of coming here?”
He was lonely, with no friends or family to communicate with, no one to talk to at the detention center. A few weeks into his detention, however, he started getting volunteer visitors from Casa de Paz, a local nonprofit aimed at helping people and families affected by detention. “I talked with them, I explained my situation to them, they really wanted to know who I am,” he says. For the next eight months these local volunteers visited him each week as his asylum case made its way through immigration court.
Without any legal aid, Martin represented himself, eventually losing his asylum case.
“Everything the judge said went over my head,” he says. “I was fighting a losing battle.”
But he appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals. And then he waited.
By early fall 2018, he was at his wit’s end, frustrated by the months spent in immigration detention, and the inability to contact friends and family back home.
Seeing how distraught Martin was, some of the weekly volunteers, Sarah and Darren Straus, offered to sponsor him and apply for his parole. To the surprise of everyone, Martin was released at the end of September and moved in with the Strauses in Highlands Ranch.
“We lived happily,” Martin says about his time with the Darren, Sarah and their daughter. “We ate together. We sat in the living room together. We played games. We watched TV.”
He joined Darren’s soccer team and immersed himself in a nearby church, taking comfort in the religion he’s practiced since childhood. He befriended neighbors in the predominantly affluent and white community, and was often asked to house-sit or dog-sit in the neighborhood.
He also went to monthly check-ins with ICE, until December, when he was told he didn’t need to come back for a check-in until April. With the help of the Strauses and others in the community, Martin hired an immigration lawyer who filed a motion to reopen his case in January, even as they awaited the verdict of his appeal. Citing Martin’s poor mental health during his asylum hearing, as well as new witnesses who can attest to what he experienced back in Cameroon and the increasing violence since he left, the motion asks the Board of Immigration Appeals to reconsider his case.
However, it appears his original appeal was denied back in October, and the notice was sent to the detention center, despite the fact that ICE had his address at the Strauses’.
Regardless, Martin says he never received it and was unaware his appeal had been denied when he showed up at the ICE office in Centennial for what he thought was a routine check-in on April 24.
Several of Martin’s new friends, including Daniel Larson, along with Larson’s three kids, accompanied him to the scheduled ICE check-in. After waiting for a long time, Larson says, an ICE officer told Martin’s friends they had to leave the building.
“They kicked us out,” he says. “We had to wait outside.”
Awhile later, an official came out and informed the group that Martin had been arrested and was being transferred back to the detention center to await deportation.
“They didn’t allow us to say bye. I persisted and persisted and talked to all of the supervisors, and finally they let us talk to him in a visitation room through glass,” Larson says. “We were all in tears.”
That night, Martin had planned to go to his weekly Bible study. The next day he was going to play soccer with his team. Now he’s back in detention more unsure of his future than ever.
Since leaving Cameroon, he says, “nothing has changed” in the country. In early April, Human Rights Watch published scathing reports condemning the Francophone government for torture, illegal detention and deadly attacks of Anglophone separatists. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights recently visited the country, acknowledging “the killings and brutal human rights violations and abuses,” warning that if the government didn’t address the issues quickly, the situation could spiral out of control. The U.N. Security Council is set to discuss the crisis on May 13 for the first time.
Martin says his father’s farm, house and church have all been burned down. One of his brothers spent time in a hospital after he was shot in the leg. His younger siblings are living with an uncle in the Francophone part of the country so they can attend school. He can only hope his mom is still safe and well. He’s afraid that if he’s sent back, he will be immediately arrested or killed.
“If people who have never partook in anything are being killed, and I was teaching people the national anthem and I took part in a peaceful protest?” he asks. “Put yourself in my situation: If I go back, what do you think will happen to me?”
Larson says an ICE official he spoke with in Centennial said it could take anywhere from one to three months to arrange travel documents for Martin’s deportation. The official also told Larson that Martin should receive a few days’ notice, and have time to alert his friends and say goodbye.
“Hopefully he won’t just disappear, but he could,” Larson says. Martin’s lawyer has asked for a stay of deportation while the motion to reopen his case is pending. And Martin’s friends have started an online petition addressed to ICE through change.org, asking that Martin be allowed to remain in the U.S.
“ICE intends to deport Martin to Cameroon, where he will be imprisoned and likely killed,” the petition reads. “Martin is a good man, hard worker and gentle spirit. He has touched many lives in the community in just a short time, and would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. He deserves to be free and safe, and build a life for himself in America.”
As of this publication, nearly 2,000 people have signed it.
“I’m missing them a lot,” Martin says. “I miss my church, my neighbors, I miss my soccer team, too. Now I have a family here, I have a big family outside.”