As a Black Refugee in America, I Know My Life Is in Danger Here Too | Opinion

If my mother and I had stayed in Cameroon, we would not have survived. We had no choice but to abandon everything and everyone we loved and escape, an experience I thought would be my worst nightmare. I was wrong.

I grew up in the town of Muyuka, in the southwest region of Anglophone Cameroon. Anglophones in Francophone-dominated Cameroon experienced intense discrimination and marginalization. I was going to law school because I thought it could be a way for me to improve the condition of my country. But in 2016, any hope I had of bringing change was destroyed when the military was sent to brutalize and repress the peaceful protests of Anglophone leaders and citizens calling for equal representation. The Anglophones formed a secessionist army, the Ambazonians, to defend themselves, and the Cameroonian civil war began.

One day, in May 2018, as I was walking down the street carrying water home from the local tap, I was spotted by the Cameroonian military. I tried to run, but there was nowhere to hide. They began to beat me with belts and sticks and decided they were going to set me on fire. They called for another military member to bring gas, and as he got closer, I realized I knew him; we had played soccer together at university. He persuaded his friends to let me go, and then he told me if I wanted to survive, I would need to leave.

I knew he was right, and human rights organizations soon documented the widespread torture and killings committed by Cameroonian security forces.

My mother and I escaped and flew to Ecuador, then made our way to Mexico, a common route for refugees and immigrants from Africa. It took us over a week to cross the Darién Gap, a stretch through one of the most dangerous jungles in the world that bridges Colombia and Panama. We survived, but others, whose bodies we passed, were not so lucky. On our way up to Tijuana, we were robbed; everything was stolen, including our passports.

When my mother and I arrived in Tijuana, I believed as soon as we crossed the U.S. border that things would be all right. I envisioned an America that upheld the law fairly and where racial discrimination and political persecution were not tolerated. I had no idea that the worst part of my journey would start at the San Ysidro port of entry.

My mother and I were immediately separated, and U.S. immigration agents put me in a packed cell where the lights and freezing air conditioner were kept on 24 hours a day. Many refugees and immigrants have spoken out about these "freezer" cells, although U.S. Customs and Border Protection somehow continues to deny they are overly cold. Let me tell you—it was unbearable.

After nearly two weeks, I was transferred to the Adelanto detention facility, handcuffed and shackled, as if I were a hardened criminal. On the three-hour bus ride, many thoughts ran through my mind, as my picture of America came crashing down. I had come here, seeking safety, to legally ask for protection. Why was I being treated this way?

I had no idea, but after a lawyer from Al Otro Lado consolidated the cases of my mother and me, we won and were released in September 2019.

I thought this meant I would finally experience the America I had come to admire.

Then reality started to hit. After a couple of months of living in the United States as an asylee, I went to meet up with some friends in a residential area of San Diego to take a car service to a movie screening together. I called to let them know I was outside. As I was on the phone, a white woman came out of a nearby house and threatened to call the police on me, claiming I was spying on people's mail and telling me it was a federal crime. She said I met the description of people suspected of committing crimes in the area. When my friends came outside, the woman told me to my face that I was lucky to have white people as friends.

That incident was not only embarrassing. It broke my heart. I was slowly beginning to understand that my skin color restricted me to certain places, and that to do certain things, I needed to be accompanied by white people.

When George Floyd was murdered, on May 25, it was the first time I had heard of a Black person being killed at the hands of the police in America. It was devastating—and eye-opening, as I quickly learned about the similar tragedies that came before him. But it was the police shooting of Jacob Blake, on August 23, that really shocked me. That this could happen while the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were still so fresh and sparking large protests across the nation made me realize these incidents of police violence could no longer be considered aberrations. They seemed to be an American trend.

The police, the very people who are supposed to protect us, are killing us. Police in the United States have killed at least 765 people so far in 2020, and Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police as white people.

Rally in Wake of Jacob Blake's Shooting
People march in support of Jacob Blake and his family to the Kenosha County Courthouse on August 29 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Scott Olson/Getty

I keep thinking back to the incident in San Diego, understanding how easily that situation could have gone differently had my friends not been white and had the woman called the cops. As a Black refugee in America, I know my life is in danger here too.

I see the people on the streets and all over the country peacefully protesting and crying out for justice, the same as my people in Cameroon. I also see the military being brought upon its citizens, beating and tear-gassing the protesters, the same as my people in Cameroon. The same persecution that made me flee my home country is present here, in the land of the free.

On the world stage, America presents itself as a beacon of equality, a bastion of human rights. It is excruciatingly clear to me that this country will not live up to those expectations until the color of my skin stops being a death sentence. Until the government takes responsibility for this ugly reality and commits to playing an active role in eradicating racism, America will never be the country it thinks it is.

Chris Enow is currently studying to be a pharmacy technician. He also plans to continue his studies to pursue a law career.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.