To America as an immigrant; in Isaan as an aspiring global citizen (part 1)

PART 1: Out of Africa

In 2009, the United Nations reported the number of refugees worldwide of 15,200,000, 41% of which were minors. It was that year I became one of 2.2 million refugees in Africa. My story as a boy who fled the Central African Republic and became a refugee is a story shared by millions of others globally. Despite the odds, I was incredibly fortunate to be one of those youths out of tens of thousands who got helped by refugee organizations. And this semester, I’ve had a chance to study abroad in Thailand. Here is my story.

Guest contribution by Saint Cyr Dimanche

I. The child in war-torn Central African Republic

The sound of gunfire had shaken me intermittently through the night. It was our third night hiding in the forest. I stood in the dim morning. To the north, slowly coming into view was the outline –Kosi-mbae, a granite mountain with patches of green trees. This mountain was where my people originally came from. It’s also where we had fled to.

My mother and my nine-year-old sister were crying. My mother said I had to go. She didn’t say where I had to go, but that I had to go. In the course of three days, she had lost her husband, and now she was sending her step-son away.

She pointed me off to the southwest. In Kari, our tribal language, she said, “You have to leave this place. I’ve lost your father. I can’t lose you, too, my son. May our ancestors protect you and light your ways through.” Then, changing to the Sango language, she said, looking intensely into my face: “Nzapa mo ide lo” [Oh, God, help him and guide him]. The last I recall her say was: “I hope to see you again. Go, my boy. Stay off the road. You have to go now.”

I looked around me. This extended family was all I had really ever known; it was my life. This town, Loura, was the only place I’d really ever known.

The town had no electricity and no running water. No one had a phone, or even a cell phone. In the Central African Republic (CAR), pumps were allotted to towns–one for every 3,000 people. There were two in my town. I was the one who had to go to the community well every day to get water.

My father once had more than one hundred heads of cattle, making him one of the wealthiest men in the town. Cows were both a sign of wealth and a very real source of income. He was also a petty trader, traveling here and there to get goods and bring them back to the village to sell–women’s clothing, sugar, salt, local spices, cigarettes. My father told me stories of his travels–sometimes crossing the border into Cameroon, to sell beans, rice, cassava flour, peanuts, honey, dried vegetables like okra, and return with other goods to sell in Loura.

In my community, we all considered ourselves as one family–my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my grandparents. There some who I wasn’t even sure if they were blood relatives or just friends–but it didn’t matter: the more than one hundred of us were one big family, which we called kari. (My actual mother had died two weeks after I was born, so my stepmother was the only mother I had known.) Every night, our entire kari ate dinner together, split between men and women. We all ate from the same large plates of food with our hands, laughing and talking while enjoying our delicious homemade meal!

A drawing of my house in Loura (Artwork by Itsaraporn Kaepimai)

The happiest days of my life had been when I went to kindergarten in this town. Every morning I went to school, we were greeted at the door of our classroom by classmates and teachers, offering a welcoming hug and a handshake! This is what I miss the most about my childhood and schooling in Central Africa!

As kids, we didn’t really have dreams for our lives. We all just wanted to get through school so we could find work in the capital city Bangui.

In my village, we spoke Kari and Fubé, a Bororror-Muslim language spoken in northern CAR, Cameroon, Chad, the Congo, and Mali. When we stepped out, we spoke the linga france of CAR, Sango (there are 72 languages in this country of 4.6 million). I had never walked on a paved road my whole life.

I had to go to the next level of school in the prefect capital, Bocaranga, where I stayed with relatives.

But then civil war once again fell upon CAR when I was ten. All the schools were closed. After just three years, my education ended. For safety’s sake, my family brought me home.

But even being back home could not save my family from the ongoing civil strife. Word spread of rebels entering villages to plunder and seize able-bodied men to fight alongside them. My father’s herd dwindled as rebels seized them for food. Within three years, he only had sixty head of cattle left. By early 2009, he had none.

Typical rural Central African houses, like in Loura (photos taken of Central African on Facebook)

My family often had to run into the woods to hide from the rebels whenever they attacked. But finally one night our efforts to hide no longer worked. In February of 2009, the rebels raided our village. As usual, my sister, my stepmother, my father, and I dashed for the woods. I was running as fast as I could, and my father stayed further back. I turned as I ran, only to see my father captured and dragged away.

A lot of people had been captured then. I didn’t know what had happened to my father. Then, three days later, word finally came: my father had been killed when he and other prisoners tried to escape.

I was angry and devastated, and wanted more than anything to avenges my father’s death. My stepmother said that she’d already lost her husband and didn’t want to lose her son, too.

She feared that the rebels would come and forcibly make me a soldier. She feared that I might even join the rebels and then lay low until I could inflict my revenge against them.

Tears flowing, I finally broke my embrace with my mother who had to hold my sister back from following me.

I was just a scrawny, 14-year-old kid. I didn’t have a map. I had only a few coins in my pocket. I had just the clothes on my back. No belongings. I was leaving the only home I had ever known.

I know now, as I knew at that moment, that this was the most devastating day in the history of my family.

It was only then that I realized that my family had always been around me and that I had never really ever been alone.

I took my first step as a refugee, literally fleeing for my life.

II. The refugee

I walked the fifty kilometers through the forest to Bocaranga by myself. The only other place I knew to go, from my father’s stories, was Cameroon. In Bocaranga, I joined four other boys my age who also wanted to escape to Cameroon. We never talked about why each of us were fleeing because everyone’s story was the same: we were fleeing the violence and the chance of being captured by the rebels.

We didn’t have anything. Among us, we had about $25. We only knew that we couldn’t take the shortest route to Cameroon, which was about 90 kilometers, because it was too mountainous, and we learned there were rivers that we wouldn’t have been able to cross. Even if we’d had enough money (it would have cost the five of us $50), we wouldn’t have taken a bus to a Cameroon city further south on the border, Garoua-Boulai. We did not dare to travel on the road system for fear of being captured by the rebel army. Our only choice was to go through the forest, first striking out in a circuitous path away from Cameroon, then south, and then in a broad arc, southeast back toward the the Cameroon border.

The forest itself, though, was a dangerous route to take. As we had no map, our only way was to talk to people from the small villages scattered throughout the forest whose foliage was so thick that the sun’s rays rarely had a chance to reach the tree cover. We would ask someone where the next village was and they would tell us the name and point to a mountain or other landmark and that’s where we would go. We didn’t have any food so we survived by eating wild fruits that we found along the way, always on our guard against the many deadly snakes. Since we had no other clothes, we would have to take them all off when we came to a stream, wash them out, and then wait for them to dry.

Sometimes people would let us into their homes and give us food and a place to spend the night. But it was risky to do this because these kind hosts might have turned us over to the rebels if they thought we were trying to escape the country. Other times we would sleep outside, but always near somebody’s yard. We never slept in the forest because we were afraid of being killed by the lions or forest elephants. We simply had to be safe. Even then, when we heard a roar of a lion or the trumpeting of an elephant that seemed nearby–which happened often–we ran away as fast as we could in the opposite direction.

We neared our destination. Had we taken a bus, the trip might have taken anywhere from three to nine hours to make the 300-kilometer journey. Had we walked along the road, it might have taken ten days. But going from village to village in the dense forest, collecting anything we could find to eat, and fleeing any hint of lions, elephants, or rebels, it had taken us three weeks to make it to the border with Cameroon.

This was the crucial moment for refugee–reaching that point where one is fleeing to one is a refugee.

We decided to cross the border at a small town (I can’t even remember the name now) because it was safer. We were so young and could have been seized by officials or rebels. To get over the border, we disguised ourselves as Cameroonian students, arming ourselves with books and pens that people had given us along the way. Although we arrived in the morning, we had to wait until sunset to cross. It was nerve-wracking. We had to wait until dusk, just before the border closed, so that the border guards wouldn’t be able to see our faces very clearly and let us pass.

But we made it! We were out of CAR! We were alive! We had been seized by neither rebels nor lions!

We didn’t go straight to the capital of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. Instead, we went up through north Cameroon where we could work on farms to make our keep and make a little money, and then move on.

As we had no money, we compatriots had to split up. To this day, I have never seen any of them again. Most farms could only take one person at a time. Since we didn’t have any food, we would work on farms for a few days to earn a little money–very little money–just 20 cents a day. The work was very hard but at least the farmers fed me so I was able to start saving money. The farmers didn’t want you to leave and would even try to enslave you because they needed workers. So I never told the farmers that I wasn’t coming back; I just said I was going to a market and left all of my clothes and belongings behind. I had saved enough to pay for a ride in a car that took me to the next city. And this is how I got from one city to the next.

My journey of well more than 2,000 kilometers came to end when I finally reached Yaoundé in July 2009. I had only made it here by the many, many hospitable and kind strangers who helped me along the way. It had been six months since I had left my mother and sister that morning that seemed so long ago.

My 2,000-kilometer routes from my home, Loura, to the capital of Cameroon, Yaoundé

The first thing I did was to register with a refugee organization. I didn’t have any official papers at all. I wasn’t even sure of my birthday or birth year. I told them of my ordeal, which they were able to confirm. So they helped me fill out the paperwork. I was now officially a refugee.

Like so many other refugees around the world, when we lack documentation, we are all given the same birthday: January 1. So don’t be surprised if you get to know people who were young refugees only to discover so many January 1st birthdays.

They directed me to a refugee camp, but I heard it was crowded and very violent. Luckily, a few days after I got to the capital, I met a man from the Central African Republic who had grown up only about ten kilometers from my parent’s village. He knew them and lots of my relatives. I was really happy to have found someone who spoke my language. He became my friend and I lived with him until he got married six months later. After that, I got my own room. It was in a building that was falling down, and water leaked through the ceiling. I had a bed, a light, and even a television (first time?), but I had to cook outside, even in the rain.

To earn money, I worked in construction. I labored more than 10 hours a day and earned $1.80. The work was really terrible. I had to carry 25-kilogram bags of cement up and down hills and got very little rest. I had to use a wheelbarrow to move materials from one place to the next. My hands were bloody all the time. The conditions were so bad that in April of 2010 I got really sick and ended up in the hospital. Three weeks in, I had to have surgery on my kidneys. It was lucky that I didn’t have to pay for my medical care there, but the hospital did not have enough funding to provide food for patients. Again luckily, I had a friend who visited me once or twice a week and bring me food and money so I could buy my own food. I don’t know how I could have survived without the kindness of this friend, who to this day continues the grueling work of construction.

2011 photos of me and friends while refugees in Yaounde, Cameroon. The young man in the blue shirt was the one of the friends who brought me food and money all through my six-month stay in the hospital.

And his kindness was long, for my hospital stay stretched on longer and longer as I tried to recover. But it was during this six-month stay in the hospital that my life as a refugee dramatically changed: the hope of immigration!

One day an American couple came to talk with me in hospital. They asked me about my story and came back to visit many times. Two weeks after I finally got out of the hospital in October of 2010, a call came from the refugee office. They said that the American couple I had met was from a Lutheran social services organization (now called the Ascentria Care Alliance) which sponsor the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program. They wanted to help bring me to America. By this point I was 16. Because of my tender age and that I had lost both of my parents, my application was approved in one year instead of the usual two or more years of vetting.

As I waited anxiously during the year that I was waiting, the refugee office provided me with enough money to live on. They did not want me to work anymore since I was still recovering from my illness. People came to visit me in my room, and I had a lot of visits to the doctor. Sadly, during my two years living in Cameroon, I was not allowed to pursue my education because of my refugee status.

Finally, word came in October 2011 that it was time for me to actually leave for the United States. I had gone from a boy fleeing to being a refuge to being an official refugee. On that plane, I would be transformed into an immigrant–a nervous one, as I had never been on a plane before!

Read the second part of Saint Cyr’s account on December 19: “Part 2: Into America,” and “Part 3: Back out again to Isaan” on December 21

Saint Cyr Dimanche studies international relations and political science at Brandeis University. He studied about development and human rights issues in Khon Kaen this past fall.