Couple welcome asylum seeker into their lives
The story of Lewis Gwegeh Nuah's asylum journey last year from his homeland, Cameroon, through South America, Central America and Mexico to Spokane, gives insights into what asylum seekers experience.
He is in Spokane because Suzi Hokonson visited the border a year ago to volunteer with asylum attorneys. For seven weeks, she helped with child care, lunches and clothing while the attorneys worked with asylum seekers.
Suzi sponsored three Nicaraguan men. Alberto and his uncle Silvio have been moved five times and are currently in detention in Mississippi. Lester was sent to Adelanto Detention Center north of San Bernadino, and was in phone communication with Suzi after she left. Suzi and Eric Henningsen drove down for Lester's asylum hearing on Aug. 19, 2019.
After Lester was granted asylum and freed, he went to Las Vegas, where he has a childhood friend.
Lester told Suzi of a friend in Adelanto named Lewis. So when Lewis called Lester at Suzi's phone number, she knew who he was and learned more of his situation.
Suzi and Eric were corresponding with Lewis, and Eric offered to be his sponsor. Eric and Suzi flew to Los Angeles for Lewis' bond hearing.
"It was of value for us to go and show our white faces," said Eric.
Lewis was granted release on bond for $25,000. Eric and Suzi returned to Spokane, put together the funds and drove to Tacoma to pay Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE).
Lewis called Suzi on Monday, Dec. 16, to tell of his release. A paralegal Suzi and Eric had met in the waiting room arranged for him to travel by bus to Spokane. He arrived Dec. 19 and lives with Eric.
Lewis shared his journey into seeking asylum.
From colonial times until the 1960s, Cameroon was divided into French and English sections. After the colonial powers left, the people were divided by the cultures from their colonial history. The English-speaking are 30 percent of the population, and the French-speaking—70 percent— run the government and economy.
"Grievances and discrimination arose from uneven government representation and economic development," Lewis said. "In 2016, there was open violence between the English-speaking people and the French-speaking government. The government tried to quell the uprisings, which are still going on, and the government has responded with brutality."
Lewis earned a college degree in political science in 2014 at Cameroon University in Buea.
"I hoped to serve in the national or local government to make changes," he said, "but I learned that serving in the government is about who you know."
"Most allegiance to the government is out of fear, not love," Lewis said.
In 2016, he opened a small grocery store. He ran it until government forces burned it down in September 2018, because he spoke out against government brutality on the civilian population. He fled because the government threatened his life because he stands in solidarity with English-speaking Cameroonians. He left three siblings, a girlfriend and his son.
"I crossed into Nigeria, but they have an extradition agreement with Cameroon, so I did not feel safe. Many from Cameroon go to Ecuador, which offers a free visa to Cameroonians. I arrived in Ecuador Feb. 8, and at the hotel, I met two others from Cameroon and two from India. We shared our stories. They were heading to the U.S. for political asylum, so I decided to join them."
Trekking and traveling by bus, they crossed Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. It took four months to reach Tijuana on May 3, 2019.
Mexican immigration authorities had Lewis and 20 others cross to San Ysidro, Calif., where they were taken to the ICE detention center near the port of entry. He spent eight days there and was in San Luis, Ariz., 10 days before going to Adalanto Detention Center near San Bernadino, where he was in detention for seven months.
"Enroute and in detention, I learned that people in every country face unique threats, and every country has different ways of treating immigrants. When we arrived in Colombia, we found our own accommodation and applied for a transit permit," he said.
Panama, where thousands flee from Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, India and Africa, has makeshift camps. Costa Rica has established migrant centers.
In Honduras, local families rent rooms for $10 a night to immigrants for five to 10 days, while they apply for a pass to take a bus to the border.
In Guatemala, immigrants found cheap motels or rooms in homes.
In Mexico, immigrants are put in detention. Lewis was in detention in Tapachula, Veracruz and Mexico City. In Tapachula, 2,000 were in a space intended for 500.
"We were not free to come and go while we waited for a pass," he said.
From Mexico City, the group he was with went by bus to Tijuana, where they registered and were put on a waiting list. When their numbers were called, they could cross the border into the U.S.
Some with money paid corrupt officials to be put ahead on the list, he learned.
"When I went to Ecuador, I had $1,000. In Panama, I ran out of money. A childhood friend now living in Chile sent $2,000, which took me to Tijuana," Lewis said.
In San Ysidro, he was locked in a 10-by-24-foot room with 20 others for 10 days, and just let out for meals. He slept on the floor in a foil paper "blanket" to keep warm.
In Adelanto, he met other detainees and learned why they were fleeing. He befriended Lester and Alberto, playing soccer during the two-hour exercise time four days a week.
"I learned what was happening around the world, hearing scary stories of others fleeing from political violence," said Lewis who learned Spanish enroute, adding to speaking French, English, Vengo and Lamso.
"Some people lost their entire families. The family of one was in prison. Some could not account for relatives. Like me, they were heading to the U.S. to escape imminent danger," Lewis said. "Some had bullet wounds. Some had fingers chopped off. Some were fleeing gang violence. Those from India were fleeing religious violence and discrimination."
Just as detainees' stories varied, he found ICE officers varied. Some were compassionate, but followed professional rules to avoid becoming close. Some were mean, he said.
Until his asylum hearing Dec. 15, 2021, Lewis must wear an ankle monitoring device and visit an ICE field officer periodically.
He is eligible for a work permit in six months. Lewis has started a six-week Microsoft class and will spend some time volunteering. He is already helping at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and at the Lands Council.
Lewis, who feels warmly welcomed in Spokane, seeks invitations to share his story of fleeing and immigrating with faith communities and community groups.
Lewis, who stays with Eric, is grateful for all Eric and Suzi do for him and other asylum seekers.
"Many are sympathetic and are praying that my asylum will be granted so I can be a legal resident," he said.
Eric, whose grandparents immigrated from Denmark, said that immigrants come to find safety and freedom.
"We need to figure out how to solve our immigration situation," said Eric, who retired eight years ago and volunteers with Vitalant and the Fox Theater.
In 2016 and 2017, he and Suzi volunteered, taking five trips over nine weeks to participate in the Standing Rock Water Protectors protest of construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Lewis, who grew up Catholic, shares with churches his belief that this is God's world.
"When there is life, there is hope. Life is not a bed of roses. There are ups and downs. When I feel down, I know trials strengthen us," Lewis said. "I appreciate what I had, have and what will be. My faith keeps me resolute for whatever life brings."
For Suzi, the experiences with Lewis and at Standing Rock are ways to "live God's love in the world."
Once he is granted asylum, Lewis wants to do post graduate studies in environmental science.
In March, he will speak on "One Year: An Asylum Journey from Cameroon to Spokane" at 1 p.m., Saturday, March 14, at South Hill Library; 11:45 a.m., Saturday, March 21, at Argonne Library, and 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 24, at North Spokane Library.
For information, call 808-1255 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March, 2020