After Cameroon

We are sitting across from each other, watching a rainy afternoon through the window of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic’s offices in Wasserstein Hall. Suddenly, Henry* thinks of a new anecdote to tell. This one, he explains, is about his time in jail while he was still living in Cameroon.

“I was there for five days. Five days was like five years. And every morning they come and say ‘Do you want hot coffee?’ And we say yes, but we didn’t know what is hot coffee. It’s not like this,” he says, pointing to the mug he has set on the table. “They’re going to beat you.”

Henry then begins to point at other objects in the room, while describing what I later learn is a matraque–a sort of heavy baton. He says that it has the black color of the leg of the couch, but in its dimension more closely resembles the leg of the desk next to us, and it is also strong and flexible. Once he believes I have caught on well enough to the concept, he returns to the story.

“So they can put you in something–they call it balancoire–and beat you in your feet. So you see it’s different.”

I look at him: “That’s what they meant by coffee?”

“Yes, that is hot coffee,” says Henry. “That is hot coffee. But in California it’s different.”

The length and detail of Henry’s story surprised me; he was ordinarily reluctant to discuss his reasons for seeking asylum. Almost all I had been able to gather thus far had been the basics of his journey–that Henry fled Cameroon for the United States at age 25, and that after flying from Cameroon to Togo, to Brazil and then to Mexico, he arrived in California. Once in California he was detained, but compared to Cameroon, he said, the detention center was a “hotel.”

What Henry preferred to discuss was what he has done since he came to the U.S.–everything from his bus ride cross-country to his current lifestyle and living arrangements. Most of all, he wanted to talk about the Clinic, whose services he has utilized almost since his arrival. His first goal in coming to Boston had been to find a free lawyer.

“I thought, if I got a free lawyer, my problem is gone” said Henry. “But when I got Sabi, I think my problem started again. Because now, she wanted to know everything.”

Henry was referred to the Clinic by the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights, and spent a full year working with clinical instructor Sabi Ardalan, as well as two students, Shay Johnson (JD ‘16) and Beth Carthy (LLM ‘15), who helped to prepare his asylum case starting in September 2014.

In order to demonstrate his eligibility for asylum, the Clinic needed to document the human rights abuses and trauma that Henry had suffered. Recognizing how difficult it was for Henry to talk about the harm he had experienced and the dangers he faced in Cameroon, Ardalan and the students cheered him up by also learning the happier parts of his past.

“She [Ardalan] asked me what we cook in my country, like traditional food,” said Henry. “And then I say, ‘Yeah, okay, you want to know.’ And then I tell her. So when we talk about my story and when she reached in some part that I don’t want to talk about and she want to know, I explain to her and feeling depressed and cry, now she says, ‘Oh, how about we talk about your traditional food?’ I was like, ‘Oh, you see, you remember my traditional food?’ and she says yes, and then we forgot about the asylum, about the case, and talk about my food, my traditional food. So I started now to be Henry again and forgot to cry. Yes, that’s how she worked. So she can bring me down and bring me up. Bring me down to get a good result, and bring me up to make me feel good.”

Johnson similarly recalled the delicate emotional balance necessitated in preparing Henry’s application for asylum.

“It [Henry’s case] taught me much more than substantive asylum law,” said Johnson, “it taught me the intangibles that we don’t learn in class–compassion and understanding for your client, learning how to manage an emotionally-sensitive matter such as Henry’s case, and dealing with the highs and lows that are inevitable when preparing for court.”

Henry said that Ardalan also asked about his nicknames, which confused him at first. Still, he told her that back home they called him Totti, after Francesco Totti, captain of the Italian soccer team Roma.

“Now, the day we went to the court in the morning,” said Henry, “first she sent me the message to say ‘It’s really cold, but it’s okay. I’m going to see you soon.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ And when I went there she said ‘You are Totti. You have one last chance to win. You have everything. You have all the team behind you, and you have to win. You are Totti.’ . . . When she said that I imagined, ‘Okay, I’m Totti. What Totti need to do?’”

Henry explained that picturing himself as Totti gave him the courage and determination to make it through that last day of his case, which included his direct exam conducted by Carthy, as well as the direct exam of the country expert and the presentation of the closing argument by Johnson. On March 6th, 2015, Henry won asylum.


Henry celebrates his asylum win with HIRC students and attorneys. From left, Shay Johnson, Beth Carthy, Sabi Ardalan, Henry, Professor Deborah Anker, and HIRC social work intern Jaimie Murray.

“We were all delighted,” said Carthy, “but I’ve never seen anyone so happy and relieved as Henry. When I met him the following week to file his employment authorization he was still over the moon.”

Even though the case has ended, Henry continues to feel the effects of the Clinic’s efforts to ease his transition to the U.S. When those at the Clinic found out that Henry enjoys soccer, they put him in touch with a local team and now he plays soccer almost every Monday. Henry loves the opportunity to play friendly scrimmages, and has also made a close friend in the group.

“I have a friend there and someone from Cameroon, so after soccer we can talk about what happened in Cameroon or how the team’s going now,” said Henry.

Now Henry feels comfortable living and working in Massachusetts. He has a job at a restaurant and is working toward a GED. He keeps in touch with his family in Cameroon, but he is glad to have found a community here too, both in the Clinic and outside of it.

* Client’s name has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Written by Jessica Tueller

Jessica Tueller is a sophomore at Harvard College concentrating in History and Literature with a specialization in Latin America. She is also working toward a secondary in Ethnicity, Migration and Rights and language citations in both Spanish and Portuguese. She is currently interning at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program.