He Fled Persecution — and Then Was Locked Up in U.S. Detention for Over 800 Days

After leaving Cameroon for the United States, Nelson Achiri Geh was shuffled between three detention centers; at one point, he didn’t see the sun for six months

John Washington
GEN
Published in
9 min readJul 22, 2019

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An ICE detention center in Georgia. Photo: Boston Globe/Getty Images

NNelson Achiri Geh’s childhood memories from Cameroon are filled with images of repression: police and soldiers marching through streets, politicians offering stern rebukes of those deemed unwelcome on their soil. For English speakers in the country, such was life.

Cameroon has two official languages, French and English, each a byproduct of a post-World War I decision by the League of Nations to grant France and England joint trustee status of the country. (Prior to that, the country had been under German rule.) After decades of tensions, French Cameroon, and then English Cameroon, gained independence in the early 1960s, but the larger French side hoarded political power. As a result, many Anglophones say they are victim to rampant harassment: Internet is at times cut off to English-speaking areas, English speakers are barred from political activity, and some are jailed and tortured.

The vestiges of colonialism set up lingering difficulties for English speakers, like Geh, who hope to flee from the violence and oppression. Now, their options for finding refuge outside of Cameroon are even more limited: The Trump administration instituted new regulations last week that bars Cameroonians from claiming asylum at U.S. ports of entry. They, or anybody else who has passed through any third country, must first ask for asylum elsewhere before attempting to seek haven in the United States.

In Cameroon, Geh became involved in 2010 with the Anglophone separatist movement — which is fighting for the recognition of a new, English-speaking nation called Ambazonia — soldiers and police started stalking his home and tracking him online. In 2015, while participating in a peaceful protest, Geh was arrested by soldiers. He says they tortured him and forced him to sign a form promising to cease involvement with separatist protests.

Though the trauma of that experience wasn’t enough to deter Geh from his activism, the loss of his brother, who died…

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John Washington
GEN
Writer for

John Washington is a writer and translator focusing on immigration and criminal justice. His first book on US asylum history/policy is forthcoming from Verso.