Former Cameroon refugee pens book on immigration system

By Polly March
BBC News, Wales


Writer Eric Ngalle Charles describes his journey to Britain from Cameroon and through the immigration system as a process of "brutalisation and humiliation".

The 36-year-old came to Cardiff in 1999 on a Zimbabwean passport after fleeing persecution in his village and being illegally trafficked into Russia.

Now he has written a book about what it means to be a refugee, caught between two worlds, destitute and unable to move forward with one's life.

Launched on Saturday at the Cardiff Story museum, "Asylum" features several refugees he has met through the creative writing classes he runs at the Welsh Refugee Centre in Splott, Cardiff.

All have varying stories of abuse, brutality and banishment from their home countries.

Mr Ngalle Charles, who was granted leave to remain in Britain after he met and married the mother of his daughter, now 15, says it has taken him a long time to come to terms with his own past and he is keen to help other refugees tell their own poignant stories through literature.

'Better off dead'

"The last seven days in my village and the things that happened to me were too painful for me to accept for a long time but I have found writing as a way of overcoming my trauma," he said.

"I lost my purpose in life and would have been better off dead for a while.

"Coming to Cardiff has been a rebirth for me and I want to help other people who are trapped in their memories."

The book's protagonist is Eritrean refugee Abdul, who was once falsely accused of being in al-Qaeda and then left for dead in the desert. His story is one that resonates with Mr Ngalle Charles.

"Moving from being an asylum seeker to a refugee is a very long process and in most cases is rejected," he said.

Image source, Eric Ngalle Charles
Image caption,
The book cover for Asylum by Eric Ngalle Charles

"The Home Office is always blamed for that rejection and then you fall into the category of 'destitute'.

"Indeed, to qualify for temporary accommodation and a meagre living allowance, while they wait for their case to be decided, asylum seekers must first prove to the Home Office that they are destitute, prove that they have no means of supporting themselves.

'Without dignity'

"Destitution among asylum seekers means being without dignity, without having basic needs met, completely without power, able barely to survive.

"An animal in the forest knows it can go out and hunt, or graze, but an asylum seeker in destitution is powerless, voiceless, toothless. Without."

The ambivalence of this situation means asylum seekers are often dependent on the support of strangers and charitable organisations, according to Mr Ngalle Charles.

But they also have to recount the trauma they have suffered time and again to different people, with no consideration for how this impacts on their mental health.

Mr Ngalle Charles believes this stifles their integration into society as a whole, meaning they can only be defined by the horrors of their past.

'Caught between two worlds'

"I want to convey this problem to the British public - that when you come here as a child it is easier to integrate but if you come as an older person you are permanently caught between two worlds.

"Abdul typifies this kind of life because when I first met him he was existing in Eritrea in his mind while living in Cardiff.

"He had left his two children behind and he was expected just to restart his life and there was no medium for him to tell his story.

"He talks to the Home Office, he's sent to Migrant Help and from there to another agency and another and each time he has to relive his trauma.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The author believes his book will help 'humanise' the refugees who are regularly shown in the media fleeing persecution in their thousands

"What are the mental health implications of this? He has left everything he knows behind him. By making Abdul relive his experience they are cutting out his tongue."

Mr Ngalle Charles, who lives in Cathays, Cardiff, said he hoped the book and his accompanying play, My Mouth Brought Me Here, which is being staged at the South Bank Theatre in London in August, will give a face to all the images of refugees in the media and humanise them.

"When people come here they are not coming to claim benefits or take jobs - they want a new beginning and to start afresh," he added.

Mr Ngalle Charles himself faced persecution in society at home following a family row over inheritance which saw him and his mother shunned and publicly humiliated.

Believing his life was at risk, he tried to leave the country but had his money stolen by unscrupulous men and fell into the hands of traffickers.

Cold and hungry and with nowhere to go, he spotted a National Express coach outside Heathrow destined for Swansea via Cardiff.

Recalling that a friend at home had once been to Cardiff, he boarded the bus.

He said: "I approached the first black man I saw and explained my situation.

"By coincidence that man, Emanuel, had been helped by Cameroonians during his escape from Rwanda, and he wanted to return the favour, so he embraced me and welcomed me into his home."

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