Charles Forchenmbin was a traditional tribal chief from the English-speaking region of Cameroon with a Master’s Degree in English and more than 20 years of experience teaching high school English. Following in the footsteps of his father, a village chief, Charles began speaking out about the harsh discrimination against Anglophones by Cameroon’s French-speaking majority in the 1990s.
“Anglophones, who make up 20 percent of Cameroon’s population, are a subjugated minority,” says Charles, “the government calls us ‘enemies in the house,’ and treats us as second-class citizens.” Most traditional rulers are willing to help the regime maintain power by falsifying election results. But Charles refused to go along with this fraud. “It is because of dictators like Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon for over 30 years, that Africans don’t have clean water, good schools, health care and transportation,” he insists.
Charles paid a horrendous price for exposing election fraud and government corruption. He was tortured and brutalized for two weeks, forced to kneel on broken bottles and barbed wire in a horrible cell with little ventilation. He was placed under house arrest but then got in trouble for violating the house arrest order—he left his city to stop the forced marriage of a 15-year-old girl to a 70 year-old man. The girl had come to him for protection.
This was when Charles decided he had to escape Cameroon to save his life, leaving his wife and five children behind. He crossed the U.S. Mexican border illegally and ended up being detained in Eloy, Arizona for seven months. Shortly after being released Charles came to Washington DC and found TASSC.
“TASSC was everything to me when I first came to Washington,” he explains. “It felt like home, everyone was so kind and helped me with whatever I needed. They sent me to Dr. Kate Sugarman, an amazing doctor who treats survivors like me with dignity. She documented all my injuries from the torture, and wrote a powerful document that supported my asylum claim. In December 2015, two staff members from TASSC—Andrea and Kelsey—came with me to my interview at the U.S. immigration court in Baltimore. The judge granted me asylum, then Andrea and Kelsey took me out to lunch to celebrate along with my niece. I will never forget that they were there for me on that day.
Andrea trained me to become a human rights defender and gave me so many opportunities. It was because of TASSC that I spoke on the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the United States Congress, was invited to San Diego, California to tell my story to hundreds of activists and appeared on Univision. I spoke to medical professionals and students at Catholic University and the College of New Jersey. Best of all, I got to meet and take a photo with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as part of a TASSC delegation.”
The first jobs Charles had in Washington were tough and he earned very little money, sometimes less than $10 an hour. “I stocked food in a store, moved furniture out of people’s houses, did whatever I could for whatever people would pay me,” he says. ”One time I worked all day in a warehouse and never got paid the $90 they owed me. But no matter what happened, TASSC was always there to counsel me, to tell me things would get better. A kind word from Sister Denise meant so much to me when my family was so far away in Africa.”
After Charles was granted asylum, he found a six-month job helping to transport people with mental disabilities. But then he found his current job working on a payroll with a health provider. “I felt so much better,” Charles explains, “working in an office with important responsibilities and not much stress. I really started to think I was making it in America.”
But his best day came in May 2017, when my wife Evelyn told me the US embassy in Yaounde, Cameroon has just granted visas to her and my five children. It was 2:00 am at his home in Maryland—he started jumping and dancing in his house and preparing for them to come. He found an apartment for his family, registered his children in school, and started thinking about his next step.
“TASSC sent me so many places. It projected my image to the world, back to my people in Cameroon. My village knows that I visited Congress, met Ban Ki-Moon and told people about the oppression of Anglophones in Cameroon. And all of this happened because of TASSC.”
Now that he is settled, Charles wants to continue defending human rights in Cameroon at TASSC events, while staying touch with his village in Africa—he is still tribal chief.