STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

One refugee shares what life is like in Michigan for him and his family

Mstyslav Chernov
Wikimedia Commons

There’s been lots of talk lately about refugees, mostly about whether to let them into the U.S. and how they’re being vetted. But there is a human side to this story about what it actually feels like to be a refugee. So today on State of Opportunity, we're going to spend some time with a refugee who's called Michigan his home for the past four years.

Benoit can’t give me specifics on why he fled his native Cameroonin 2011. Freedom House, the agency that sponsored Benoit, tells me he spoke out against the corrupt and extremist government he lived under, was captured and tortured many times, and that the last time he was tortured, he knew he had to leave for his own safety and for the safety of his family.

Benoit, whose last name we're not using because of his family situation back in Cameroon, says he didn’t have much time to pack before he fled. All he managed to bring with him was a suitcase, a backpack and his wallet. The trip from Africa to America would take nearly 24 hours with lots of layovers, but Benoit says the reality of leaving his family behind sunk in as soon as his plane took off from the runway.

He quickly realized that it would be a long time before he'd see his family again, "and the only way to stay connected and think that I’m going to see them again was to just to open my wallet, see the picture of my son and my wife," says Benoit.

Benoit's sister picked him up from the airport when he arrived in Detroit. She had fled Cameroon three years earlier and was living here. They hugged, and a mix of emotions washed over both of them. They immediately started to cry. "When you have almost more than 90% of your heart still back home," says Benoit, "you're joyous because you met your sister, but the rest of your body is still back home."

It's been four years since that tearful reunion between Benoit and his sister. 

Today he's joined in Michigan by his wife, Germain, and their son Ben. They arrived in Detroit two years ago, when Ben was four years old, and the three of them live together in a small apartment south of Detroit.

Inside, it looks like a typical American house: boxes of Honey Bunches of Oats stacked on top of the refrigerator next to a big jar of Nutella and some kid-friendly snacks. The TV in the family room is tuned to PBS, the volume a low hum in the background. 

The first thing little Ben did when he got to America was learn to ride a bike. Ben remembers it clearly. "It was red with training wheels!" he shouts. "My dad took the training wheels off." He fell the first few times, but now he’s a pro. Like a lot of other American kids his age, he goes to swim class every weekend, which he loves. His dad buys him chocolate bars when he does well on tests. He’d rather play outside then do homework. He likes to watch TV when he’s allowed.

It’s a far cry from how he remembers his young life back in Cameroon. "I was super brave," he boasts. "I was was stopping people who [were] trying to kill us."

That, at least, is young Ben's memory of Cameroon. But he doesn’t have to worry about any of that now that he’s in America. It’s safer for him here. It’s safer for Ben’s dad, too, but the adjustment’s been harder.

Benoit misses his family, nearly all of whom still live in Cameroon. His adopted son still lives there.  "I would love to see them here" in America, says Benoit. "I'd love to know they are safe." He also misses the familiar rituals from his home country, like how all the family would gather around in the evenings and listen to their elders share stories about their past, their culture. To carry on the tradition, Benoit shares stories with his own son about their homeland and culture.

He also stays busy. Benoit says it helps keep his mind off everything going on back in Cameroon. He's taken cooking classes through Freedom House and English classes, which he’s incredibly thankful for. He’s also getting his masters in accounting at U of M Dearborn so he can become a CPA. (He does accounting for a non-profit in the area, but says he's on the lookout for a better paying job.)

But despite those extracurricular activities, he still hasn't made a lot of friends here. 

He says back in Cameroon it was easy to make friends, especially at school. But here, he says when he emails classmates, maybe one person gets back to him. When he tries to call, no one picks up the phone.

"But I learned that this is the culture," says Benoit. "People are afraid. By the time they hear your accent, they are stepping a little away from you." Like they're scared? I ask him. "Exactly, they’re a little scared. They don’t know where I’m coming from; they don’t know who I am."

But he gives a little laugh and says that's fine because "it's not my objective to have friends. My objective is to better my life here ... and I think I’m doing great so far. I think I’m doing great."

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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