“I will speak on stage, but not about the rape,” Joy told me. Pained and startled, I took her hands in mine. Over the next two hours, tears streamed down her face as she recounted a journey that began in a military prison in war-torn Cameroon in 2018 and continued to the refugee and migrant shelter in Tijuana where we were sitting.
Joy, who is a friend and now the coordinator of that same shelter, asked me to come by her office to help her prepare her statement for a press conference. It was being held to protest the May 20 decision by a Donald Trump-appointed federal judge to block Joe Biden’s attempt to rescind Title 42 – a policy that invokes public health as a reason to deny her and thousands of others like her the right to apply for asylum.
The pursuit of refuge is an internationally and domestically sanctioned right. But in a world governed by borders designed to keep Black and brown people who need resources from countries that have them, it can also be a physically, emotionally and financially costly endeavour.
I came to Tijuana to do research for a book about these costs, which are even higher for women who not only make up half of the world’s displaced, but are also targets of sexual violence, and caregivers of the world’s 35 million displaced children.
It was her children Joy was thinking of when on January 21, 2021 – the day of Biden’s inauguration – – she attempted, and succeeded, to cross the US border. She was thrilled. She could petition for asylum, to finally reunite her family. Surely, she thought, under Biden, someone would listen to her story; to what she had endured.
Within minutes, however, Customs and Border Patrol, an organisation with a $17.7bn budget, forced her into a van. Without asking her a single question, they drove her back across the border. She had been expelled via Title 42.
Joy’s story starts two and a half years before this moment, in Anglophone Cameroon, where separatists have long clashed with the state. A single mother of three and a trained nurse, Joy ran a small pharmacy. One evening in late August, a man with his leg ripped open by a gunshot wound barged into her shop. His friend held a gun to her head demanding she suture him. But, remarkably, they were not the worst visitors that night. After they left, military men barged in. “Where are the rebels?” they demanded. It was determined that Joy had aided and abetted the separatists. She was taken to a military prison. She would not see her children for the next three years. She would never see her home again – the military men burned it to the ground.
For the following weeks, in a prison that reeked of faecal matter and blood, she was gang-raped every day as the soldiers demanded information about the separatists that she did not have. The brutality didn’t stop until she and her cellmates were lined up outside of their cell. Joy watched as the five people in line before her were mowed down by a soldier’s semi-automatic weapon. She was next. But, she told me, God had other plans. Just then separatists attacked the prison. Joy ran for her life. She hid in the jungle. There, her village chief smuggled her $200 and her passport. He told her she’d have to leave her children behind for now – she needed to get to safety first.
The money he gave her was barely enough to get to Nigeria and pay for two nights at a hotel. When she asked its proprietor if she could stay a bit longer, in exchange for cleaning the hotel, he agreed. He led her to a room in the basement. Her heart sank when she heard the lock click behind him. For the next month, she was drugged and forced to have sex with hotel patrons. A month later, a john, sensing she was working against her will, helped her escape. He bought her a ticket to Ecuador, one of the few countries in the world that admit Cameroonians without a visa.
Joy arrived in Quito penniless. She was told there, and later in Mexico, that she was too Black to work in a shop, too Black to even wash dishes. One time a store owner denied her work, only to proposition her for sex work. She preferred to be homeless. She learned from a Venezuelan couple how to collect plastic bottles and a tourist paid her to braid her hair. Eventually, a group of African refugees and migrants collected some money to give her.
While a flight from there to Mexico City for you or me is just four hours and 30 minutes, the journey north would cost Joy a dearly gathered $1,000 and eight months of her life. For refugees and migrants with more resources, its approximate cost is $4,000 and a week’s time. This was how she made it to Tapachula, a Mexican city at the border of Guatemala often referred to as an open-air prison where refugees and migrants have to be processed before they move north.
After eight difficult months of sleeping in cramped quarters and another racist sexual assault, she moved onwards to Tijuana. There she encountered the “Remain in Mexico” policy. To have her asylum claim heard, she needed to take a number and wait in Mexico until it was called. But two months after she got on the list, in March 2020, the border closed. Joy found herself unhoused, without prospects for legal recourse, in front of its rust-coloured expanse.
Joy’s story is both horrifying and unexceptional. I have yet to speak to an asylum seeker who did not experience gendered violence as part of her journey. Rape is globally deployed as a brutal weapon of war. And, once displaced, women are uniquely vulnerable to sexual violence.
But Joy, like the rest of the world’s displaced, is more than her vulnerability. I watch her in awe as she runs meetings in three of the languages in which she is fluent. She has managed to bring her three young children to Mexico. And she is a proud advocate for other immigrants, receiving them with empathy at the very shelter where she once lived.
Meanwhile, she continues to fight for recognition of her family’s asylum claim. As a female asylum seeker, Joy confronts a system intent on negating her humanity and potential. The day after I first met Joy, we marched shoulder to shoulder in a protest held for International Women’s Day where I learned the phrase “la migracion de mujer es una lucha constants,” For women, migration is a constant fight. The fight for women’s rights is not only in protests in our nations’ capitals but in the physical movement of women, globally, towards a better tomorrow.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.