To This Doctor’s Immigrant Patients America Still Stands for Freedom

To those fleeing violence and torture in their native countries, America still stands for the freedoms that made us great—and the most important to them, freedom from fear.

Dr. Danielle OfriWilliam Coupon for Reader's Digest
Editor’s Note: Reader’s Digest is partnering with to republish articles from our archives that dramatize and revive patriotic enthusiasm about democracy and its core values. This piece from May 2011 is one of a four-part series about the freedoms in America that make our country great. This essay, about freedom from fear, tells how a Cameroonian refugee was able to build a new life in America after fleeing his country and the political conflict that took the lives of neighbors and family members. Warning: This essay contains depictions of tragic violence.

It’s Monday afternoon, and I am sitting with my 1 p.m. patient in the medical clinic of New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, the nation’s oldest public hospital. Cédric Mbira (names have been changed) is a skinny 27-year-old from Cameroon whose baby face and unassuming gentleness let him pass for 15. Cédric has come to me via the hospital’s Program for Survivors of Torture, founded in 1995 by my colleague Dr. Allen Keller. The clinic offers medical, psychiatric, legal, and social services for immigrants who have been persecuted or tortured in their homelands. As one of the volunteer physicians, I help provide the medical care for these patients.

Over the years, I’ve met patients from Sri Lanka, Nepal, China, Serbia, Turkey, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Iraq. A few come with gruesome injuries—faces seared by acid, fingers or limbs chopped off. But more commonly, they bring their gruesome memories—rape, electrocution, beatings, near drownings, starvation, solitary confinement—things that might not leave a physical scar. Sometimes the most difficult memories aren’t of what was done to them but of what they were forced to witness: the murder of parents, knife attacks on friends, rapes of siblings, machine-gun fire on crowds.

Mostly my patients are like Cédric, young and otherwise healthy. They typically aren’t old enough to have acquired hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Often, though, it feels as if their souls have aged nonetheless.

Cédric grew up in a quiet middle-class neighborhood in the capital city of Yaoundé. His father, Benoit, had been raised in a small village and worked his way up to become an accountant and a member of the professional class. Along the way, Benoit had become involved in the opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF) party that was trying to change decades of one-party rule in Cameroon. But Benoit did not preach politics to the family. Instead, he sold them on education and hard work.

One day, when Cédric was 13, the SDF met near their home. Cédric, who had noticed how proud and energized his father looked when he returned from the meetings, tagged along. But that evening, things were different. Police, wielding wooden batons, raided the meeting and broke it up. People fled, bleeding and screaming into the night. The slowest were beaten the most severely. Cédric and Benoit were lucky: They escaped unharmed.

Like every other Cameroonian, Cédric knew the police were corrupt, but this was the first time he’d witnessed violence. “I will always remember that night,” he told me solemnly. “Good people, peaceful people, being beaten up.”

This included Cédric’s uncle. Serge—also politically active—fled to a neighboring country after the government threatened his life. Though nominally a democracy, Cameroon has had only one president for the past 29 years, Paul Biya. Corruption is rampant, elections are said to be rigged, and human rights abuses abound.

“Our country can do better than this” was Benoit’s constant refrain. So he continued to attend meetings, even though the government cracked down more violently. Police with tear gas, water cannons, and clubs broke up peaceful rallies. A scream in the middle of the night meant that someone was being taken away.

And those screams seemed to be getting closer and closer to where the Mbiras lived. Two blocks from Cédric’s home, a mother and father were arrested together one night, leaving four children without their parents.

“You simply grow up with that fear, and you get tired of being afraid,” Cédric said, almost apologetically.

When Cédric was 20 and finishing school, his parents agreed that he was old enough to join his uncle Serge in a neighboring country.

The three years he lived with Serge were the calmest of his life. “I could focus on adapting to this new culture rather than on being afraid,” Cédric said. He continued his studies and spoke with his parents frequently. Benoit always said things were fine in Cameroon, but from news Cédric gleaned at Internet cafés, he knew otherwise.

Serge felt that Cédric should go to America, where there were better opportunities. He himself didn’t have children, and Cédric was like a son to him. So in 2007, after Cédric was accepted at a college in New York, Serge bought him a plane ticket and arranged for a visa.

But since Cédric hadn’t seen his family in three years, he traveled to Cameroon first. The years apart had brought him even closer to his father. They stayed up late every night enjoying their talks about politics, movies, and books.

On his fifth evening home, Cédric and his father were again deep in conversation in a back bedroom while his mother and younger brothers and sisters were watching TV in the living room.

Their quiet chat was cut short by the sudden explosive sound of the front door crashing open, followed by screams.

Cédric could hear male voices yelling and glass smashing. Then it dawned on him: They’ve finally come to our home!

He could hear his mother being slapped and punched but couldn’t make out what anyone was saying amid the chaos. Benoit pushed Cédric into the bathroom and then went to open the bedroom door.

The police were already standing on the threshold and shoved Benoit back into the bedroom. Cédric quickly pulled the bathroom door shut, panting as he crouched on the icy tile floor.

The sounds of fists against flesh, of metal against bone, of his father’s screams of agony, seeped through the narrow crack under the bathroom door. Cédric held himself tighter, weeping silently, praying that his father would not be killed.

Adding to the cacophony was the crash of drawers being wrenched out of bureaus, furniture overturned, mirrors smashed.

Suddenly the bathroom door was yanked open. A sweating policeman yelled out, “Who are you? What are you doing there?”

Cédric heard voices yelling and glass smashing. Then it dawned on him: They’ve finally come to our home.

Cédric could not make his mouth move to form a reply.

A second policeman kicked at Cédric’s head. Cédric raised an arm to block the blow but was knocked back flat on the floor.

He slowly opened his eyes as the policemen left the bathroom. He saw Benoit lying on the ground, the room in shambles. The six men hoisted his father to his feet. Half-prodded, half-dragged, Benoit was hauled out. And then it was quiet.

It felt like hours before Cédric dared move, though it was probably only minutes. He walked gingerly through the wreckage of the bedroom, down the hall and into the rubble that was the living room. There was almost nothing intact—every surface was smashed, cracked, or overturned. Worse yet, there was no sign of his mother or his siblings. Cédric stumbled over the debris and out into the silence of the warm January night. He walked numbly until he reached the house of a friend.

It took two days to be reunited with his mother, who had run from the house with the younger children when the policemen stormed into the bedroom. Benoit was in prison, or so the family hoped.

Cédric called his uncle Serge, who urged him to leave. Three days later, with Serge’s help, Cédric was on a plane to New York City.

When I first met Cédric Mbira, a year after his arrival in the United States, he was disconsolate. Serge had called to tell him that his mother and siblings had disappeared again, and he feared they’d been arrested, maybe killed. Not long after that, Serge returned to Cameroon, and within a week he was dead, killed by police while marching in a human rights rally.

Cédric felt entirely alone in the world. Though he himself was now safe, he felt he had no reason to live. There were days he considered jumping in front of a subway train or swallowing a bottle of pills. He even researched buying a gun on the Internet. Cédric learned of the Survivors of Torture program from an African friend he’d met in America. The clinic offered support groups, but Cédric found it difficult to speak in front of others. After telling me his story—especially the part about his uncle Serge—Cédric was un-able to continue speaking. He turned away to compose himself.

Whenever I scan the newspaper head-lines and lament the political squabbles of the day, I think about Cédric Mbira and my other patients who have escaped from soul-rattling situations in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe—wherever. The perspective is jarring and inevitably humbling. Our worries seem small—even embarrassing—by comparison.

The only real moment of fear in my life was when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, and the acrid burning smoke wafted through the neighborhood where we lived with our new baby. As panic rippled through Manhattan that day, I was gripped by the terrifying question: Is this it? Is this how the war starts? Is this the moment that people become refugees—grabbing their children and running? Or when they become victims, unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is this the turning point, I asked myself, the moment when the world shatters, when freedom from fear suddenly evaporates?

That small moment of terror makes me wonder how my patients survived. How is it possible to live with such apprehension and trepidation every single day?

My patients are emissaries. They are blunt and intensely human reminders that we cannot take what we have for granted. It is usually at night, when insomnia edges out fatigue, that my patients’ stories return to me: the man who was waterboarded, the woman who was raped in the police precinct, the young boy who wandered into the bushes to urinate and returned to see that his entire family had been gunned down.

I cannot conceive of fear so deep. Shivering, I tiptoe out of bed to check on my sleeping children. It is an irrational response—I know. But that is what I do.

Two years after our first meeting, Cédric Mbira seems refortified. His mother and siblings have been found. They’d escaped to the countryside when the violence was at its worst and remained in hiding without access to phones or other means of communication. The situation in Cameroon has eased somewhat, and his mother has moved back to the capital. She tracked down her husband, who is alive but still incarcerated—three years, so far, without a trial. She has been able to visit Benoit every six months, but there’s no hint about when or if he’ll be released.

Cédric worries about those family members and friends in Cameroon who don’t have an Uncle Serge to help them escape. Still, his life has greatly improved. In America, the cloak of fear no longer weighs him down.

And last year, Cédric met a New Yorker, and they married. A son was born just a few months ago, and Cédric’s life has been turned upside down, yet again, but in an entirely different way. He now has an exhilarating and overwhelming new responsibility: Cédric Mbira is charged with creating a world for this new human being—healthy, loving, warm, and free.

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Danielle Ofri
Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, is a writer, editor, and practicing internist in New York City and co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. Author of a collection of books about the world of medicine, her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, the New York Times, and Slate, among others.