Africa

From trauma to joy: Cameroonian family reunites in Chicago

Ngwa Augustine is a Cameroonian man in Wisconsin who escaped torture in his home country, trekked across Latin America and obtained U.S. asylum.

From trauma to joy: Cameroonian family reunites in Chicago
Scripps News

Years of hardship and separation faded away last week when a Cameroon family reunited at Chicago's O'Hare airport. 

"I missed you so much," exclaimed Akwa Stella Ngang while tightly embracing her husband, Ngwa Augustine, who had been waiting at the arrivals gate. 

In 2018, before escaping to the U.S. alone, Augustine nearly died while in Cameroonian detention. 

He says he had been "tortured every day" for demanding more rights for the country's Anglophone minority. 

One day, guards dumped him on the street, thinking he was dead. When word got out that he survived, he had no choice but to flee without saying goodbye to his wife and daughter. 

"They were looking for me," the 35-year-old immigrant recalled in an interview with Scripps News last September, in which he detailed his incredible escape story, including how he trekked for months across eight countries all the way to the U.S. border. 

He said he owes his life to a church congregation in Madison, Wisconsin — and specifically to a couple who have been housing him for the past three years: Toni and Mark Swandby. He calls them his American parents. 

In late 2019, the Swandbys opened their house to this asylum-seeker they had never met. 

Augustine had just been released by ICE from federal detention, and needed a place to stay while his asylum case inched its way through the system. 

After the incredible hardship he had experienced in his life, meeting the couple and getting a free bedroom was a huge relief. 

"It was just magical. It was just something I can't really explain. The happiness I felt at that time. There was hope," Augustine said. 

Cameroonian immigrant granted asylum in the U.S.

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The Swandbys heard about Augustine's story after law students from the University of Wisconsin took on his case for free and got him out of detention. 

In 2021, he won his asylum case. 

Last year, he said he was impatiently looking forward to the day his American family and his Cameroonian family would all be by his side. 

Eventually, his wife and daughter received their visas for derivative U.S. asylum status just last week after passing their interview at the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon. 

At the airport in Chicago, last Thursday, Augustine and the Swandbys anxiously waited one last time. 

"You're going to meet your daughter you have not seen in like, four years, you know? Is she going to recognize me? How is she going to feel?" asked Augustine. The last time he'd held his 5-year-old daughter, she was only one. 

Then came a phone call from his wife and daughter to say they're on their way to their last hurdle: clearing immigration. 

Finally, after years of trauma, hardship and separation, the moment that makes it all worth it. 

"She has grown so big. You know, when I left her, she was still a baby" an ecstatic Augustine told Scripps News while holding and kissing his giggling daughter. 

For now, the reunited Cameroonian family will stay with the Swandbys and "just try as much to be together and see how we can move on," said Augustine. 

One day, they'll find their own place — but the Swandbys will forever be their American family. 

"We won't take the key from our house back when they move into another place. They always will be welcome," the Swandbys said.