"Someone Needs to Listen to Us": Why African Asylum Seekers Went On Hunger Strike

Inside a protest against racism at a Louisiana immigrant detention center.

Katie Jane Fernelius

African asylum seekers are on strike against racist conditions in an ICE detention center in Louisiana. David McNew/Stringer via Getty Images

PINE PRAIRIE, LA. — Forty-five African men, all seek­ing asy­lum, had been orga­niz­ing for weeks at the Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) Pine Prairie pro­cess­ing cen­ter in cen­tral Louisiana. On August 10, chick­en was on the menu — which made it the per­fect day to launch a hunger strike. 

Many detained migrants at Pine Prairie gen­er­al­ly avoid the cafe­te­ria because the meals — usu­al­ly bread, cab­bage and beans — don’t inspire much of an appetite. But once a week, the cafe­te­ria serves chick­en — its most pop­u­lar dish — and the chow hall gets crowded. 

One by one, the migrants — hail­ing from Ghana, Kenya and Cameroon — marched into the hall and picked up their serv­ing of chick­en. They walked across the cafe­te­ria and slid their untouched trays through the win­dow to be discarded.

We need­ed to cre­ate aware­ness to the facil­i­ty that we were start­ing a hunger strike,” says Tekum, a Cameroon­ian migrant and hunger-strike orga­niz­er who has been detained since Octo­ber 2019. (“Tekum” is an alias request­ed in fear of reprisal.) 

Accord­ing to inter­views with mul­ti­ple migrants at Pine Prairie, after drop­ping off their trays, the men left the cafe­te­ria and entered a hall­way where they sat on the floor or held their hands above their heads. Then, 15 guards entered with tear gas, pep­per spray and hand­cuffs. With no addi­tion­al provo­ca­tion, the guards climbed on top of three of the migrants to put them in chokeholds.

I was so fright­ful at the sight of the guards,” says Chi, also from Cameroon. They were all dressed in riot gear with weapons and hand­cuffs and batons.”

We are peace­ful demon­stra­tors,” Tekum says he plead­ed. We have com­mit­ted no crime. Some­one needs to lis­ten to us!”

Two weeks lat­er, offi­cials placed all of the hunger strik­ers into Echo, a ver­sion of soli­tary con­fine­ment, where they remained for the dura­tion of the strike. (ICE did not respond to a request for com­ment but has pre­vi­ous­ly denied the hunger strike even happened.) 

The August strike was the third hunger strike this year from African detainees at Pine Prairie — part of a con­cert­ed effort by the migrants to bring atten­tion to their expe­ri­ences of racism.

African migrants face unique chal­lenges in ICE deten­tion. Stud­ies by the non­prof­it Refugee and Immi­grant Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion and Legal Ser­vices found that migrants from major­i­ty Black coun­tries are sent to soli­tary con­fine­ment at a dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly high rate, pay high­er bonds, and face more rejec­tions for asy­lum than migrants from non-major­i­ty Black countries.

The African men at Pine Prairie have alleged in a com­plaint filed by the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter that they are being indef­i­nite­ly detained with­out parole and are the vic­tims of racist treat­ment at the hands of ICE.

These men at Pine Prairie know that they have to do back­flips to get any­one to notice them,” says Sylvie Bel­lo of the Cameroon­ian Amer­i­can Council.

Accord­ing to Bel­lo, Cameroo­ni­ans make up the major­i­ty of African migrants detained by ICE. The Cameroon­ian mil­i­tary faces cred­i­ble accu­sa­tions of arrest­ing peo­ple it iden­ti­fies as dis­si­dents, burn­ing down civil­ian homes and killing cit­i­zens with impuni­ty. But asy­lum is rarely grant­ed to Cameroon­ian refugees.

I came to this coun­try look­ing for a safe haven, but it’s hell in here,” Chi says. How much tax­pay­er mon­ey is being used to feed and house us when we could be out there con­tribut­ing to soci­ety? We aren’t criminals.”

By ear­ly Sep­tem­ber, after inter­mit­tent con­ver­sa­tions with ICE offi­cials, all the migrants involved had end­ed their per­son­al hunger strike. Many strug­gled with health issues and were warned they would be forcibly fed through a tube if they didn’t eat.

When Tekum was released from Echo, he real­ized the African migrants were now split into dif­fer­ent units, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to communicate.

Still, Tekum stays hope­ful. Every night, he con­gre­gates with oth­er Africans to pray. Often, they chain their hands togeth­er and sing wor­ship songs. His favorite is Ekwueme,” which trans­lates from Igbo as, The God Who Says and Does.”

Wear­ing a shirt he dec­o­rat­ed with Black Lives Mat­ter,” Tekum sings the song a cap­pel­la over a video call, his eyes closed: Ekwueme, Ekwueme. You are the liv­ing God, o! There is no one like you. You are a heal­er. You are my con­fi­dante. No one can touch me as you do.”

This song sus­tained me through the hunger strike,” he explains. It remind­ed me of my pas­sion to fight for what is right.”

Adden­dum: Since this sto­ry was report­ed, Tekum and at least a dozen oth­er Cameroo­ni­ans were trans­ferred out of Pine Prairie with short notice, in what their sup­port­ers say is like­ly retaliation.

Katie Jane Fer­nelius is a jour­nal­ist and radio pro­duc­er based in New Orleans.

Katie Jane Fer­nelius is a jour­nal­ist and radio pro­duc­er based in New Orleans.

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