I Can’t Breathe. The System is Choking Me.

“In my thinking, I would also skip the perseverance that I had shown until this moment, having applied for the Schengen visa the second week of June. It was a day before my flight, the eighteenth of August, 2015, but I still did not have it! The correspondence with the college did not help much, except for boosting my constantly fading faith.

My meditation, right before concluding with a deep breath and a long, sorrowful sigh, would then give way to a landscape of uncertainties, unknown possibilities, finally all interrupted by a conversation with my father.”

Refuge-e: The Journey Much Desired, 242

Interview with Lisa Wickham, award-winning Producer-Director and President/CEO of Imagine Media International.

The dog; me.

It is 3p.m on August 18th, 2017. I just hugged a girl who holds a special place in my heart and passed through security check in Frankfurt international airport. Her presence in this massive, crowded yet empty airport fought back my perpetual loneliness. It took me through the apprehension that follows my identity every time I travel internationally. That yearning of belonging, of being.

I have completely forgotten the stress and near-depression that clung onto me a week earlier, after waiting to hear from the Canadian embassy for more than three months. The University of British Columbia (UBC) required me to attend Jumpstart – the orientation program for first year students – within seven days; my German study visa was expiring within five days. Having declined Georgetown University’s generous Arrupe scholarship and, consequentially, a possible future in the United States, not being able to obtain a Canadian study visa to pursue studies as an International Leader of Tomorrow, I had imagined what it would be like to go back to Swaziland. Feeling like a dog whose owner just admonished for being a dog. Wagging and coiling its tail all at once. The dog; me. The owner; my refugee identity.

If you can feel a tiny-bit of what I feel on a daily basis, I have done my homework.

I have been in touch with a friend across the Atlantic. Just a little more than a year ago, in June 2016, I met her at Yale University during the Yale Young Global Scholars program. Her family lives in North-Vancouver. They will generously host me for two days before I can access my room in Totem Park Residence at UBC. They will pick me up from YVR, Vancouver international airport. That will mark the start of a new journey in Canada. A new array of possibilities and stressors.

A Reunion

It is 6pm on August 17th, 2018 – a year later –  I just got back to Vancouver from Calgary. I organized this trip to see a childhood friend. Who knew we could reunite in Canada, after surviving destitution and deprivation in Dzaleka refugee camp? Nearly seven years since our last encounter, after I left Malawi without even saying goodbye. I wonder how many Butterfly Effects led to this reunion! Flying is unsustainable, but I booked buses for both ways to bask in the gorgeous landscape along Trans-Canada highway, crossing the inland southern parts of British Columbia into half-way Alberta. The Fraser River Valley, the topography of Kamloops, the Rockies, Banff National Park: O’Canada!

When we embraced each other at the Greyhound Bus Station in Calgary, I was like, “Dude, you haven’t changed a bit.” His father drove us home, chatty about his recent legal dispute of a traffic ticket. Apparently bending traffic laws is only unique to Africa – or the Third World, one might say. It is only reserved for whites in North America.

We prayed. His mother – just like my mother would – served us beef stew, and all the seven years condensed into a night. An evening even. Just an inexplicable shadow projected backwards called ‘Time.’

We talked about a lot of things. Unbelievably, two completely different routes brought us across the Atlantic. I am still a refugee; he is a Canadian Permanent Resident, soon to be a citizen.

Change, Privilege?

In August 2017 when I came to Canada, I had finished writing the manuscript of my book, Refuge-e: The Journey Much Desired. I had already contacted an editor and a self-publishing company. I had faith in its publication, despite the uncertainty about my education, my future, my life. My publisher’s editorial review warned me that my book ends on a “bleak”. I ask a simple question, “Do I just go to sleep with a troubled mind and a restless spirit?” (Pg. 257). Apparently, such an ending embodies my anxieties and a book should generally end on a positive note to satisfy the reader. My 19-year-old reaction? I can’t betray my feelings of helplessness and hopelessness to please the reader; YOU. If you can feel a tiny-bit of what I feel on a daily basis, I have done my homework.

Map by Tristan Bobin

Almost three years in Canada, a lot has happened. I got to interact with professors and students from various fields and walks of life. I got to speak and do musical performances on stages across North America, Africa, and Europe. I even made a conscious choice of temporarily halting media engagement and quitting social media. It all seemed too much. How more privileged can a refugee be?

So much curiosity surrounds my identity. A lot has changed in three years, and more so in eleven years, but one thing remains : I am a refugee.

I might be a refugee, but I’m a human first. I can’t breathe, because the system is choking me.

The Dance

Almost three years after bidding a temporary bye to my love and to my life in Germany, life has circled back to uncertainties: I am dancing to the same study permit rhythm with the Canadian immigration system. My summer job will soon be terminated because such a dance keeps you busy, with rarely an exit in sight. It takes away opportunities. We call the dance ‘bureaucracy.’ Or systemically targeted limitations that at times amount to structural injustices. I got a job offer that would require me to move to Berlin in September, but this seems unlikely. I will likely still be dancing to the rhythm.

In the past few days, I sleep with “a deep breath and a long, sorrowful sigh.” I awake with “a landscape of uncertainties, unknown possibilities.” Just like 5 years ago when I was restless, waiting for the Schengen Visa. Just like three years ago in my perpetual waiting for the Canadian temporary residence (study) visa. Just like now. Time is slower for the 79.5 Million forcibly displaced peoples.

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels

But my father is not here to interrupt my thoughts. George Floyd is. Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and many black men and women whose killings have led to the current revolution. To topple systemic racism, to end racial injustices against people of color and indigenous populations around the world. Depending on how far back you go, the list of these black folks gets longer. The likes of Patrice Lumumba and Malcolm X might appear. The Agĩkũyũ warriors wrongly termed “Mau Mau” and significantly massacred by the British might come to light. The soldiers from all over the African continent massacred by the French in Thiaroye, Senegal, after fighting alongside whites in the Second World War might appear. The Zulus crushed to make way for Dutch settlers and British imperialists, and who eventually crafted Apartheid might appear. All the way down the history lane, to ‘black women raped, tortured and killed by their ‘slave masters’. To the very first black men and women taken against their will, packed into boats and forced to cross the Atlantic Ocean to become properties following genocides against indigenous peoples of the lands.

My thoughts, my story, get drowned in the ocean of grief, sorrow, anger, frustration and, simply said, exhaustion of oppression. And my thoughts, my story, get amplified by the larger mass. After all, it is these systematic exclusions and executions that render me, and twenty-six million other individuals ‘a refugee.’

I might be a refugee, but I’m a human first. I can’t breathe, because the system is choking me.

Today, June 20th, just like every day of the year, let us take a #step_with_refugees. En masse, in solidarity. With Black Lives Matter. Idle No More. The LGBTQ+ community. And many more individuals and minority groups fighting to be heard, fighting to live fully and truly. Fighting to breathe.

Njamba J.M. Koffi, in celebration/commemoration of Refugees World Wide. #World_Refugee_Day_2020, #step_with_refugees.

1 Comment

  1. Dear John Michael,
    We have lived many years and were yet to read such an immensely inspiring piece.
    We feel an overload of gratitude to have had this opportunity to meet you through your book; to learn from you and grow in wisdom.
    We hope, one day, to meet you in person.
    Wishing you a future filled with growth, love, family, and, of course, continued creativity.
    Sincerest regards,

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