Growing up, I hated that my parents took refugees into our home. Now I know better.

·5 min read

For as long as I can remember, there were always strangers living in our home. Sometimes for a week, other times longer, as long as a few years.

My parents brought my twin brother and me from Cameroon in 2005 when we were 2 years old. We stayed in an apartment in Hawthorne, California, with my mother’s cousin. I was really happy when we got our own apartment in the same complex. It was a two-bedroom, one for my brother and me and the other for our parents.

But it was almost never that way.

I don’t recall much about the people who lived with us during those years. Just that they had all just gotten here from Cameroon, mostly men and that they were given the room that had been for my brother and me. We would sometimes sleep with our parents, other times on an air mattress in the living room.

I resented being displaced by them. I resented them using our television to watch things I wasn’t interested in watching and eating things I had been waiting to eat.

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At times the burden drove me to anger or caused fights between my brother and me or between us and our parents.

After our little brother was born, we moved to a three-bedroom, but that didn’t alter the arrangement. By then I had come to realize that my parents never asked those staying with us to contribute toward rent or buy groceries. I began to hate those people for taking advantage of us.

Silently seething

I was tired of always having someone in our home. Tired of constantly sharing a room. Tired of others eating leftovers I was saving for myself. At one point, there were nine of us cramped in this apartment. It felt like we were living in a hostel.

I never actually complained about it. I guess I always understood that my parents were trying to help people, and maybe I remembered when we were the newly arrived who were being helped. I knew that Cameroon had been dealing with political and sectarian violence causing a dire and underreported humanitarian crises, and that the country had broken out into civil war.

Still, I hated these people who kept invading our home and was very happy when it was finally just the five of us. I’m not sure what made my mom decide in 2019 to stop letting people stay with us. Maybe she got tired of sharing our space and our food and getting nothing in return. My father agreed to the change but ultimately violated that agreement.

Marvel-Britney Njimbong in Gardena, California, in October 2020.
Marvel-Britney Njimbong in Gardena, California, in October 2020.

But last July, in the middle of the pandemic lockdown, one of Dad’s nieces suddenly appeared in our home. We didn’t understand how he could bring her without discussing it with us. He said that she had been locked in a detention center, and that he had agreed to house her. I'd be lying if I said we weren't upset, but I knew that she had been through a lot and that it would be wrong not to welcome her into our home.

It was after 10 p.m. when she and my dad got there. It was very awkward, but my mom gave her a warm dinner and my little brother gave her his room. I tried to be nice to her, but I hated the fact that we were letting someone into our home again. I had gotten used to the space and the privacy, and I thought we were all happier without the intrusions.

The next day, my mom gave me a few hundred dollars to take my cousin shopping for clothes. At first, she was hesitant to spend our money, but I persuaded her to pick out whatever she liked.

When we got back home, she kept to herself and seemed to be trying to stay out of our way. It made me imagine what it would be like to have to rely on others and worry that you are in their way and will overstay a welcome that is your very survival. I tried to make her feel more comfortable and spent time with her.

Making the struggle real

I remember her reaction when she first noticed my braces. I was helping her cook breakfast and she asked what was in my mouth. At first I was confused, but soon realized she was pointing at my braces. I explained what they were, and she said she didn’t like them. I was caught off-guard by her bluntness but came to realize it was a natural response for anyone encountering something new. In fact, it was exactly how I felt hearing about her odyssey to get here.

She had fled Cameroon and flown to Panama, then walked with a group of other refugees through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border. Some nights, they pooled their money to rent rooms to sleep in. Other nights they slept outside. They ate what they could when they could.

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They were but a few of the tens thousands of displaced people from Cameroon and tens of millions throughout the world.

My cousin ended up only spending a few days with us, but my time with her made a lasting impact. I guess it had been building within me, a change of heart about the imposition of these guests in our home. I had understood for a long time that the strangers in our home had made arduous journeys and put themselves at great risk for ultimate safety, but I guess in some way their struggle hadn’t been real to me.

Nor had the extent of my parents’ generosity and empathy.

They have given my brothers and me a beautiful and comfortable life, and the most beautiful thing they gave us has been all those strangers in our home. So many people around the world are disadvantaged or treated unethically by governments, sectarian leaders and political policies. I’ve seen them with my own eyes. I look forward to helping those people in need, as my parents have done for many years.

Marvel-Britney Njimbong recently graduated high school with honors. She plans on attending a community college before transferring to a four-year school. She plans to study business and global economics.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Immigration: Giving refugees from Cameroon a home. My own.