Part VI: Finding acceptance
Note: This episode discusses suicide.
In the final installment of our six-part series about the refugee experience, host Nelufar Hedayat talks to weightlifter, nurse and refugee Cyrille Tchatchet. A native of Cameroon, Cyrille first came to the UK in 2014 to compete in the Commonwealth Games. Feeling that it was too unsafe to return home, he became a refugee, experiencing both homelessness and depression. With support, Tchatchet went on to win multiple weightlifting titles, and became a mental health nurse. His story underscores some of the hardships that refugees face — and what can be achieved when people have the support and opportunity they need to succeed in their adopted countries.
During this season of Course Correction, we’re challenging you to reflect on different aspects of the refugee experience and share your thoughts with us.
Our last challenge is a place for storytelling. If you are a refugee, our challenge is simple: Share your story with us. Tell us how you came to be displaced, what obstacles you face and what your hopes and dreams are for the future.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
Note: This episode discusses suicide.
The term “refugee,” I would say it’s just a label. I wish people could know that being a refugee doesn’t mean you have to feel sad for me or feed me or something. I know some people do go through difficult periods, and it’s not because they are refugee, because even people who are citizens do go through difficult times.
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
You’re listening to a Course Correction, the podcast from Doha Debates where we challenge ourselves to change the world. I’m Nelufar Hedayat. All this season, we’ve been following the refugee experience, from the moment they’ve been displaced, to life living in camps to hearing the story of making it to a new home. But just getting ashore is only one step in the process. Some displaced people arrive in their new homes after months of anticipation and going through the resettlement process. Others are forced to make spur-of-the-moment decisions that dramatically change the course of their lives. This was the case for Cyrille Tchatchet. His story is so extraordinary, we’re going to devote nearly the entire episode to my interview with him.
In 2014, Cyrille was a rising star in his West African home country of Cameroon. As a weightlifter, he had started amassing more and more wins at competitions. Eventually, he came to represent his country at the Commonwealth Games, which were taking place in Glasgow, Scotland that year.
FEMALE SPORTS COMMENTATOR:
He is one strong athlete, very capable of stabilizing in very difficult positions. That depth he got to in his clean was something else.
MALE SPORTS COMMENTATOR:
Yeah, the way that he…
NELUFAR: But once he made it to the UK, his life circumstances changed.
CYRILLE TCHATCHET: When I left Cameroon, because I came to the UK to compete at the Commonwealth Games, so I didn’t really think it was the last time I would see Cameroon —
CYRILLE: — because I was looking forward to competing at the Commonwealth Games. So it’s during the Commonwealth Games that, you know, things got worse. I think that’s when I made the decision to remain in, in Great Britain, because when I left, I didn’t have plans to stay in the UK, because the problems I had was quite — still manageable. So I was still able to train and compete and still do things that I like doing. But when I got to Glasgow — so something did happen within the team that, you know, made me to remain.
NELUFAR: Was it for your own safety? Did you have to stay because it was unsafe for you?
CYRILLE: Yes, it was mainly for my personal safety.
NELUFAR: And that’s when Cyrille decided he could no longer return home. Overnight, Cyrille went from celebrated athlete to a person living on the streets.
CYRILLE: To be honest, when I left the Commonwealth Games village, I didn’t really think about the future. So I didn’t really think about what will happen to me. All I did was just, you know, I walked out of that village. I wanted to go as far as possible, because I didn’t feel safe to return to Cameroon. So I think I just took things as they came, because when I moved down south to Brighton, it was really — it was a shock to me because that’s when I realized that I’m actually going to be homeless, because I didn’t have anyone there. I didn’t have any house or any shelter during my time in Brighton. So I think it kind of hit me by — it was like a shock to come to terms that I will be sleeping rough.
NELUFAR: Gosh. So then what, what’s going through your mind?
CYRILLE: I was very, very sad, and I think it’s from there that my mood started to dip. So I became really, really low in mood. A lot of things were going on through my mind, you know. I was thinking about my family back in Cameroon.
CYRILLE: I wasn’t even able to communicate with my family, because I lost my phone at some point. So I wasn’t able to talk to my mum, because I was living with my mum and my five siblings in —
[NELUFAR SIGHS SADLY]
CYRILLE: — Yaoundé. So it was really, really difficult time for me. As a 19-year-old in a new country, you know — I was just in Brighton, you just see people moving up and down. People are rushing here and there. You don’t even get noticed, you know? So I spent my day watching the sea rise and fall. It was very difficult time.
NELUFAR: How did that affect your mental health?
CYRILLE: It was a big strain on my mental health. Mainly, my mood deteriorated quite quickly, and I came to a point where I couldn’t really, really accept the position I was in. You know, a few weeks before I was competing, you know, at a very big stage — that was one of my biggest competitions — with the big crowd and media everywhere, and I just found myself homeless suddenly. So it was a shock, and I actually came to a point where I, you know, I decided that I couldn’t take it any longer. And I actually planned to kill myself.
[NELUFAR SHARPLY INHALES AND EXHALES]
NELUFAR: Wow, Cyrille. That’s so heavy. That’s very heavy. How did you manage to get through that incredibly tough period? What, what was it that helped you?
CYRILLE: To be honest, I was quite fortunate to be in the UK, where we have access to high-quality and free health care. When I seek asylum in Brighton, in a police station in Brighton, I was transferred to an immigration removal center where I spent a few weeks. So my asylum application was declined, but my solicitor managed to get me released, pending my appeal to tribunal. So when I was released from detention, I was transferred to Birmingham, where my mood actually deteriorated even further. And it came to a point that I had to visit my GP, and I was put on antidepressants. So I — and was lucky to have a very good GP. He was very informal, so we would have a good chat. We’d talk about my mood, and we’d talk about other things surrounding me. He actually did encourage me to, to get back into, into exercise. So when he found out I was a weightlifter, he actually did encourage me to, you know, carry on going to the gym. So exercise did help me, going to the gym quite regularly, because that’s the only thing I could do. As you know, asylum seekers in the UK are not allowed to work. So I used exercise, you know, as a support —
CYRILLE: — a support tool. And exercise did help me. The medication my GP put me on did help me, so…
NELUFAR: Did you manage to get access to any charities or any organizations that were, that were supportive of you?
CYRILLE: I used to attend a church in Birmingham that had a special grouping for asylum seekers. So we’d just talk about how we feel, talk about our different cases. This was a good space for us where we could talk about all our problems and, you know, and reflect and find solutions all together.
NELUFAR: As a 19-year-old, as a young person coming to the UK, what did you think that people saw you as? What was the opinion of an asylum seeker? What did you hear about it?
CYRILLE: You know, as an asylum seeker, you don’t — you feel like a stranger.
CYRILLE: So you don’t really get integrated. You don’t really feel involved in the, in the society you’re living in.
NELUFAR: Yeah, yeah.
CYRILLE: Because I felt like when I was in Birmingham, I would spend my time between my house, the church and going to the gym. Although I did have, I did have some very good friends, some weightlifting friends, who were very kind and supported me. But I didn’t really feel that integrated into the society. So I couldn’t really tell what people, you know, were saying about asylum seekers. But it’s only now that I kind of move —
CYRILLE: — out of from being an asylum seeker to refugee that I can now see that. But you know, asylum seekers and refugee — it’s still a term that is not quite — I would say it still carries a negative connotation in the UK. As soon as you mention asylum seekers or refugees, you start thinking about, you know — maybe it’s just a criminal running away or thinking about someone across the channel on a dinghy, or they start thinking about, you know, all this sort of negative things. But one thing I would really like to say is that asylum seekers or refugees, they love their countries. They would rather be living in their birth countries, because that’s where they belong, and that’s where they have their families. So when they move out of that country, they have to learn a new culture. They have — most asylum seekers or refugees have to learn a new language. They have to learn the way of living in a new country, which is usually very difficult. Integration is something that’s also very difficult. So asylum seekers are not just people who move around trying to find a job. They are people who have a real fear. So they, they’re actually scared of returning to their country because of persecution or war.
NELUFAR: Whenever I meet someone who, in the UK, who’s like, “Oh, those bloody immigrants. They’re coming here, they’re taking our resources,” you know. “They don’t belong here.” I look at them and I say, “You’re right, we don’t belong here. But the reason we’re here is the reason that your country is great. And yeah, I did take a place in your school. Yeah, I did go to the GP. Yeah, I did use your facilities, but now I give back, because now I am British. And I love my new home.”
CYRILLE: Yes, it’s really sad, because I do hear a lot of that — that we, you know, we come here to take people’s jobs. Yeah, “Bloody immigrants. Go back to where you belong.” But I think it’s also being ignorant. They don’t talk about, you know, the immigrants being workers. They don’t talk about the immigrants supporting the economy. You have a lot of refugees in the UK, specifically, who are doctors, who are nurses, who are lawyers, and this type of things. I think we need to talk a lot more about this type of positive contributions of refugees.
NELUFAR: Cyrille isn’t just talking about this in the abstract. He’s decided to help others who are struggling with health issues by getting a degree and becoming a registered nurse. He says it’s his way of giving back.
CYRILLE: I think I got inspired by my GP, and the nurses at my GP surgery, whilst I was living here in Birmingham. When I mentioned about being treated with antidepressants — so I used to visit my GP quite often. And, as I said, my GP was, you know, he was very kind to me. We would have very good conversations. Although, you know, GP appointments only last about 10, 15 minutes, but I felt he really valued that time, I would say. So he was really interested in knowing a bit about me, a bit of the things that I’ve been doing. So — and when I was granted asylum, I wanted to support other people as well. So I decided to study nursing, you know, because I wanted to support other people as well.
NELUFAR: But even as he’s pursued a career in nursing, Cyrille has never stopped weightlifting. For him, it’s more than just a sport. It’s part of his identity.
CYRILLE: I feel like weightlifting is an addiction now for me. After the Commonwealth Games, I got injured. So when I moved down south to Brighton, I was actually injured. I was limping. I nearly broke my ankle at the Commonwealth Games. So it was like a long time between the Commonwealth Games to when I went back to the gym, which was when I was in detention, I think. I think it was at least a good three, four months.
CYRILLE: So obviously I was in a very bad situation. I was, I was homeless. I was isolated. So I’ve never actually been able to stop weightlifting. That’s why when I was detained, I actually went to use the gym, because I had my weightlifting gear with me when I left the Commonwealth Games village. So even in detention, I went to train. And since then — I don’t know, it’s something I can’t really explain. I don’t know if it is the social nature of the sport, training with people, and it’s cool to progress. It gives you a sense of achievement.
NELUFAR: Tell me what it was like to get back into the sport that you love and to be part of this really unique team, this really unique thing, which is the Refugee Olympics team. Tell me about that.
CYRILLE: I can’t remember exactly, I think it was around 20 — 2018. I was awarded a scholarship by the International Olympic Committee. And so this, I think it was called, it’s called Refugee Olympic Solidarity Scholarship. I think this scholarship was granted to about 45 to 50 athletes, refugee athletes who had the potential to compete at a very high level, but didn’t have a nationality. And so I was part of those athletes, and it was an honor to be selected, you know, to represent not just myself at the Olympics, but to represent displaced people, represent refugees. It’s always a dream for an athlete, you know, to compete at the Olympics. And the way I made it to the Olympics was quite atypical. When I was granted a scholarship by the International Olympic Committee, it gave me hope that, you know, I could eventually be an Olympian.
NELUFAR: But Cyrille’s Olympic experience wasn’t just limited to the competition.
CYRILLE: Some of the officials from the IOC sort of kept telling me that, you know, “We’ve got something for you. You’re going to find out very soon.” And they asked me to just, you know, to go to the Olympic Stadium for rehearsal. And they didn’t tell me what it was. So when I got to the stage, when I found out that it was the Olympic flag, I was like, “Oh my God.”
NELUFAR: Wow! Wow!
CYRILLE: And so that was — and after this rehearsal, I had to Google it: “Carrying the Olympic flag into the stadium,” and then saw that, you know, like people who carried the flag into the London Olympic Stadium. I was like, “Oh my God, this is a massive honor.” And I was so, so, so happy about it, just about the idea of the International Olympic Committee to include the refugee athletes, because the athletes who carried the flag into the stadium were five athletes from different — the five continents. And we had a refugee athlete, who was me, to represent the refugee “continent” or the displaced people’s “continent.”
[SYMPHONIC MUSIC SWELLS]
AMERICAN FEMALE ANNOUNCER:
Ladies and gentlemen, the Olympic flag.
[MALE ANNOUNCER REPEATS IN JAPANESE]
CYRILLE: I was privileged. I was really proud, not just to compete at the Olympics but carrying the flag was even a bonus.
FRENCH MALE ANNOUNCER:
Représentant l’équipe olympique des réfugiés.
AMERICAN FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Representing the Refugee Olympic Team.
[JAPANESE MALE ANNOUNCER REPEATS IN JAPANESE].
AMERICAN FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Cyrille Tchachet.
JAPANESE MALE ANNOUNCER: Cyrille Tchachetasan.
NELUFAR: Well, can I just say, I feel like we’re from the same country. We’re from, we’re from — whatever refugee land is, that’s where —
NELUFAR: — that’s where, that’s where, that’s where. And as a member of that stateless country, I am so proud of you and what you’ve achieved. Truly, you make the rest of us refugees very proud.
CYRILLE: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much. I just want to say this last thing that you know, ideally, you know, a perfect world would be a world without displaced people. Perfect world would be a world without refugees. But unfortunately, due to, you know, life circumstances, due to conflicts, due to things that are happening around the world, we do have refugees, we do have displaced people. They are not less of humans, they are normal people who just want to live and strive.
NELUFAR: Let me ask you something else. You said you were proud to be part of the Refugee Olympic Team. Why would you be proud of that? [LAUGHS] I mean, it means that you don’t have a home. It means you don’t belong anywhere. It, it, it — you know, it’s not a good thing, is it?
CYRILLE: Absolutely. It’s a bit — it sounds a bit paradoxical, but, you know, being a refugee — it sounds a bit weird to say, “I’m proud to be a refugee.” But saying that just means that, you know, although I had to leave my home due to circumstances, being a refugee doesn’t mean I’m less of a human. So representing refugees at the Olympics was also an opportunity to showcase that, you know, refugees are also able to compete. Refugees are also able — although they are unfortunate not to have a nationality at the moment — they can compete at a very high level.
NELFUAR: What do you wish people knew about being a refugee that they don’t know?
CYRILLE: Refugees are normal human beings. “Refugee,” I would say, is just a label. When I walk down the street, if I don’t tell you that I am refugee, you’re not going to see it on my face. And I was able to apply to university. I was able to go to university and study nursing. I’m able to work as a registered nurse. I was able to compete at a very high level. I’m able to have friends, able to travel around the world. You know, I’m able to, you know — I’m able to do everything. So the term “refugee,” I would say, it’s just a label, that — I wish people could know that refugee, being a refugee doesn’t mean you have to feel sad for me or, you know, you have to — you have to feed me or something. I know some people do go through difficult periods, and it’s not because they are refugee — because even people who are citizens do go through difficult times. I wish people could just, you know, know that a refugee is just someone who, you know, who wants to live a normal life and try as everyone else.
NELUFAR: I love that. A refugee is a citizen in waiting. Cyrille, thank you so much for talking to me. I really enjoyed this conversation.
CYRILLE: Thank you, Nelufar.
NELUFAR: It’s hard not to feel a tremendous amount of pride for someone like Cyrille, someone who just wants to give back and repay the debt that was given to him. This is something that we’ve heard time and time again, that helping a refugee isn’t just a moral thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do for our community and the country’s economy. This is something that both UNHCR Goodwill Ambassadors Mahira Khan and Cate Blanchett emphasized when I spoke to them, that investing in refugees is a good decision.
We are all citizens of this world, right? If I prosper, you will prosper. When we do this, when we nurture these children, what we are doing is we are building a generation that will do well for your country and the other country.
When you welcome refugees and the refugee experience into your life, your world expands. And so you — it becomes, it does become a richer place.
NELUFAR: These observations are bolstered by numbers collected on the ground. For instance, a 2017 study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame, USA found that refugees who have lived in the US for two decades paid an average of $21,000 more in taxes than they cost the government, pointing to an overall economic gain associated with refugee resettlement. And other studies have shown, too, that an increase in refugees also brings a boost to the median income and a rise in a country’s GDP. This is because refugees are particularly adept at starting new businesses, and they become a valuable part of the workforce that can replace aging populations. With refugees adding so much, it’s crazy to know that they still face so much discrimination. But if anything, that’s what this series is about, trying to show the real stories and erase years of stereotyping and misinformation because — as we can see in Ukraine — the global refugee crisis isn’t going away anytime soon.
Here’s UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo.
There are so many emergencies, so many other situations of conflict where people are fleeing, and we have to make sure that that compassion and that empathy is there. So I think it’s, it’s a moment for us to all reflect and pay attention to the refugee cause, and for people who are caught up in these situations that are beyond their control. It’s not voluntary, basically. It’s not a choice. And so the international solidarity is really needed. It’s beyond heartwarming. It’s actually lifesaving.
NELUFAR: So before we leave our show, one more listener challenge. This whole season, we’ve been focused on telling the stories of refugees and displaced people. We’ve heard stories of triumph, like that of Cyrille, but also from refugees who still have a long way to go on their journey to no longer being in need. We want to reserve this last challenge as a place for storytelling. So if you are a refugee, or you know a refugee, our challenge this week is simple: Share your story with us. Tell us how you came to be displaced, what obstacles you faced, and what are your hopes and dreams for the future. Please tweet us at @DohaDebates or to me, I’m @Nelufar. You can also find us on Facebook and Instagram.
And thanks for everyone who’s already tweeted in, like @Soggy_Life, who wrote about their struggles with diabetes and how that helped them empathize with refugees and displaced people who may not have access to vital medication. They wrote, “I test my sugar seven to eight times a day to keep myself healthy and without complications. Charity starts at home, so we can take care of family and others that need help.” Thank you so much for that and to anyone else who has shared their stories about the ways in which we can all, in some way, relate to some aspect of the refugee experience. We hope these challenges have helped put this crisis in perspective, and maybe even given you more ideas of how you can more actively participate in helping refugees. We’re going to be using our platform here at Doha Debates, as well as with our partners at UNHCR, to help amplify this conversation because, as we’ve demonstrated, it’s one that needs to be heard now, more than ever.
That is our show, and the conclusion of this very special season of Course Correction. A big, big thank you to our partners at UNHCR for all of their assistance with finding refugees and expert voices that have shared their stories in this series. Course Correction is hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Editorial and production assistance comes from UNHCR and Foreign Policy, with producers Manveena Suri, Maria Aragon and Claudia Teti. The managing director of FP Studios is Rob Sachs. The show is brought to you by Doha Debates, which is a production of Qatar Foundation. Our executive producers are Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Thank you so much for listening. We’ll see you soon.