TOKYO—Rose grew up in an English-speaking region of Cameroon, a Central African country uniquely, and violently, divided by language. When she was young, on the instructions of her father, she handed out fliers for a secessionist group opposed to the Francophone-controlled government. But as a teen, after she was sexually assaulted by security forces looking for her father, she swore off politics and became a teacher.
Two decades passed. On a visit to her home village in 2016, Rose attended a protest demanding resources for Anglophone schools. Teachers and lawyers were the tip of the spear of a burgeoning independence movement centered on language. At the demonstration, officers hit Rose on the head with something powerful enough to knock her out and land her in the hospital for months. Afterward she was repeatedly brought in for questioning by police. Her family name, linked to the secessionist movement, made her more of a target. (For this story, she asked to use a pseudonym.)
As she watched other teachers being hauled off and never heard from again, she decided to leave the country. Over the last three years, the violence in Cameroon has led to more than 3,000 deaths and uprooted half a million people—the fastest-growing displacement crisis in Africa, according to the International Rescue Committee. Asylum seekers from Cameroon often go west, to Europe and the United States. But Rose’s broker, whom she paid nearly $7,000, surprised her with the news that he could get her a visa to Japan, a country she knew almost nothing about. She had little idea of what she would do with her life when she arrived there, and barely 24 hours to decide. Still, she told me, “I just wanted to be in a safe place.”