Laredo Morning Times | When the gunmen stopped the car she was riding in and ordered, “Everyone, out, out, out,” Hilda Bih Muluh tried to explain that her wheelchair was in the trunk.
She tried to let those armed men know that she wasn’t defying their orders – she couldn’t comply with them.
“Everybody was trying to jump out,” she says, “but I can’t jump out.”
She has muscular dystrophy and relies on a wheelchair to get around. That day in Cameroon, where she had established herself as a well-known radio journalist and disability rights advocate, she had been lifted into the car.
“I tried to explain to them that I was a person with a disability,” the 40-year-old recalls. “But they pulled me out of the car. They pulled me out roughly.”
Roughly enough that they left her bruised, shaken and seriously considering for the first time a possibility that had once felt unthinkable: leaving.
Before that moment, Muluh had visited the United States several times, including for the Mandela Washington Fellowship, which was created as part of President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. But, she says, she always grew homesick after a few weeks.
The same month she was yanked from the car, she came to the United States to attend a conference for people with muscular dystrophy. This time, she stayed for the duration of her visitor’s visa and decided to apply for asylum. Cameroon’s civil unrest had left her feeling unsafe even before she encountered those gunmen, she says. Sometimes she couldn’t get home because of gunfire. And once, after visiting a hospital, where a teenager was taken after being shot by the military, a group of soldiers stopped her. They threatened her and took her recorder, she says.
“It was a very hard decision because I was taking the chance of letting go of the life that I knew and the work I was doing, which I loved to do,” she says. “But I chose to come because I really felt that if things continued the way they were going, my life was not safe.”
Nearly two years have passed since Muluh made that decision, and I wish I could tell you that hers is an immigration success story. That she is now thriving in the United States and advocating for people with disabilities in the Washington region, where she now lives.
But that is not her story – at least not yet.
Right now, she is stuck, both figuratively and literally.
She is stuck in an immigration process that was moving slowly before the coronavirus pandemic closed courts and offices, and now isn’t moving at all for many immigrants.
She is also stuck in a bed in a Prince George’s County, Maryland, apartment, unable to even get a glass of water without help, because her motorized wheelchair broke.
I first learned about her through a post that appeared on a Facebook page created for a Virginia community to help one another through the pandemic. It didn’t mention Muluh by name, but it gave a snapshot of a life filled with impressive highs and isolating lows. It described her as “amazing” but also “immobile” and living with her sister in the District of Columbia area.
“It costs over $1000 to fix the wheelchair and her sister lost her job due to COVID 19 – she was working at a hotel in DC,” read the post. “So they’re unable to afford to repair her power wheelchair . . . Would anyone happen to have a spare power wheelchair that can fit a person who is at least 220 pounds and be willing to donate it?”
Rachel Chaikof says that when she wrote the post she was frustrated for her friend. The two met when Chaikof joined the Peace Corps in 2014.
“She was so good to me in Cameroon,” Chaikof says. “I was going through cultural shock, feeling lonely and struggling to adapt to this new environment. And Hilda took me in as if I was a family member. She really made me feel I was at home in Cameroon.”
Chaikof says she understands on another level how limiting the loss of a wheelchair can feel. She is deaf and uses cochlear implants.
“My cochlear implants are my extension to this society that allow me to do day-to-day activities,” she says. “And that’s how Hilda is with her wheelchair.”
Chaikof knows better than most people what Muluh is capable of when given the chance; she is a prolific artist who doesn’t have the strength in her hands to hold a brush, so she uses her mouth. She also has a gift for finding the right words to convey wrongs.
Shortly after arriving in Cameroon, Chaikof says, she attended a conference on disability rights and Hilda was the keynote speaker.
“She just had this incredible charisma and spoke in a way that really got people’s ears to stay open and to listen closely to what she was saying,” Chaikof says. “I was impressed by her energy, determination and motivation to improve the inclusion of people with disabilities.”
After that, Chaikof says, the two worked closely together on raising awareness about disability issues and often appeared together on Muluh’s weekly radio show.
Chaikof, who is continuing that work through an international development company, says she saw Muluh encounter the conditions she was working to improve. She witnessed her being carried up flights of stairs when there weren’t ramps, and often there weren’t any. During one memorable moment, Chaikof says, they went to visit a water pump at the invitation of a water expert who had appeared on the radio show. When they got there, the expert realized Muluh couldn’t get to the pump.
“That was the moment when he was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to make water accessible to everyone,’ ” Chaikof says. “She really is able to create awareness for so many different people.”
Muluh says she doesn’t “take for granted” how far the United States has advanced when it comes to disability rights and access. When her chair was working, she could take public transportation and navigate buildings without help – which she couldn’t do in Cameroon.
“I never thought about the difficulty of a person with disabilities in a place as great as the United States,” she says. But the pandemic, she says, has shown her the limitation of that advancement. The immigration system, she says, seems built to make it especially difficult for immigrants who are poor and have disabilities to participate in the process.
She has an attorney who is helping her with her case, but even so, she says, she has repeatedly gone to immigration offices to give her fingerprints, only to receive letters saying hers weren’t readable. She is hoping a home visit can be made, but that is still uncertain, as is the timeline of her case.
In the meantime, she doesn’t have a phone or a computer, or even a way to get from one room to another in her sister’s apartment, let alone to a job to earn money for the wheelchair repairs.
All of that, she says, has made her think of how many other people are in her situation across the country.
We know that immigrants have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Many have lost their jobs in hotels, the restaurant industry and construction.
But Muluh raises an important question: Who aren’t we seeing?
“How many other people have family members with disabilities who are just laying there in the shadows and nobody knows their stories?” she says. “The power of telling someone’s story is so important so that people can know that in all of this, the rhetoric, the politics, everything that is going on, there are other people who are in a hidden layer who are not able to access some of the resources other people are accessing.”
She may no longer have her radio show, but she is still thinking of the stories that need to be told. She is still putting herself out there so they get heard. She didn’t have to share her story.
She chose to, she says, because she knows it’s not hers alone.