The triumph of a blind clothing designer

MEAUX, France — The obvious impediment to Cyril Elong's success as a clothing designer is that he cannot see. But the blind creator of streetwear label Mason Ewing has won fame for incorporating Braille into his designs.

The less obvious impediment to Elong's success is the physical abuse he suffered as a young immigrant to France.

Elong testified against his great-aunt and great-uncle at their 2004 trial. The punishment they meted out when he wet the bed, did poorly in school or engaged in common adolescent mischief, he said, included having his head thrust against the bathtub, and pepper rubbed into his eyes and on his genitals.

The abuse Elong suffered during the five years he lived with them and did their chores, he said, had permanent consequences: He has been legally blind since age 15, when he woke up from a three-week coma induced by an epileptic fit.

But to spend any time hating his abusers or other relatives who did nothing to stop it would give them too much importance or publicity. Instead, he prefers to remain indifferent in the face of such “hypocrisy.”

“I’ve erased them from my life,” the now 27-year-old said. “For me, they don’t exist.”

Emerging from that period of trauma and turmoil, Elong created a company, started a foundation and transformed himself into Mason Ewing. The logo emblazoned across his T-shirts and tank tops is of a multi-cultural baby who engages in various activities, like skateboarding or golf. The Braille writing describes the activity and tells the color of the clothing.

Becoming a designer was a way for Elong, now known as Ewing, to be closer to his mother and to fulfill her dream. She was a designer and model in his native Cameroon but died when he was nearly 4 years old. Now, Ewing is pursuing his own dream of working in the cinema. He is developing a pilot for a television show inspired by the U.S. hit series “Malcolm in the Middle” in order “to do something atypical” that does not exist yet in France.

“Me, I don’t give up,” Ewing said from his apartment located about 25 miles from Paris. “I’m relentless; I fight like a titan.”

Born in Douala, Cameroon, Ewing was brought to France in 1989, three years after his mother’s death, to live with Jeanette Ekwalla, his mother’s aunt and her husband, Lucien. Thus began a cycle of household chores that included washing laundry by hand, and violent beatings with the buckle end of a belt; of psychological abuse; of him running away dozens of times to alert police only to have them return him to the couple’s home in the suburbs of Paris. “I was their slave,” he said.

Eventually he was placed in foster care and it was during this period that he suffered a violent fit, which he attributed to the many beatings on his young, not fully formed head. When he woke up in the hospital, he had lost his sight.

At 18, following a failed suicide attempt in which he tried to slit his wrists, Ewing was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital for several months. During meetings with a psychiatrist at the facility, Ewing began telling his story. To his amazement, someone finally listened, believed him and encouraged him to pursue legal action since the 10-year statute of limitations had not yet expired. He connected with the Committee Against Modern Slavery, which handled the case.

“The suffering I endured, I don’t wish it on anyone,” Ewing said, adding that no one will ever understand no matter how much he talks about it. But he admitted that talking about the abuse with journalists who came knocking from all over — Mexico, Switzerland, Belgium — helped opened professional doors. Companies like L’Oreal and national celebrities have backed his projects.

The Committee’s current director, Sophia Lakhdar, who was not involved in Ewing’s case, said victims differ in how they deal with life after such an ordeal, with many choosing to blend into the background and remain anonymous. Success for victims is also relative. For some, just being able to ride the Metro or have a normal job can be a sign of success. Ewing may have found a way to keep his story alive in the media but “a more modest success is not any less valuable,” said Lakhdar.

One common reaction for victims is their disillusionment with the legal system over the lenient sentences a guilty employer receives. In Ewing’s case, his great-aunt and great-uncle were handed a sentence that ensured they would have criminal records but not much time behind bars, although his aunt had served several months in jail before the trial. Lakhdar said the Committee is planning to release a study on how these cases are prosecuted which would include sentencing recommendations for judges.

“It’s a way of fighting,” Ewing said of his exposure, a way to keep the issue of modern slavery in the limelight, to bring attention to the plight of the handicapped and to combat the discrimination against them. “In France, we are very late in the evolution of such things.”

More GlobalPost dispatches about modern slavery:

The slaves next door

Embassy workers describe "personal hell"

Stolen from Mongolia for sex