WASHINGTON – Victor Tarkeh envisions a day when he’s old and being cared for by family in Cameroon.
For now, he lives in Hyattsville along with a growing population of immigrants from the west-central African country and tries to recreate that sense of community he found at “home.”
Increasingly, natives of west African countries are building societies in Maryland, creating pockets of population in places like Hyattsville and Greenbelt. Many Cameroonians, for example, came as expatriates fleeing from political friction back home, or to seek better economic and education opportunities in America. Some left family, and others joined family.
“At home, I have cousins, sisters who assist,” said Tarkeh. He finds that his two elementary-aged kids need more attention and supervision after school without family members nearby.
Bringing up children is much more difficult in America, said Tarkeh, who came to Maryland in 2004 with his wife and children in search for more job and education opportunities.
“Every day I see new Cameroonians coming,” said Charles Di Mintyene, cultural attach? of Embassy of Cameroon in the District.
“They look for a place to find some social integration before they move,” said an embassy official.
Growth of the Cameroonian population in the area is apparent especially in the school system. No students from Cameroon enrolled in the district in most of the school years between the 1986 and 1999, according to records from Prince George’s County Public Schools.
Recently, English to Speakers of Other Languages instructor Laurie Hortie began noticing a large number of Cameroonians among her new students at Roosevelt.
For the last decade, Hispanic students, mostly from El Salvador, comprised the overwhelming majority of ESOL students in the district and the school. This year, 14 of 72 ESOL students at Roosevelt are from Cameroon, the most from any single country.
This school year, 263 Cameroonian students are enrolled in an ESOL program in Prince George’s County Public Schools, the fourth-highest enrollment level of all foreign students and the highest of students from an African country. Students from Cameroon also rank fourth of total foreign students enrolled in the district.
A combination of political unrest in Cameroon, along with positive changes in U.S. Immigration policy led many Cameroonians to come to the U.S.
Officials at the Embassy of Cameroon noted a significant increase in green cards issued to immigrants from the country over the past decade. Many come to the U.S. to improve their economic status, and more parents are looking to improve the lives of their children.
“They think the life is easy here . . . that they will be richer than those at home,” said Di Mintyene. Many Cameroonians come to get a job, find the “big money,” and to enhance opportunities for their children’s education, he said.
However, for Shwiri-Nwi Zama, who arrived in 1999, life is not so easy. Her daughter, a full-time student at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, arrived three years later.
Zama works weekends until midnight at a nursing home in Baltimore, commuting 40 minutes both ways. During the week, she attends Prince George’s County Community College, where she is studying to be a registered nurse. She plans to finish within two years.
“I’m not yet settled – I’m still struggling to make a life, to make a living,” Zama said.
The community of resident Cameroonians has grown nationwide by about 82 percent over the past decade, with 1,458 being granted legal permanent resident status in the U.S. in fiscal 2005, according to an immigration report issued by the Department of Homeland Security.
Political strife, primarily between the French-speaking and English-speaking factions of the country, led many frustrated Cameroonians like Zama to seek refuge in America.
Several 1990 U.S. immigration policy changes also attracted many Cameroonians, such as a diversity visa program giving foreign citizens permanent resident visas or green cards to promote diversity, and the creation of an annual quota for certain categories of immigrants with the aim of attracting skilled foreign workers for U.S. businesses.
Hortie remembers six new teachers from Cameroon, all men, who joined Northwestern High School in Hyattsville in the last years that she taught ESOL there. She was an ESOL teacher at the nearby high school for over a decade before moving to Roosevelt three years ago.
Tarkeh is one of those teachers. His family won the visa lottery, and came in October 2004.
“I was one of the lucky persons,” he said.
While new Cameroonians like Tarkeh and Zama are still settling, many look to return home one day.
“We are living in America, but America is not our country of origin,” said Di Mintyene. Even if he became an American citizen and lived in the country for 20 or 30 years, Di Mintyene said, something would always draw him back to home.
“There is something that cannot replace the memories,” he said. “You cannot disassociate yourself from where you came from.”
For now, many of the immigrants are still setting up house.
“I have the feeling that . . . everywhere is home. All human beings live in God’s world. You can make the North Pole home, as long as you live in God’s will,” said Martha Ngwainmbi, a Cameroonian who is moving from Bladensburg to Greenbelt.
Most of Ngwainmbi’s family moved to America before she did, so she left Cameroon because she was separated from them for too long.
She is waiting for a time when things are more settled before she returns to Cameroon. At the moment, her life is in boxes.
“Home is where you find peace of mind and comfort. Home can be a physical space,” Ngwainmbi said. “But once you are with your family – that’s home.”