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Cameroonian Immigrant Overcomes Setbacks


Most immigrants to the United States KNOW that the streets in America are not paved with gold. And yet, many are not really prepared for the challenges that face them in their new lives here. Our guest in this edition of New American Voices is a woman from Cameroon who persevered through many setbacks -- and emerged, she believes, the stronger for them.

When Genevieve Gwei came to the United States in 1991 to join her student husband, her image of the country was based on what she had seen on television in Cameroon. "When you're back home, you watch TV, you watch Baywatch, you watch Dallas, you think everywhere looks like that. You think there's milk and honey just flowing down the street," she recalls. "But when you arrive here, that's one of the first things you learn, that it's not like that. But I've also found out that if you work very hard, if you set goals for yourself and put your mind to it, things will get better for you."

Reality set in soon after Genevieve Gwei arrived in Boston with her 9-year-old daughter. She had come with the expectation that she would be able to continue her higher education-- she already had a Bachelor's degree in English, a post-graduate diploma in African literature, and a Master's Degree in Education. But this proved to be impossible.

"We discovered that as a family both of us could not be in school at the same time and have a child," she says. "Back home you have the support of the family. I had cousins and so on who lived in the house with me and at least they could help take care of our daughter. But here, yes, there were people, but the dynamics were much different. So I decided to pull back, to let my husband go to school, while I concentrated on my daughter, took care of her and took care of home."

Her husband's scholarship and the meager wages he earned working on campus did not meet the family's financial needs. The money they received from home helped some, but not enough. To make ends meet, they used credit cards. "I found out with time that we had more financial difficulties than I thought we did, says Genevieve Gwei, "because in America a lot of us arrive here not knowing much about credit cards and things like that. Here we found ourselves in credit card debt, and from then on things just got harder and harder."

In addition to the financial stresses, there were the emotional ones. "Unlike back home, I had to learn how to make new friends if I was to be surrounded by people," she explains. "Back home, the life is very much communal, even though I lived in a city. But here, everyone seemed to be very busy. You're getting up, and you're running out either to work or one thing or the other, so you could have neighbors but you may not really have time to get together a lot. So I learned very quickly that I have to find other ways of making new friends, so that I don't feel lonely and stuck in the house all the time."

Genevieve Gwei found a Baptist church in the neighborhood that reminded her of the one at home, and she says she made some very good friends there. This new-found community was a godsend, she says -- particularly after her husband went to Cameroon when she was three months pregnant with their second daughter, and didn't return for over two years.

"It was a very, very hard time. Very hard," she says. "But it ended up being a good learning time in my life. What helped me was the church. They just spread their arms and took me in. They were really by me, they made sure I had doctors' visits as needed -- I can't even begin to talk about it! They would help me with food, they helped pay my rent, they would take me around and show me community services that would be of help to me.

At first, Ms. Gwei says, she was resentful at her husband for leaving her to fend for herself. "There were times when I felt angry, while he was gone," she remembers. "But at some point I had to get over it, because that was no longer important. It was how we were going to be surviving while he was gone that was important. I also learned that how things turned out depended on how I reasoned, how I was thinking, the beliefs that were in ME. I let that suppress everything else.

Her self-sufficiency and her belief in herself were invaluable to Genevieve Gwei in the years to come. She worked at whatever jobs she could find, mostly caring for children or the handicapped. Eventually she divorced her husband, and five years ago, when her younger daughter was old enough, she went back to school to learn computer technology.

Now, after fourteen years in the United States, she feels that she has overcome her initial difficulties, and sees a hopeful future. She has a new profession. Her daughters are doing well. Beri, the older one, is finishing her law degree, the younger one, Stacey, is doing well in high school. Genevieve. Gwei says she often shares her early experiences with newcomers to this country, hoping that in doing so she can help them avoid some of the pitfalls that made her first years here painfully difficult.

"I tell them, it is not as easy as you think, when we are all back home," she says. "Yes, it's hard, but if you stay focused, it can get better. I tell them to watch out (be careful) on finances. We don't know credit cards back home. Please stay away from them. Don't start until you really understand what they are. And take advantage of any opportunity."

The educational and employment opportunities are there, Cameroonian immigrant Genevieve Gwei stresses. If you put your mind to it, she says, you can become anything you want to be.