Many Challenges face Africa’s immigrant community here in the United States. In this 2nd of a 5 part series, VOA English to Africa’s Henok Fente follows the story of an illegal West African immigrant who lost his wife and three daughters in a fire. He is awaiting deportation to his native Cameroon.
Ignatius Foncham had been away from home for well over a month – he was in a state correctional facility, awaiting deportation to Cameroon. He had overstayed his visa and an immigration judge had ordered his deportation. And then one night in late June, disaster hit the Foncham family.
His wife, Elsie Nuka, rose early to prepare food for their four-month-old daughter, MacKenzie. The mother had been working extra hours to meet the financial needs of the family after her husband was detained by immigration officials.
She went back to bed, but she had left a baby bottle sterilizer near the stove. It caught fire and soon smoke was billowing through the apartment.
Neighbors were awakened by the smoke and by the fire alarm. They fled the building, fearing for their lives. When firefighters broke into the Foncham’s apartment, they found the daughters and their mother unconscious from smoke inhalation. The children were rushed to three separate hospitals but all were pronounced dead on arrival. Their mother fought for her life for two weeks.
A Liberian immigrant who lives next door said the neighborhood is shocked by the tragedy: “It is a family that just moved in, with kids and everything, trying to get adjusted in the absence of the father, and you wake up the next morning and kids are all dead.”
Immigration officials gave the news to the children’s’ father, and the next day he was sent home to arrange his daughters’ funeral. He was not a free man but was under house arrest, with an electronic device on his ankle that informs the police where he is.
Ignatius Foncham is staying with his sister Alice in a suburb of Washington, D.C. His sister has legal residency and owns an expensive home in an affluent suburb.
A member of the Cameroonian community came to pay her respects and could not help shedding tears after seeing a picture of the three children hanging on the wall. In the picture, four-year-old Chenelle is holding her newborn sister MacKenzie, with two year-old Megan sitting beside them.
The leader of the Cameroonian community in the Washington. metro area, Joseph Mbu, says the family has suffered irrecoverable losses – he says immigration officials should have mercy, “This guy has gone through so much. If morally we can help get this guy [to] stay here. I am not only appealing to the Americans who uphold the law; I am also appealing to the public to see that this guy has gone through so much that at least a pardon can be granted to him at this difficult time of his life.”
Ignatius’ wife, Elsie Nuka, did not make it. She was buried alongside her daughters last Friday.
Though a disaster like this could strike anyone, friends and neighbors say it is especially tragic because the Foncham family came to the United States hoping for a better life.