Finally, a long-distance family reunites

A Cameroon couple, after almost a year apart, talks about being separated in the name of education.

Anne Fondufe crossed out the days on the calendar for almost 10 months, an eternity for a mom caring for two young children with a husband on a different continent.

Last August, for the first time in seven years, Mrs. Fondufe was alone. Her husband, Clement, a lawyer, had started a one-year program at Harvard Law School.

At first, she didn't want him to leave. But after much reluctance, she encouraged him to go, knowing it would benefit the family. "We owe him a chance. I thought it was just a matter of time," she says. "I didn't know it was going to be that hard."

This type of separation is typical for a handful of married foreign students. While the strain of being away from home is tough on them and their families, the chance for a US education is an opportunity they can't pass up.

For Mrs. Fondufe, consoling their children was a major task. But in the close-knit community of Bamenda - the main Cameroon English-speaking city -help poured in. The priest and sisters at her church, as well as friends and family, helped her through the long absence.

Despite the aid, her life was difficult. At times, she battled depression, but the ritual once-a-week phone calls eased the separation. Frequent e-mails also helped.

Still, she had to handle the reactions of her children. "I am missing my daddy," Bryan often said. Sometimes, he locked his door, wanting to eat alone, hugging his father's picture and crying, she recalls.

"This experience pulled us closer. I now attach more value to things [I took for] granted," she says.

But while Mrs. Fondufe was holding down a husbandless house, it was equally troubling for a father to be away from his family.

"It's all about this companionship that you suddenly don't have anymore," says Mr. Fondufe. "It's as if a part of me had died." That was partially due to "the fact that they have been able to live without me."

Leaving a big ranch in Bamenda, Mr. Fondufe found himself in a tiny bedroom in Harvard housing, with much younger classmates. He ended up eating at irregular hours and going to bed at 2 a.m. after holing up in the library. "You have to refocus, to reshape your thinking and psychology into appreciating things as a student," he says. Campus celebrations, hanging out, and weekend parties didn't interest him. He had always wanted to study at Harvard, and decided that education should be his main concern. "I put distraction out of my mind," he says. "Sometimes, I just preferred to sit in my room and read newspapers."

A very disciplined and studious life partly helped him endure the family separation. "I became a very well known purchaser of phone cards," he says. Still, there was a cultural gap. In Cameroon, his stepbrother and a cousin lived at his home. His parents were a few blocks away. And a very strong Christian background reinforced the community life in Bamenda. When he moved to the US, feelings of isolation and loneliness overcame him, even though he had friends and a few relatives in the Boston and Washington areas. "I was the only Cameroon guy here on the campus. I had no one to bond with," Mr. Fondufe says.

In fact, he seems quite disenchanted about the lack of interaction between students and the intense competitive spirit. "Life here focuses on the individual," he says. "Sadly, it's something that remains about America. I learned to put community spirit on the side."

Still, Mr. Fondufe enjoyed the diversity of students at Harvard: "There's something else beyond quality, the drive behind these students, coming from so different backgrounds."

After enduring the long separation, the family was reunited in Cambridge for Harvard's commencement.

"... I am so used not to having him around," says his wife. "I kept asking: Did you have lunch? I don't know what's his routine here."

Relatives from as far away as Germany and Israel came to celebrate Mr. Fondufe's graduation and see him with the black and purple Harvard gown, the black mortarboard, and the Cameroon colors on his back. "The kids couldn't wait to see my bedroom, my school, to meet my friends. They wanted to take pictures of my lecture rooms, because they couldn't imagine what my life looked like," he says.

Now, Anne, Clement, son Bryan and daughter Courtney will move as a family to New York. Mr. Fondufe has been hired by White & Case, a prestigious international Wall Street law firm. They will live in West Orange, N.J., next to Anne's sister and her family. Adjustment of the children to this new life is their parents' main concern.

"We are looking forward to it anxiously," he says. "We have an idea [about] how we want our kids to be brought up. We have to be careful about the milieu." Courtney and Bryan will attend the same Catholic school as their cousins, which reassures their parents. Bryan, who misses his friends, has already asked his mother whether he could write to them.

In addition, a large Cameroon community around West Orange will facilitate the Fondufes' transition and help remind them of sacred family ties. Mr. Fondufe plans to send his first paycheck to his parents. "A sign of gratitude for their support and prayers," he says.

Mr. Fondufe knows that the US has had a profound influence on him. "It's possible that here I've become too rational, in the sense of efficiency and wealth maximization, rather than sentimentality, emotion, culture. Those are the way we look at things in my country."

The family may stay in the New York area for about five years. Then, they will carefully reconsider whether it's time to go back home. Mr. Fondufe's ultimate aim is politics. "It's all about being able to use meaningfully all this background to aid my country," he says. His wife also looks forward to returning after their sojourn in the US.

"I don't want my kids to forget their roots," she says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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