3 September 2007

what a sad story!

Dad Tries to Avoid Deportation After Family Dies in Fire

August 8, 2007 - 2:09pm

Associated Press Writer

BURTONSVILLE, Md. - Of all the horrors Ignatius Foncham suffered from a June fire that killed his three young girls, one that haunts him is a photograph that fire officials showed him of his 4-year-old's body. One eye was open, her mouth agape, as if she was still trying to speak.

"I believe she was trying to say, 'Daddy, daddy, help me,'" Foncham said.

But Foncham wasn't there to know for sure. He was in jail, awaiting deportation back to his native Cameroon for immigration violations, when the fire sparked by an unattended bottle sterilizer ate through his Burtonsville apartment early June 28, killing the girls and their mother. Had he been there, Foncham is convinced he could have saved his family.

Foncham and leaders of the Washington area Cameroonian community are now asking the federal government to allow him to remain in the country on humanitarian grounds. Foncham is currently out on a short-term release to settle his family affairs.

Those included burying the three children; 4-month-old Makenzie Foncham, 2-year-old Megan and 4-year-old Chanelle. He was able to see their mother, Elsie Nuka, 30, but she never came out of a coma before she died July 11. Her body was flown back to Cameroon for burial. Foncham said he and Nuka lived together and planned to marry.

Foncham visits his daughters at least three times a week at the Suitland cemetery where they are buried. And he doesn't want to leave his family again.

"If they take him to Cameroon, he is totally separated from any close memory of his children," said Christmas Ebini, a board member of the All Cameroonian Cultural Festival Foundation, which is trying to help him stay in the country.

Leaders of the group circulated a petition last month to Maryland's delegation in Congress and local politicians calling on Immigration and Customers Enforcement to reopen the case. His attorney, Ronald Richey, planned to meet this week with ICE officials. If the case is reopened, Richey hopes to seek a green card for Foncham. Such a move would be unusual, the lawyer said, but the bid could succeed because of the extraordinary nature of the case.

Ernestine Fobbs, an ICE spokeswoman, said Foncham is under a removal order, meaning he is ready for deportation. He is under close supervision during the temporary release, and after it expires, "a decision will be made regarding the court order," Fobbs said, noting it will be up to a judge to make the final call.

Foncham, 39, came to the United States in late 1999. He worked as a carpenter, first for a builder, later on his own. He applied for political asylum, based on his membership in an English-speaking separatist party in the largely French Cameroon. Foncham said some of his friends were arrested because of their ties to the movement, prompting him to leave.

His sister, Alice Ashu, said Foncham's lawyers bungled his asylum case, missing deadlines. A removal order was first filed in 2001, according to ICE, and Foncham appealed. He eventually ran out of money for appeals, Ashu said. Foncham was detained May 31 as his family moved to the apartment where the fire later occurred.

Foncham was sent to a detention center on the Eastern Shore to await deportation. His family visited him, but could only speak to him through a glass partition.

The morning of the fire, investigators believe Nuka placed a plastic device used to sterilize baby bottles near the stove, then went to sleep. Awoken by the fire alarm, she threw the burning materials into a bathtub in an attempt to douse the flames, but was overcome by smoke. When firefighters arrived, the three children were not breathing and Nuka was in critical condition.

News of their deaths crippled Foncham, Richey said. He collapsed when shown the photos to identify his children, screaming on the floor.

He was deeply involved in their care and the girls were devoted to him, Foncham said. He took them swimming and to the zoo. The eldest girl loved to dance. He took care of their basic needs, like bathing and feeding. It would have been him who prepared the bottles for the children the morning that they died.

"If I was there, it could not have happened," Foncham said. "I could have smelled the smoke."

Returning to Cameroon would expose him to persecution, Foncham said, a major reason that he left. And most importantly, it would cut him off from his children. He said he wants to be near them to make up for the fact he wasn't there when they needed him most.

"I want to be close to my girls," Foncham said. "I wasn't there before they died. But I am still here to put down flowers for them and pray for them."

(Copyright 2007 The Associated Press)


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