Cameroon native helps others become citizens
From the Frederick News-Post
Originally published November 23, 2010
By Nicholas C. Stern, Frederick News-Post Staff
Cameroon native Francoise Makon knows what it means to live in a strange new country without knowing the dominant language.
Everyday necessities, from buying groceries, visiting the doctor, finding a job or simply describing one's thoughts, can turn into grueling, embarrassing tasks that make a person withdraw, she said.
"It's not easy at all, it's tough," Makon said.
That's part of the reason why she finds teaching English to immigrants in the Frederick area who are seeking to become U.S. citizens so rewarding, she said.
Makon is the Frederick-area coordinator for the New Americans Citizenship Project of Maryland.
The project, funded by AmeriCorps through a grant to CASA de Maryland, seeks to bring more of the state's legal permanent residents into the fold of full citizenship, she said.
In 2007, only 11,613 or about 9.7 percent of eligible Maryland immigrants naturalized, according to CASA de Maryland.
Makon, who began her yearlong assignment in August, said much of her work consists of reaching out to these immigrants in local churches, for example, or wherever she happens to meet them.
Many times, they are reluctant to become citizens because of a language barrier or because of the expense -- fees for applying for citizenship are about $618 per person, she said.
"I recognize myself in these people, I feel like them," she said.
Makon decided to study family law at a university in her hometown of Douala, Cameroon, in part because of growing up in a male-dominated society.
Often, men in Cameroon were seen as the wage-earners and women were expected to obey, regardless of whether they were in an abusive relationship, she said. Settling relationship grievances in court was not only unpredictable, but seen as taboo.
After school, Makon became a volunteer in a shelter for abused women while working for an insurance company.
"When you are born in such places, there's so much injustice, there's so much corruption," she said.
Slowly, conditions are improving, she said. More women in Cameroon like her have educated themselves, taken jobs and are no longer afraid to divorce their husbands.
About 10 years ago, Makon's husband was offered an IT job in Maryland, and they decided to move.
Getting by, moving on
Makon took a job in Columbia for a pacemaker company, mostly as a way to earn a living as she began the long process of integrating into the fast-paced, money-obsessed culture surrounding her.
She started on the assembly line and, over the course of seven years, moved to quality control. Four years ago, she was laid off when the company shifted its operations to Mexico.
She decided to go back school and earned a master's degree in international business from American University in 2008.
She began to work on immigration issues as an intern for a law firm in Washington, helping asylees with their cases, and in some instances interpreting in her native French.
Now she teaches English at her office at LIFE and Discovery, a local nonprofit that promotes access to health, human and educational services for Asians and other immigrant populations.
She also helps LIFE and Discovery, where she has helped organize the Asian-American Health Fair and apply for various grants.
"If I can help people who have the same problems, it's very rewarding," she said.