For the first 13 years, the father did not exist.
For the next six, he was a disembodied voice — a stranger a world away calling the resentful son he’d abandoned.
When the father finally summoned the son to join him in Maryland, they’d met face to face just once, in their native Cameroon.
But on a raw February afternoon, a week before his 21st birthday, the son passed through U.S. Customs, embraced his father and then climbed into SuperShuttle van No. 41 outside Dulles International Airport.
The father got behind the wheel and dispensed parental guidance while waiting for his paying passengers to board, because an intercontinental family reunion doesn’t just pay for itself.
“Listen to what I say, and you will do all right,” the father said. (His lesson plan is usually the same: Don’t spend what you don’t have. Don’t date American girls. Don’t run afoul of the three-letter U.S. government agencies.)
The son nodded.
He was about to plunge into a new life in a new country with a new family headed by a father he hardly knew.
Emmanuel Achiri, 48, is stretched across a sofa in the family room of a split-level house in Severn, a bedroom community wedged between Fort Meade and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport in Anne Arundel County.
His son, Simon Achiri, is curled up on the adjacent love seat, fiddling with a new MP3 player he’s filled with African pop songs, although he’s becoming increasingly enamored of Lil Wayne.
It has been four months since Simon Achiri stepped off a plane and into his new existence, much of which still seems foreign — the cul-de-sacs, the slang, the megastores, the automatic everything. (The first time he encountered a mall escalator, he nearly flattened a female shopper.) He has a stepmother and three younger half-sisters now, and he has an $8.90-an-hour job on the loading dock at the nearby Wal-Mart Supercenter.
“It’s a hell of a job,” the father said.
In Cameroon, the younger Achiri fixed computers for a living. In the United States, his father — who has worked as a security guard, pest-control technician, group-home counselor and interstate truck driver — wanted him to struggle.
“I don’t want him to think America is full of milk and honey,” the father said. “You have to work hard.”
The son yawned. A sprightly, polyrhythmic song began to leak from his MP3’s earbuds. It sounded like home.
“I have to think about what he is going to do,” said the elder Achiri, plotting his son’s future. “Nursing might be something that’s good for him. And he has a lot of energy that he can use in technology; he’s good with computers. I have not ruled out the military, which he has said he wants to join. I am still putting everything into consideration.”
The son listened silently. Back talk does not appear to be in his stateside repertoire.
But after his father left on a SuperShuttle run through Washington, a hint of resistance emerged. “Daddy wants me to do this and do that, but for me, it’s just talk,” he said. “It’s my business. It’s my decision.
“Daddy always thinks of me like this,” he said, holding a hand low to the ground to indicate the height of a toddler. “He doesn’t realize that I’m this,” he said, holding a hand above his head. “I am not a little boy.”
Immigrant family reunions are often fraught with tension. Children who are left in their native countries when a parent comes stateside often struggle when they’re reunited with their families, especially if there has been a long separation.
“There are lots of challenges,” said Nancy Foner, a sociology professor at Hunter College and editor of “Across Generations: Immigrant Families in America.” “They leave behind a whole life for a family they might not know. They may not have spent much time with their parents, or they may join new stepparents or stepchildren. And now they also have to adjust to a new culture. It can be a difficult situation, but it’s a very common experience.”
The case of Simon Achiri is “a little bit unusual,” Foner said, because he was completely abandoned years before his father moved to Maryland. “That’s really hard,” she said.
His story begins in 1989, in his father’s home town of Bamenda in Cameroon’s North West Province.
“What happened was, I impregnated a girl,” Emmanuel Achiri said. “I was scared. It’s a taboo to get a girl pregnant and she’s not married to the father. I gave her money, and she took it and ran away.”
Achiri got on with his life. He married a Cameroonian woman named Gladys and started a new family. Then he had an unimaginable stroke of luck: He won the green card lottery.
Every year, millions of people in Africa, Latin America and Asia line up to apply for the lottery, formally known as the U.S. Diversity Immigrant Visa program. The odds of being awarded one of the 50,000 U.S. Permanent Resident Cards are steep. In 1997, 6 million people applied for the green card lottery. Fewer than 1 percent were selected.
There were just 387 Cameroonians among the winners that year, according to a State Department official. One of them was Emmanuel Achiri.
He was coming to the United States. “Who didn’t want to come to the States?” he said. “You knew you were going to get a better life.”
On his application, he listed one child: Grace Kelly, his first daughter with Gladys.
“Simon was not existing at that time,” he said. “He was with the mom. I had never seen him.”
He actually searched for him once, before moving to the United States in 1998. He found the boy’s mother, Sarah Tobey, and he asked her whether he could see their child, who was then 8. The mother refused, and she never told the son that his father had come looking for him. (In a telephone interview from Douala, Tobey confirmed this version of events.)
Soon, other kids began calling Simon Achiri “bastard.”
Soon, the fatherless son began acting out as he bounced among relatives.
Then, the mother called the father in Maryland, asking him whether he could somehow help.
Then, the father called the son for the first time.
“It was like I was talking to a ghost,” the son said. “I didn’t even believe it was a person. I was so mad, I wanted to talk fast and drop the call and get it over with.”
There was no question when or where the father would introduce the son to his social circle.
For 11 years, on the third Saturday of every month, Cameroonian emigrants around Washington have gathered for house parties centered on African feasts, dancing, drinking, joking and gossiping. The festivities always go deep into the suburban night.
“The main objective is to pull out the stress,” Emmanuel Achiri said of the parties.
So at a home in Montgomery Village, at midnight on the third Saturday of March, vintage Lionel Richie songs were blaring, alcohol was flowing, and everybody was eating spiced chicken legs, starchy balls called “puff puffs,” and cassava root mixed with overripe bananas.
Achiri was asked to introduce his guest to the group. As he said “My son,” somebody gasps: “Your son!” Somebody else said: “When did you have a son?” Somebody else said: “I have lots of questions.”
Almost immediately, people started calling the newcomer “Little Achiri” (never mind that he’s thicker and heavier than his dad).
“You really are your father’s son,” someone shouted, noting that they have the same gap-toothed smile, the same laugh and the same manner of speech.
But the revelation sparked a heated debate over Emmanuel Achiri’s long-ago decision to walk away from his son and dump the mother.
“Some of them are real angry,” he said as the questions flew. He shrugged.
Before anything was resolved, the host, Paul Njofang, grabbed a magnum of sparkling wine. “It’s time to celebrate the reunion,” he said.
The cork was popped, and the wine was poured into red plastic cups — and shortly before 2 a.m., the Cameroonian club toasted its newest member.
“Are you crying?” one of Simon Achiri’s adoring half-sisters asked.
He took two deep breaths.
“This is wonderful,” said Njofang. “But can you imagine growing up and not knowing your father? I can’t imagine.”
The ghost became a god.
The son, so angry when the stranger first began calling in 2003, eventually embraced his father. He put his father’s picture above his bed, and he became consumed by the idea of moving 5,700 miles away, to live on a cul-de-sac in Severn, whatever and wherever that was.
“We talked on the phone for six years. That’s a lot of time to forgive,” the son said. “He told me he was so ashamed but that now he’s looking for me.”
Where Simon Achiri once hoped the calls would end quickly, he began to savor them, basking in his dad’s wisdom.
“Daddy knows the good and the bad,” he said. “He is so good. He teaches me. Sometimes, I look at him like a god.”
His father set the wheels in motion to bring the son to the United States, but the process dragged on. The U.S. government wanted DNA documentation. The father grew impatient.
So he flew to Cameroon at the end of 2009 to meet his son after nearly 20 years. “He looked so big,” the father said.
Barely more than a year later, the son moved to Maryland.
“They’re really doing great together,” said the stepmother, Gladys Achiri, who works at a nursing home. “They love each other. That’s what matters.”
Simon Achiri misses his friends back home and talking in his native Bayangi (one of eight languages he speaks). He misses knowing how to live.
To entertain himself, he recently spent $150 on a used Xbox 360. His father is still furious.
“It’s a waste of money,” he said. He told his son that he would be collecting $300 from him every month to pay bills. Although, most likely, he whispered, he’ll set aside the money to pay for college.
“Maybe I’m doing too much, I don’t know,” the father said. “Maybe I’m too much of a perfectionist and I’m forgetting he’s 21 and should act like a 21-year-old. But he’s a great guy. I’m very happy for him being here.”
“I’m going to live with Daddy forever,” the son said.
“Not forever,” the father said, and they both laughed.
Andrew Becker is a reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, Calif.