Lost in America – 1

The plight of Kenyans abroad and in the USA specifically is rarely documented or spoken about. This is a story that needs to be told. It’s a diverse topic that I shall attempt to tackle it in posts titled Lost in America.

Even though I have numerous relatives there, before last Sunday I was largely ignorant of life in America, the real version.

After chatting with or rather listening to my thirty-year old relative for 4 hours, I was thoroughly enlightened and stumped.

Let’s call my relative L. He went to America a 20 year old with a couple of suitcases and mega dreams. He was deported a broken 30 year old with only a small bag last Thursday.

For this story to be complete we must begin at the beginning. So let’s take a walk down memory lane.

Ten years ago, USA was the place to be. It was at the tail-end of ex-President Moi’s regime and Kenya was an economic and political mess.

Some families migrated to the US entirely while most sent several of their fresh out of high school kids to America for ‘further studies’.

This is their story.

Fundraisers for ‘further studies’ were as common then as ‘wedding committees’ are now. Families sacrificed a lot. I know of cases where parents used up entire retirement benefits for this venture. In extreme cases, like for my neighbor W, his parents sold their family house.

All these sacrifices were buttressed by the dream of a better life. America was the land of milk, honey and endless dollars. Kenya was a dead-beat third world country with no prospects. It was a settled argument which country was better to live in.

The bright-eyed teens, fresh out of high school, were seen as the saviors from the mess. They were expected to go and harvest as much of the dollars as possible. Land, houses, cars and mega-investments would then be a reality for their families left behind.

Getting a visa to America was like a camel going through the eye of a needle. One needed to show a reason why they were not a flight risk and also have a healthy bank balance. Remember these kids were not planning to return and the reason for going was so as to nourish their parents’ bank balances? There was also the non-refundable visa fees charged in dollars and the requisite TOEFL exams to be paid for.

Guys bought bank statements or asked rich relatives to transfer funds to the accounts to be used to show ability to cater for upkeep when in America. The flight risk element was harder to navigate but folk went round that by having letters showing they worked at blue-chip companies and thus would have no reason to stay in the USA indefinitely.

I chose to believe that even the consular officials knew the drill and thus the entire charade of visa issuance was just a case of satisfying pre-decided visa quotas. Maybe each consular official had 2 visas to give a day and they used individual discretion to decide who got and who did not.

The online appointment booking system that is used now was still a distant concept. Back then visa appointments were on first come, first served basis. The embassy was located on Mombasa Road where it had moved after the 1998 Nairobi US embassy bombing. Queues started at 5am but you could not stand near the embassy before then. So guys would sleep at the petrol station opposite, and then run across Mombasa Road and form a queue. 2 hours later the guards would let those seeking visas in.

The consular officials were invariably rude and curt. The terrible treatment was to be endured with a smile and humility. The goal was the visa and no humiliation would be too much to stomach.

Some dreams came to pass. Many others turned into nightmares. The embassy gates were the location of many a shout of joy and ecstatic hug and also tears and abject dejection.

The American visa was the difference. The ticket to heaven on earth or so it was thought. With the much sought after visa acquired guys would leave the country in a huff. Eager to start life anew in the ‘promised land’.

What happened to the young Kenyans when they got to America is what I will tackle in the next post.




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