Sunday, May 17, 2015

Coming to America

I remember the immigration interview at the USCIS offices in Miami like it was yesterday. We left the house bright and early the lawyer had called on phone to say he would meet me at the immigration office. When I dropped my brother off at work I was not sure what would happen if we were denied asylum. Where were we to leave the car keys if we were shipped off to a detention center to await repatriation? Miami is a good thirty minutes’ drive from Fort Lauderdale where my brother hosted us for a year. My daughters were chattering in the back of the car as I drove past the now familiar land marks on the way to downtown Miami where numerous concrete fly overs eventually led me to the immigration office. I looked at my daughters’ innocent smiles and wondered whether they would be smiling all the way to Entebbe soon. They were completely oblivious to the stress that the interview had caused me since the lawyers call a week before that my case was finally being heard by an immigration officer on this day.
The gate keeper who would let me into the US or throw me out was a woman. All the stereotypes I grew up with came rushing back: ‘Women hate women,’ ‘women disbelieve women,’ ‘women will do anything to frustrate other women.’ I sat down and gave my daughters ‘the eye’ which meant they were to be seen and not heard during this important meeting. The woman had been reading a copy of the large file which I was carrying and from the questions she asked I knew she had studied it diligently. ‘It says here that after the election in March 2001, you run off with the opposition candidate.’ I knew it would not be pleasant. ‘Well, is it true?’ I answered clearly looking her in the eye – ‘No ma’am!’ I tried my best to imitate the Southern pronunciation of the word ‘ma’am’ to show respect, knowing that a familiar accent would make me less threatening to her: A clash of culture that is won by those who do their homework. Then she looked me straight in the eyes and asked me to tell her my story.
Where do I begin, I wondered? I was born on Saturday 18 September, 1965? No, that would be a very long story so I began at the moment when I joined opposition politics and my journey to the USA. I was surprised by her patience as I told the story. She never once took her eyes off my face. She had read the whole file and was waiting for me to contradict myself, to make a mistake. I still wonder how long I must have spoken. My lawyer kept nudging me on to give details that I omitted. When I was done, the immigration officer stared at me in silence. I knew my story was a bit off because it was not really a story of fear of reprisal upon returning to Uganda. It was inspired by my need to continue activism activities in Washington DC, after a one year lull, as I waited for immigration authorization to live and work in the USA. So I dwelt on generalities of the state in which I believed Uganda was in and where I believed it was headed based on my personal experiences. I expected there would be more prying questions.
Instead the woman looked at me and said, “You know I hear stories all day long and out of the ten or so people I interview each day, I believe only 3 stories in any given month. So Anne, you are one of my three people, this month. Congratulations and welcome to the United States of America.”
I sat there speechless feeling like a fighter who entered the ring ready to fight and their opponent surrenders before the fight starts. I had told my story to countless people and none of them had cared to tell me if they believed me or not. Now this woman, a gate keeper to the 'American dream,' had listened and believed. I felt sickened by my silly profiling and stereotyping and for judging her based on gender. What kind of activist was I anyway? I thanked her profusely, then with head bent in shame I walked through the door behind her desk to be processed as an asylee before heading back to the street.

At 50 I know that once I set my mind on achieving a goal, I become so focused without always considering the cost. In America when I got into the pipeline of getting the right papers for my small family I remained focused until we all became naturalized United States citizens. The cost: Travel restrictions, low-paying jobs, frazzled single mom and a total of 9.5 years before I could visit Uganda again.

 feeling determined.

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