An American dream, permission pending

An American dream, permission pending

Eugene Peba made it to America. Now he’s waiting to hear if he can stay.

[Hear the interview featuring this story on WBEZ’s Worldview: Nigerian refugee fights for a life and his marriage in the U.S. It aired on Jan. 31, 2012. Read an earlier story – Eugene Peba: A Nigerian’s fight for survival and protection, and an update on the couple’s situation at the end of this account.]

On a Thursday evening in November, Eugene Peba sat toward the back of a classroom at the American Technical School in suburban Park Ridge, and watched his nursing instructor click through a slideshow about pulmonary circulation.

Peba, born and raised in Nigeria, had opened the slides on his laptop to follow along, when, partway through the lecture, he received an email from one of the attorneys helping him attain legal status in the United States.

Peba’s motion for a rehearing of his asylum claim—a claim which a court denied in August—had been rejected.

Without asylum, Peba is without status. Without status, he is illegal.

“I was lost in the class,” Peba recalled later. “I was there but I wasn’t there.  My mind wasn’t there.”

The feeling was all too familiar for the 26-year-old Peba, who is fighting to stay in the U.S. as he works full-time in two nursing homes and takes evening classes to gain more advanced certification.

Since Peba’s arrival in the U.S. in 2005, he has sought political protection as a refugee. He claims he was tortured in his native Nigeria, and he says going back would put his life in jeopardy.

Last August, a court denied his asylum claim based on inconsistencies in his application and testimony, and gave Peba 45 days to leave the country. Soon after, his attorney filed a motion for rehearing, giving Peba more time, and, possibly, another chance at asylum.

But in a November email, which Peba received in his nursing class, the attorney alerted Peba that the motion had been denied.

With his asylum prospects crushed, Peba has placed much of his hope in a separate legal process. As he started a new life in Chicago, he fell in love with an American-born woman, and the two married in February of 2010. The marriage could offer Peba a path to permanent residency, and he and his wife are anxiously awaiting a decision on a petition they filed. But that process, too, has been frustrating.

As Peba and his wife await the outcome of his legal battle, with the possibility of Peba being deported at any time, their story reveals how uncertain the immigration process can feel to those wrapped up in it– and how high the stakes are for them.

With his legal status hanging over him, Peba's daily routine could be disrupted at any time.

The man behind the applications

Peba’s daily routine begins with prayer. No matter how little sleep is behind him or how much work he has in the day ahead, Peba wakes up at 5 a.m. If he has time, he’ll pore over his well-worn Bible on the dining table, and if not, he finds a way to squeeze in morning prayers.

“I always thank god, like when I’m taking a shower I look up,” Peba said. “I think my wife hears me most of the time when I’m talking to myself in the morning, thanking God for the day.”

And while he is grateful for many things, he prays unremittingly for resolution to his immigration status so he can stay in the U.S. This country has become home to his future aspirations and everything that defines his present. His past still harbors pain that he said he tries not to think about.

Peba is an animated talker. His hands confidently punctuate his thoughts and his deep voice is complemented by the broad yet measured smile of a man far older than his age. But he is quiet at the thought of being forcibly returned to Nigeria. He looks down as he pauses, his broad shoulders caved in.

“[Going] to Nigeria is suicidal for me. I don’t care where they send me to, as long as it’s not Nigeria,” he said.

Peba was nine years old when Nigerian troops attacked his family. They grabbed him from his mother’s arms and threw him at the wall, injuring his arm and leaving him crumpled on the ground.

His mother and older sister, Bridget, were raped in front of him that night. His sister died five years later, having never recovered from the traumatic rape, Peba said.

Peba’s family was targeted for belonging to the Ogoni tribe, which has been persecuted in Nigeria for protesting the environmental degradation and population displacement the national government and multinational oil company Royal Dutch Shell inflict on their territory.

Ogoniland, in the southern Rivers State in Nigeria, has been under environmental assault as a consequence of the oil industry operations that started in the 1950s and still makes up 80 percent of Nigeria’s economy. Since the Ogoni people first started peacefully organizing for their right to free expression and fair citizenship almost 20 years ago, not much has changed. The Nigerian government went from military to civilian leadership. Promises to clean up the region and stop persecuting the indigenous minority have not been kept. A U.N. report on the Ogoni situation suggested 25 to 30 years were needed to correct the environmental pollution alone.

His mother was being treated in a hospital in a different city when Bridget died, so she never saw her daughter’s corpse. Peba recalls his mother looking at his father and asking, “Where is my daughter?” His father did not answer. After repeating the question three times, his mother burst into tears.

Peba’s arm still holds the trauma of that violent night. When Peba extends his left arm in front of him, palm up, there is an extra lump in the crook of his arm, as if he has two elbows.

Peba's body was shaped by years of Ogoni repression in Nigeria.

Catalyzed by the violence and his parents’ activism, Peba said he became involved with youth movements for the survival of the Ogoni people, a claim supported by an affidavit submitted by Charles Wiwa, an Ogoni refugee who successfully attained legal status in America. The document states the two knew each other in Nigeria and Peba’s asylum request is legitimate.

Peba emerged from the ongoing conflict with a gunshot wound in his lower back, cuts to his forehead and the webbing between his fingers, and an ankle scarred by glass, all, he said, for being Ogoni.

“I give God praise to have good skin that heals,” he said, pointing to the faded jagged scar on his forehead.

The scars were accumulated from Peba’s teenage years, as he went to high school, participated in Ogoni activism groups that met after school, and played basketball barefoot with friends. But the physical wounds are secondary to the fear he associates with Nigeria.

“Being scared is [when] you don’t know what might happen tomorrow. Living a scared life, you can’t go further. You’re stuck [in this] revolving door, back and forth, back and forth,” said Peba.

It is with this fear of further prosecution that Peba fled Nigeria to a refugee camp in the Benin Republic in 2005. In the camp, Peba said, he still did not feel safe, so after three months, he flew to Malaysia where he made arrangements to obtain the illegal documentation necessary to enter America.

Challenges from the start

On Nov. 28, 2005, Peba stepped off the plane in Los Angeles with his fake British passport and lone suitcase. He put his hands in the air, confessed that he arrived on a false passport, and asked for asylum.

Peba entered the U.S. and promptly put his hands in the air, declaring he arrived on a false passport.

To Peba’s surprise, airport officials placed him in handcuffs, confiscated his belongings, referred him to an immigration judge and brought him to the San Pedro Detention Center to await trial. It was an experience he said he will never forget.

“I’m not a bad person. I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t do anything that would hurt nobody,” Peba said. “This is survival. The only thing I did was…come here.”

Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman for the Chicago office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said privacy protections prevent government officials from commenting on particular asylum claims or even confirming that someone has filed one.

Some asylum cases, including Peba’s are handled by the Executive Office for Immigration Review; USCIS decides other cases.

Cabrera said the government has good reason to evaluate asylum requests carefully.

“We need to ensure that the person coming in has a rightful claim to asylum and that fraud is not being committed,” she said.

For Peba, that meant a legal battle he did not foresee.

When Peba stood for his asylum hearing in 2006, documents confiscated from his luggage were used to discredit his claim of persecution. The court was skeptical that Peba had really been tortured.

“The judge sometimes judge you by your look,” said an indignant Peba. “It doesn’t make no sense.”

Dr. Preedar Oreggio performed a clinical examination on Peba and testified that his physical wounds match his story and were consistent with those of a torture victim. Psychotherapist Ana Deutsch also testified, stating Peba exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder consistent with his story. Both are associated with the Program for Torture Victims, and both were of the opinion that Peba’s physical and mental injuries corroborated his torture claims.

Despite the testimony, the court remained suspicious of Peba’s account because of documents found in his suitcase referring to his involvement in a junior men’s basketball championship during the same time frame he was allegedly tortured, as well as unsent letters stating he planned to travel to the U.S. to pursue basketball. Peba insisted the unsent correspondence was based on his imaginings rather than on reality, and were cathartic to him.

Peba expresses his indignity at not being believed.

At the time of the hearing, Peba had assumed his parents, who got on a bus for an Ogoni Day peaceful parade in 2000 and never returned, were dead. His diary showed entries addressing “Sweet Mommy” and “Father,” which the government used to dispute his claim that  his parents had died.

“In these documents were letters that the applicant apparently wrote [sometime after 2003],” the  court decision read. “This is very interesting in light of the fact that the applicant claims that his father disappeared in 2000 in Nigeria.”

To this, Peba responded that he was not addressing the entries to his biological parents, rather these were titles he called his religious mentors. It would be an entire decade before Peba would know of his parents’ whereabouts.

Though the court checked and believed Eugene’s torture assertions, Judge William J. Nickerson, Jr. felt that the complications of Peba’s parents’ situation were enough to deny Peba asylum. “I must, therefore, find that the applicant has not be truthful with the court and deny his request for asylum and, therefore, withholding of removal as well,” his 2006 decision read.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse notes that decision rates vary between judges based on the composition of cases assigned. From 2006 to 2011, Immigration Judge Nickerson denied 85 percent of asylum claims presented to him, compared to the national average of 53.2 percent, according to data from the TRAC.

Peba was held for two years in detention centers in Lancaster and San Pedro, Calif.  Back in Nigeria, fellow Ogoni activists wondered what had happened to him.  A May 2007 story in the Port Harcourt Telegraph, a newspaper in the Niger Delta, quoted an Ogoni spokesman as saying “the whereabouts of…Eugene Peba and Joy Yorgoroo, both student activists and others constitute a grave concern to the Ogoni Solidarity Movement (OSM).” The article described the Ogoni movement as peaceful and referred to “several bloody attacks” by military forces.

While in detention, Peba began researching his case. He learned about habeas corpus and petitioned the government to justify his imprisonment without just cause. Although he asked several lawyers for assistance, Peba was ultimately turned down and forced to draft the document on his own. The court received his petition, and gave him the choice to leave the center without going to court. Peba accepted and left the detention center in August 2007 to finally see “the land of the free.” Even though he was free from detainment, Peba still faced possible deportation, contingent on his asylum case appeal.

Building a new life in Chicago

Once released, Peba went to live with his uncle in Memphis. After a month, he visited an Ogoni family in Chicago. Peba enjoyed the city so much that he decided to stay, even though it meant living on El trains on the CTA’s red line for a week until he could find accommodations.

Peba started taking classes at Truman College in Chicago’s Uptown community. He enrolled in the nursing program and knocked on the doors of one business after another on his daily walk home from class until he was hired as a dishwasher at Iyanze Restaurant a few blocks from the school. In November 2008, he met Nicole, a Chicago native who bought Peba his first winter coat and gave him his first haircut in the city. The two dated, but Peba waited for a year to propose until he was sure Nicole trusted that he was marrying her for the right reasons.

It wasn’t the stereotypical on-one-knee proposal. In fact, Peba had not intended to marry Nicole until his asylum had been granted. The couple was discussing Peba’s precarious asylum situation, when Nicole suggested marriage.

Wedding photos line the walls of their apartment. Peba wore a pink tie to match Nicole's dress.

“We were just talking about what we were going to do,” Peba recalled. “I didn’t want to get married to her until I had my papers, but she said, ‘If [you love me] for real, what’s the difference?  We’re just two people in love. What can we do?’”

By the end of the conversation, Peba and Nicole had decided to wed. They got married at Iyanze on Valentine’s Day of 2010. The ceremony was well attended by friends, former co-workers, and Nicole’s family. The couple got dressed together, Peba drove his Saturn “truck” to the restaurant he felt at home at, and guests rolled in until it was past midnight and Peba’s knees were too sore to continue dancing. There was no formal ceremony, but all the African food was consumed and the double-layered cake cut. Photographs from the wedding adorn the walls of the Chicago apartment Peba and Nicole share.

In the summer of that year, Peba was driving to work, listening to French African music in his car when he answered the phone. Through the Bluetooth wireless earpiece that Nicole was so upset he forgot to take off for their wedding pictures, Peba’s aunt informed him that his parents were back, alive.

Peba arrived home after work in his scrubs, ecstatic about the news. Nicole went out to buy him a calling card so he could call and hear his parents’ voices for the first time in more than ten years.

“It was the best news I’d ever heard,” Peba said. “Now I just really wish I could see them.”

But Peba can’t. If he leaves the country voluntarily, he cannot return for ten years. Instead, he keeps in touch through phone and Facebook. When his parents call from his aunt’s house in Nigeria, Nicole always talks to Peba’s mother. Nicole said she can hardly understand the older woman’s words, but all she hears is the nickname Peba gave her, “Sira,” which means princess in his native tongue.

Marriage under fire

Today, the “princess'” and her husband’s marriage is under question by the government. Peba and Nicole hired Akin Ogunlola, an immigration lawyer, who suggested they apply for an I-130.  The I-130 form seeks to allow an immigrant to stay in the U.S. if he is legally married to an American citizen. While the petition offers no legal status in itself, a successful petition can be a step towards applying for permanent residency. The Pebas’ I-130 petition is still pending.

Again not speaking about Peba’s case, the USCIS’ Cabrera explained that officials are vigilant for security reasons.

Immigration officers must determine that a marriage is legitimate, not a “marriage of convenience,” she said.

“The average person wouldn’t present a fraudulent driver’s license; that’s against the law. It’s the same thing here,” Cabrera said. “It’s against the immigration law to present fraudulent paperwork. When you present fraudulent papers, you don’t know who the person is. Could it be someone that’s here to cause you harm?”

Ashley Huebner, an attorney for the Asylum Project at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, also explained that the long process of immigration cases leaves time for many things to change in a refugee’s life.

“In Chicago alone, there’s about a two-to-three-year back-up to get a final decision,” said Huebner. “So obviously while people may be waiting to have an immigration court hear an asylum case, they may meet somebody and get married or have a child or do other things to establish a life here in the United States. Things may happen that make them eligible for other forms of immigration release.”

And if an immigrant enters into a marriage while in a court proceeding, explained Huebner, there is a legal presumption that the marriage is not bona fide.

“You have to provide more proof than normal in order to overcome that presumption,” said Huebner. “There’s extremely significant screening to determine whether a claim is viable, whether the person is who he or she says she is, and that all of their information is accurate.,”

To the Pebas, the I-130 process felt opaque and humiliating. An immigration officer interviewed both Pebas this summer, first Nicole and then Eugene, asking probing questions about their life together.

Nicole became frustrated after failing to answer questions about the color of her apartment building and bathroom tiles. She attributed the mistake to her bad memory, something she says she has had all her life.

Nicole and Eugene pictured in their apartment.

At another point in the interview, the immigration officer asked Nicole whether she truly believed her husband’s story of torture and whether they married for love. At this, Nicole snapped. Nicole recalled how the interview ended.

“I didn’t talk. I just cried the whole time,” said Nicole. “She was just like ‘I’m going to deny it.’ Well, okay, I’m still married. You can deny it all you want and I’m still married.”

She left the interview in tears. It took her a few days to collect herself and write a letter expressing her indignity at having her choice of husband questioned, especially after being born and raised as an independent American woman.

“God gave me this man Eugene Peba, and I will let neither man nor government take him from me,” Nicole wrote. “If there is a questionable content on my marriage, they can visit our home anytime, any day without appointments and you will see we are ONE.”

Sure enough, a colorful mix of Peba’s and Nicole’s clothes lie in a heap before the washing machine. A letter on the fridge from the landlord asks them to rein in their dog. There is a porcelain platter signed and hand-painted by friends as a wedding gift to the couple.

The Pebas' wedding gift, hand-painted and signed by friends.

Ogunlola said he that believes Peba’s story, and his marriage to Nicole, are legitimate.

“It’s a normal relationship. Each one says, ‘Oh, he does this, he does this, I’m tired of that…’ The fact that they complain about all these things show that they have a real marriage,” Ogunlola said. “Every couple has their differences, but it’s not a fake marriage. I can swear on that. I know that for real.”

Ogunlola is helping Peba provide proof to immigration officials who are questioning the legitimacy of his story. So far, they have submitted several pieces of evidence, including Peba’s birth certificate, international passport issued by Nigerian authorities, an ID issued by the state of Illinois, marriage license, and fingerprints.

“So how else do you want us to prove that the same person stands before you?” Ogunlola asked.

A financial struggle

The process is also a costly one for the Pebas. According to Nicole, they spend $200 to 350 each time they meet with a lawyer, plus various fees associated with filing applications like the I-130.

“[Eugene] doesn’t make that much money,” said Nicole. “And since I’m just opening a salon, I really make no money. It’s difficult because we have to do this fast and there’s no guarantee. We’re just spending all this money and there’s no guarantee.”

Peba and Nicole spend most of their time at their respective jobs to keep up with expenses. While their schedules are quite different– Nicole is a night owl and Peba likes to keep his morning routine– they try to keep in touch throughout their days by texting each other.

Nicole called her salon Sira Salon, inspired by what her mother-in-law called her. One day at work, after massaging a detoxifying solution into a client’s hair, Nicole took a break to laugh about Peba’s texting habits.

Nicole gives a hair treatment to a young customer at her newly opened salon, Sira Salon.

“I’m sure I have a text message [from him] now. I just haven’t looked at it. He’s usually upset about it, like if I don’t call him back right away,” said Nicole. “I’m like no, like I don’t even know where my phone is right now. It’s around here somewhere.”

Although they try to keep finances out of their everyday conversation, money is a constant burden. Their suffering finances often put a strain on the Pebas’ relationship.

“I love to surprise her with flowers,” said Peba. “I love to be romantic with my wife. I love to take her out to a restaurant. There are a lot of things I can do to make my wife happy. And these things, I do it, but kind of up and down, and she knows I’m stressing. We’re living one check to next check.”

Working, waiting

In spite of the struggles, life goes on. As immigration officials work on Peba’s case, he goes about his daily routine – work, school, more work, study, sleep, repeat – praying that his last hope, the I-130 case, will allow him to test the limits of the American dream.

“When I wake up, that’s a fight, when I go to sleep, that’s a fight. So all around the clock I’m fighting… All I can say is, “I wish, I wish, I wish, I wish,” Peba said.

His lawyer Ogunlola said there is no standard time for how long it takes USCIS to make a decision.

Akin Ogunlola, also a native Nigerian, is the immigration lawyer hired by Peba to aid in the I-130 application process. Peba’s 1-130 petition is still pending.

“There’s no pending forever,” said Ogunlola. “You cannot put a timeline on any application or petition. The government is not really out to victimize or press anybody.”

Yet because Peba’s asylum petition has been denied, at any point in the process, Peba could be deported.

Peba’s application is just one of the 14,871 immigration cases – including all but criminal, terror and national security cases – currently pending in Chicago, according to Sept. 2011 data from the TRAC. 

There are stories of deportations being enforced even years after a claim was denied.

The 2010 documentary Tony & Janina’s American Wedding is a story of a Polish American family and their struggle with the immigration system. Janina Wasilewski, an immigrant who came to America during Reagan’s amnesty years, had petitioned to stay in the U.S. and was denied, much like Peba. While her husband Tony remained in the United States to continue the life they had built, Janina was deported back to Poland, taking their six-year-old son with her. The film follows the family’s three- year struggle to not only stay together, but to keep faith in the American dream that had brought them to Chicago in the first place.

Peba said the anxiety of the wait is unrelenting. He feels he should have been granted asylum status long ago, and even though it has been denied, he will not stop telling the story he insists is true.

“I’ve given it my all. Wherever I am, I will talk about my story and hope that somebody, someday, somehow will pick up on where I stopped, and say, ‘The way this person was treated was wrong,’” he said.

Peba hopes that persevering will not only allow him to achieve his goals, but inspire others to take control of their own lives. Outside of his relationship with Nicole, Peba is most passionate about his education. He prays daily for the chance to finish his degree in nursing in America, which he wants to use to travel around the world helping people. Peba also expressed a desire to start his own educational organization to teach less-fortunate people “how to live a better life.”

Peba beams in his scrubs on the job at Atrium.

“I like helping people,” Peba said during a recent 16-hour shift at the Atrium Health Care Center in Rogers Park. “I like when I’m ensuring that they’re happy. It makes me happy.”

The life of a warrior

It was the day after Peba learned by email about the rejection of his motion for an asylum rehearing. The news was weighing on him, he said, but he also was busy.  In the morning, he had instructed nursing students in proper body positioning for working with frail patients. Not long after, he helped other third-floor staff members serve lunch.

During a short interview break, he had easy smiles for the residents who wandered over to ask for a Styrofoam cup or a razor.

Peba works as a Certified Nursing Assistant, helping the facility’s patients through daily routines like eating and washing.  He’s studying to become a registered nurse and he hopes to one day work for the World Health Organization. His ambition is recognized by Atrium’s Director of Nursing, Sandra Spight.

“He’s a go-getter,” Spight said. “There’s been times he came to me and we talked, because he feels like he’s not doing enough, and I had to assure him that he’s doing more than enough… if I ever lose him as a CNA, it will be devastating for the residents.”

Whenever he needs the strength to keep fighting, Peba recalls a scene from home that has never left him.

As a 20 year old in the Nigerian state of Akwa Ibom, Peba’s religious mentor invited him to meet Archbishop Elijah Mboho  with a group of clergymen from the area. As they all waited for the archbishop to make his entrance, Peba purposely separated himself from the other religious men because he “didn’t feel up to their level.” However, when Mboho entered the room, he walked directly to Peba, put one hand on Peba’s left knee, and introduced himself.

According to Peba, Mboho then went on to say “you are a warrior, a fighter. Whatever you go for, you’re going to get it, but you have to fight for it. Warriors don’t live in the house that others have built for them. They live in the forest; they live in the jungle.”

Mboho’s words have become the mantra Peba lives by.

“Whenever I face a challenge, those words keep coming back to me. I’ve been fighting ever since. And I will fight until I get it.”

———————

Update:

In early February 2012, as Peba was planning an anniversary date for Nicole, a letter from the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services put a damper on his romantic mood. The letter stated that USCIS planned to deny the petition from Nicole to recognize her marriage with Eugene.

Nicole’s petition, titled an I-130 petition, could lay the groundwork for Eugene to apply for permanent residency. In its letter, however, USCIS questioned the legitimacy of the Pebas’ marriage. It suggested that Eugene had married Nicole to attain immigration status and not out of genuine love.

The letter cited statements from the couple’s sworn USCIS interviews in August, when Nicole did not know certain facts about her husband, including the names of his parents and his hometown in Nigeria. It also referred to Eugene’s previous marriage to an American – a marriage that the U.S. government claimed was only for immigration purposes.

Akin Ogunlola, Peba’s immigration lawyer, and the reporters of this story were unaware of this history until they read the USCIS letter. When asked about his first marriage in a follow-up interview, Peba said he entered the marriage on the advice of Ogoni friends in Chicago. He said that at the time, he adhered to the Ogoni culture of following the suggestions of his elders.

Both Peba and Nicole insist their marriage is based on love. For months, a team of Immigrant Connect reporters visited them in their Rogers Park home and in their workplaces, following the Pebas as they awaited a decision on his legal status.

The Pebas are still waiting to hear a final determination from USCIS on Nicole’s I-130 petition and Peba’s legal status. In the meantime, Peba continues to attend regular meetings with a deportation officer. He says the most recent meeting, on March 8, went well, and that the deportation officer asked him to follow up in September.

Peba takes out the trash and walks his dog, Bugsy, feeling upbeat about the new year.

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