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Courage, sacrifice and loneliness: An immigrant’s story

Nadia Pozo
CS&T Staff Write
r

His life was in danger. He had to flee his country.

But even though he had been granted political asylum here in the United States, each of his family members would have had to go through an individual asylum application process in order to leave with him.

And so Valentine Bikibili was forced to leave his four young children and his pregnant wife behind, in a country run by a government that was hostile to their Catholic faith. He waited three long years for their reunion.

This is the true story of one political refugee — a well-educated and devoted Catholic from Cameroon, who is now the director of religious education at St. Malachy Church in Philadelphia.

His story highlights one of several proposals for immigration reform that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is pushing for, along with with other Catholic organizations, in the political effort it calls “Justice for Immigrants: A Journey of Hope.”

The national bishops’ conference is working to reform U. S. laws that keep immigrant families separated for as long as 10 years while the applications of their individual members move through a labyrinth of time-consuming requirements.

Bikibili’s story

It was the autumn of 2001, and Cameroon, a small country on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, was about to have its first ostensibly democratic national election after three decades of authoritarian rule.

In the months leading up to the election, Bikibili worked organizing Catholics throughout the country to serve as observers of the election, to help ensure it was free and fair.

At the time he was working for the Catholic Church on a national level; he was implementing a training program for leaders from each diocese who, in turn, trained parish representatives throughout the nation.

The government in power at the time did not want the Catholic Church involved in the election — nor did it want any threat to the reelection of its own candidate. Bikibili’s election work was perceived as a threat by government officials.

They arrested and detained him for three weeks, and when they let him go, they ordered him to report to the police three times a week.

He knew his life was in danger, and his family urged him to seek political asylum. The United States accepted him and granted him asylum but, under existing immigration laws, he had to apply separately for each of his family members. At the time, his wife was seven months pregnant, and his children ranged from age six to 11 years old.

Bikibili had no choice but to leave.

The election took place in January 2002, and both local and international observers reported it was flawed by numerous irregularities. The government that had been in power for the previous 10 years was reelected — which made Bikibili realize how necessary it had been for him to leave.

Without friends in a foreign land

Bikibili arrived in New York City. He didn’t speak English, didn’t know anyone, and had barely enough money to stay in a cheap hotel for the next few days. There was no government support for him as a political refugee, and he did not realize he could turn to the Catholic Church.

“I asked around if anyone knew of any Cameroons, and they gave me the name of a young man. I told him my situation — that I had no more money to stay in the hotel, and [asked] if I could stay with him for a few days,” Bikibili said. “He said he had too many people in his house, but that I could stay for a few days. … He also told me of an agency that finds people jobs. I went to it and they offered me a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Chester County.

“I had no choice,” he said. “ I got on a bus and went to Chester.”

The restaurant owner provided free board and paid four dollars an hour. Bikibili worked 10 hours a day. He saved money to send back to his family in Cameroon.

Although he was an educated professional in his own country, Bikibili, like many immigrants, was unable to speak English. He did what he had to for the sake of his family.

“It was a very, very difficult time for me,” Bikibili said. “I was physically hurting. I was very tired, and I spent many nights crying, suffering without my family. I don’t like to talk about it.”

After a year, he knew he couldn’t go on living that way — he needed to figure out how to improve his situation.

He taught himself English and enrolled in the Katherine Gibbs School in Norristown, to pursue an associate degree in personal computer networking.

Still not familiar with Philadelphia, Bikibili thought the school was located in the city. So he went to South Philadelphia and found himself an affordable apartment to rent. He also found employment as a bus boy at a Center City hotel.

Then he discovered his trip to Katherine Gibbs would take two hours and two separate buses.

“I was so upset and so tired. I almost didn’t do it — if it weren’t for the admissions officer, who encouraged me and told me I had to do it for my family,” Bikibili said.

“I woke up at 5 a.m. to pray, shower and get to work by 7 a.m. I worked until 3 p.m., and then, right away, I got on a bus to make it to school. Classes were from six to 11 p.m. and then I’d catch another bus.

“I’d get home around 1 a.m. only to do it all over again the next day,” he said.

The only things that got Bikibili through this difficult time were intense prayer and attending Mass every Sunday, he said: “When you face the difficulties of life, you need to remain faithful and be in permanent contact with God. Because I suffered so much, I prayed so much. I prayed all the time. I prayed the rosary on the bus in the morning and in the evening.

“I prayed everywhere,” he said. “When you face those times, all you can do is put your life in the hands of God.”

Bikibili’s strong faith was instilled in him as a child; his parents were poor but very pious people. They taught Bikibili and his 10 brothers and sisters to rely on God for all things, and to pray. They also taught their children the value of education.

“My Christian education helped me face many difficulties in my life. It led me to work for the Church. I even have two brothers who are priests,” Bikibili said.

Brighter days

When Bikibili began working in Philadelphia, he told his employer that he needed Sundays off because he was a Christian. Every Sunday he attended Mass at St. Rita’s Shrine in South Philadelphia.

One day, the pastor approached and asked him where he was from. Through that encounter, Bikibili was directed to the Archdiocese and, eventually he met the Sisters of St. Joseph.

The sisters were a great spiritual support for Bikibili and they eventually led him to The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians — a nonprofit organization designed to assist immigrants.

From there, he found St. Malachy Parish, and its pastor, Father John McNamee.

Bikibili took a job as a janitor there. Then someone noticed that he was studying computer networking. Father McNamee hired him as a part-time janitor and a part-time computer-support technician for the parish and school.

“I cleaned the bathrooms in the morning, worked in the computer lab in the afternoon, and then again returned in the evening to clean some more,” Bikibili said.

At the same time, Sister Bernadette Dougherty, a Sister of St. Joseph and the director of religious education, was gathering catechists for training.

Bikibili told her that he had designed a program for catechists, and trained them in 23 dioceses in Cameroon. He offered his help, and she took it. Bikibili found himself adding volunteer-trainer of catechists to his resume.

For their part, he said, Father McNamee, and Sister Bernadette and the catechists were happy for the insights and vision he offered in the work of evangelization.

When Sister Bernadette returned to her community house, Bikibili was chosen to replace her as director of religious education for the parish. That was a year ago.

Now Bikibili — who still works in computer support as well as in religious education at the parish — has obtained certification in theological studies from Villanova University, and plans to go on for a master’s degree in theology.

Reunited

In October 2004, three years after last seeing his family, Bikibili was finally reunited with them.

“When we saw each other in the airport everyone was crying, kissing and hugging. It was very emotional,” Bikibili said.

He was amazed by how much his children had grown, and he finally met his three-year-old son, Valentine II: “We stayed up all night talking and we all slept in the same room so we could be near each other.”

About a month ago, Bikibili also became a homeowner. He bought a four-bedroom, newly remodeled home his family calls “the White House” because it’s so beautiful, he said.

His children are enrolled in St. Francis de Sales Parish School, and his wife is taking a course in English.

Now he tells his five children what his father told him: “This is what I can do for you — now you have to keep studying and try to get a better job for your future.”

Bikibili commends the work of the bishops’ conference, and the archdiocesan Office for Pastoral Care for Migrants and Refugees, in their efforts to meet the needs of immigrants to the United States.

“Their work is very necessary, because immigrants face a lot of problems here — especially African immigrants,” he said. “They need help. They don’t know how to get help.

“If there is any way the Church can make the changes in the immigration laws, it will be very helpful,” he added. “There is a lot of suspicion nowadays, even if you’re educated. They saw me cleaning bathrooms, but no one could imagine I went to school in my country.”

Bikibili misses his country, and he feels he isn’t as useful to the Church here as he was in his country, where he was spearheading many national programs — from fighting poverty to evangelization. But he puts his life in God’s hands, and he trusts.

He takes what he’s learned from his own experience, to help other immigrants and his fellow countrymen, with whom he continues to be in contact.

In the end, he said, “we are all people of God — Catholic and non Catholic — and we are commanded to love one another.”

Note: To learn more about the USCCB’s campaign to reform immigration laws visit www.justiceforimmigrants.org
 

 

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