CS&T Staff Writer
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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 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
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
“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,”
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
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
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
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
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