A newly released documentary has revealed the silent challenges that Kenyan immigrants living in the United States go through.
'Diaspora Dispatches', written, produced and directed by Kaba Mbugua was released in Raleigh, North Carolina, and features confessions by a number of Kenyans who candidly narrate their experiences in the US.
Official data reveals there are about 130,000 Kenyans living in the US, although the figure is disputed, with some claiming there are at least 300,000 Kenyan immigrants in the country. Many have well-paying jobs or run successful businesses, while others are students.
The confessions confirm that Kenyans, just like other immigrants, struggle to make ends meet in the US, with the challenges at times leading to some, especially the youth, to resort to bad company, ending up in jail, shelters for the homeless, extradition or even death.
The film disregards the misconceptions held by Kenyans about life in the “Land of the free” and the subsequent effects.
“I was a criminal … I was arrested for illegal possession of a gun and cocaine,” says Mr James Njoroge who has since been deported.
“I smoked marijuana and was involved in many minor violations.”
Alice Raine, narrates on how she uninformed about life in the US before flying out. She said she found things were opposite of what she first anticipated.
“We used to eat from trash cans because we had no food and the restaurant where we worked would not let us touch the expired food,” she says, referring to the Food and Drug Administration laws, which are strictly observed by American eateries.
“Our first year was terrible. We had come on a one-way ticket and so we couldn’t go back.”
Another Kenyan says that many well-educated Kenyan professionals are forced to settle for demeaning menial jobs just to make a living.
“This is because they do not have the requisite papers to enable them compete on equal terms with others,” he says.
Ms Wariara Thuo recounts how she struggled get a car and a place to stay soon after she arrived in the US.
“Authorities wanted to see my documents everywhere I went,” she says.
Japheth Matemu, a US-based immigration says some Kenyans do not give up easily and opt for marriage.
“However, citizenship through marriage is not as easy as some think. It must be a one-woman-one man union and it has to be entered into in good faith in order to be recognised by federal law,” he says.
He, however, says that many Kenyans married in Kenya are denied an opportunity to review their status because they have no divorce records.
“They forget that there is a record trail from the time they applied for their visas,” he says.
Mr Matemu explains why the “Kenyan mindset” has landed many in American prisons.
“Some things not taken very seriously in Kenya are considered criminal in the US. Many Kenyans have ended up in jail for crimes like driving under the influence,” he adds.
The lawyer discloses that people who overstay their visas have it rough but they hardly talk about it.
However, life for Kenyans with valid student visas is relatively easy.
“You are allowed to work and sustain yourself if you come here on a student visa. Holders of other visas like the DV (popularly known as Green Card), are also good to go,” he says.
Matemu cautions Kenyan immigrants against “marriage for papers”.
A counsellor with Family Development Institute, Mbinjiwe Mwendwa says some Kenyans in the US have made business out of marriage. They tie the knot for papers and divorce as soon as the marriage “matures,” only to marry another “client” soon afterwards.
“One pockets about $3,000 (Sh320,000) every two to three years for marriages that have nothing to do with the bedroom,” he says.
Mr Joseck Asikoye of Jabali Africa gives reasons why he thinks cases of domestic violence among Kenyan couples in the US are high.
“Pent-up anger among Kenyan men is one of the reasons some kill themselves,” he says, adding that they find it difficult “to bring out the Kenyan men in them” due to the repercussions.
“You cannot physically discipline your wife here,” says Mr Asikoye.
Mr Justus Asikoye advises Kenyans who immigrate to the US to obey the law.
“There is no short cut. Many people are rotting in jail,” he says.