Elly Rono - Running Toward The Dream
Sitting in a small-town park on a North Carolina spring day, to some is just another Saturday, but to Elly Rono it’s a precious dream.
Born in Kenya, Rono saw little promise for his future. “Life is not easy, it is really hard. There are parts of the world where you don’t see a future, all that you see is darkness. You don’t see any hope,” said Rono. “For most people, life is very hard in Kenya. You graduate from school and it is hard to find a job. When you do it’s low paying. It’s not getting you anywhere. You would be saving for 15-20 years to save for a car or a house.” Rono is not exaggerating, 50 percent of the population in Kenya lives below the poverty rate, and 40 percent are unemployed. The average life expectancy is only 47 years as compared to 77 years in the USA. Kenya is the seventeenth poorest country in the world.
A little parched from his daily run, he takes a drink from his bottle of water. He has been clocking just under the Olympic qualifying time for the long distance run, remaining focused on the day he can run for America.
A young family walks by our picnic table – boys and their father.
Yet, this dream has not been without sacrifice. He left his family behind in hopes that they could eventually join him and that his struggle would make life better for all of them. “Some people are like ‘how are you doing that?’ ‘How are you going months and months without seeing your boys - it’s not right.’ They see that it is a weird way. It is unusual. But for a change to happen, someone must be willing to sacrifice and if I don’t make that sacrifice, no one else will make it for me. Someone has to change something. I want people in future generations to live a better life. That’s what I want.”
He began running years ago when some friends asked him to join them in their daily run. He didn’t think he would be good at it, but asked them to wait for him. He had to run home and get his shoes.
He looks around the park, watching joggers wearing baseball caps sporting US team logos run alongside romping family dogs. “This country is almost the only country in the world that can fulfill any dream that you can think of and I know if I did not come to this country, I would not be a runner now, “ says Rono.
But the trail to becoming an American Olympic hopeful was not an easy one for a man from Kenya. “I was hoping to run in the last Olympics that were in Athens Greece but things with the immigration process were not as fast as I had hoped. It’s not easy.”
He runs 20 miles a day to achieve what he calls ‘the dream’ saying simply that nothing is easy that there are no short cuts. It’s been a long road from Kenya.
“When I started filing for my documentation, I wanted to get a Green Card, I tried several lawyers. They said to me ‘we just can’t take your case. It is too hard. They said my case was not simple. It’s not going to go through’.”
Rono was used to going the distance, he would not give up so easily.
“I took the phone book and kept calling lawyers one by one until I got to Bashyam & Spiro. I think they are the best lawyers I ever worked with. They set up an appointment with me and we met a couple of times. They re-examined my case. On our third meeting they told me you have a shot. It would take some time but it could work. I said, ‘you mean it could potentially work?’ and they said ‘yes, it could work’. All the other lawyers never said anything like that to me. From that first day I just saw things working.”
“To finally find someone who would really help me, I felt something -I was so relieved that the burden on me was being lifted because I knew if this goes through –that’s my future. I saw my future. Right there I knew. I’m glad I came to them.”
He walks us over to the trail he runs everyday, we walk past an old abandoned gravesite, around a bend in the path to a new running trail. It seems new and full of promise as it winds through the forest.
“It is a huge privilege being in this country. There is almost no other country in the world where you can do what you like and fulfill your dream. You get all kinds of chances here you don’t have in other countries. Other countries could be good, but I tell you, it’s great being here.” Rono smiles as he looks ahead at the path before him.
Ayan Finds Her Way Home
The sounds of traffic on the street below the apartment fill the night, though obtrusive, the sound brings a certain comfort to Ayan, for it means people. It means she is in a densely populated area and just a shout from others.
She sits in her space and looks around the room. There’s not much within the space, when she left him she took only a small suite case, only a week’s worth of clothes. She stands and moves to the window. There are mountains in the distance just beyond the traffic and the city. “They were like a messenger from God to me, Bashyam & Spiro. Like a messenger from God.”
She came to America as a student, on a fellowship with the dreams that most young people have, dreams of a future full of promise. Her parents remained in her home country. They wanted the best life for her, to see her married, to have a family. When chemistry did not strike, when love didn’t ‘just happen’, she agreed to a potential arrangement -a tradition still part of the social norms of her country. “He was good looking, he could get any girl. When we met he said he wanted to see girls from his country of birth. But he did not like anyone. So he brought his parents to meet me.”
She dreamed of a happy life in America, of starting a family –a life not unlike of that of her parent’s where it was about family, respect, commitment and eventually love. A few months later they had a commitment ceremony, it allowed them to spend more time together to talk and get to know one another. “A few things happened before we got married. Now when I look back they should have given me an indication. But he would apologize and say he didn’t know how to treat a girl. He said everything a girl wanted to hear. So I would forgive him.” They were married. And they went to live in his parent’s house.
It’s cold here even for this time of year, she wraps a throw over her slender shoulders. “Then things started happening that shouldn’t. Things were not going right.” One by one she saw the outward signs of her independence slip away. Her car transferred into his parent’s name, her cell phone account canceled, her checking account closed, her jewelry locked away in her mother-in-law’s safe. Little remained in her name, little resembled the life she had pictured. He’d take everything from her that connected her to the outside world. He would attempt to isolate her from her family, and even relayed false gossip to create distance between them. She felt more like a slave than a wife, forced to do endless hours of housework.
“In September he hit me. I asked his mother for help. She told me that it was my fault that I made his anger go to the extent that he would hit me. She told me I should tell him I was sorry. After that I did not talk to anyone, it was so hard for me. My family was very far away. So to patch things up I said I was sorry.”
Things would get bad and she would try to leave. He would promise to work on their marriage, he’d say he did not want her to go. She would give him the chance to make it right, but there would be a glass of water thrown in her face, there would be nights he would remove his wedding ring, stay out late and not tell her where he had been, there would be yelling and anger and always the control. It progressed to the point where they fought every day, where any hopes of normalcy evaporated in the heat of his anger and the stillness of her heartache. “ He didn’t try to work on the marriage, his thought was that if he used something other than his hands to hit me it would not count. I was always worried because I knew what he was capable of.”
When she did leave, she left with one small carry on – five T-shirts and ten pairs of pants. She didn’t care about the jewelry or the car or the bank accounts, it was the search for peace, for solitude and for herself that mattered.
He had her followed –another way to intimidate her now that she was physically beyond his grasp. He tried to get her fired from her job. “He thought I would give up and go back to my homeland. He thought he could still control me. He didn’t know how strong I was. How strong I am.”
She found a great divorce attorney, but she needed the support of an immigration firm. She needed to be granted permission from Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) to remain in the United States. It would have to be proven that she was battered by her husband or subjected to extreme mental cruelty. A friend recommended Bashyam & Spiro. “It was not an easy case. I didn’t have any pictures showing physical abuse, there were no police records. But I talked to Ame at Bashyam & Spiro in detail and she painted a clear and honest picture for me. There was not a lot of hope. But as she continued to work on the case, our hope grew.”
“To me she was a messenger from God. This person outside of my family who listened to me and believed in me, who understood me and would fight for me.”
It would take uncovering the truth through an on-going collection of details, a trail of paperwork that would eventually paint a picture of abuse both mental and physical. Each document would tell part of the story of a young woman brave enough to reclaim her independence. Ame would eventually work more than 80 exhibits into a 22-page affidavit, the culmination of emails, statements from family, friends and co-workers. It would take endless hours of detailing, writing affidavits from testimonials, elaborating on exhibits.
The affidavit would be so substantive, so complete in its detail that CIS would not require any additional information, no clarification, an unusual accomplishment in today’s complex world of immigration. They would approve the self-petition and then later approve the permanent resident application.
Ayan tells me she feels like venturing out, we leave the apartment and walk slowly down the crowed sidewalk. People glance at her and smile. Perhaps they notice what I do. There is gait to her walk. It speaks of confidence, of a woman at home in her surroundings. It speaks of a woman who journeyed not only across the sea to the promise of America but through the darkness of abuse and who in the end found the freedom to make her dreams come true in a land she calls ‘home’. As we walk the sun starts to break through the smog in the air, she tells me it feels warm and good upon her shoulders.
Coming To America
Maf sits on a faded sofa in the small living room of his house. The house sits back on the road away from the sounds of traffic. It is within cycling distance of the cool part of town, the latest hip street. A melodious voice is heard through the walls, it’s Tara singing. Tara, his wife of three years.
“I literally contacted ten lawyers. Ten. I sent emails telling my life story. About why I wanted to live in America, about Tara and me. They were so unresponsive. I thought, this is important, this is about my life, her life, our life together. One emailed me back, the message was one line telling me that his retainer was $5,000,” said Maf. He leans back against the sofa and rolls his eyes. “A one line email.”
Maf talks about how he and Tara met at an outside café in Miami. He was sitting at a small table with a friend when she walked by. His friend knew her from some gig. They invited her to join them, she did. He liked her laugh, her freckles, her eyes. Her a singer looking for a record deal, him a record producer from the UK working the Miami Music Conference. It seemed meant to be. Love bloomed, marriage followed. And she followed him back to Wales.
“Life was OK there. But Tara missed her family, there’s a house full of them – a sister, three brothers, nieces, nephews. It’s hard to be away from the folks you love. It can make a person lonely. I wanted to bring her back to her family.”
“I planned a long visit of three months, time for Tara to really spend time with her family, while I was in America my circumstances changed. The company where I had worked for 10 years had lost a big contract and informed me that there was no job to go back to. So we made the decision to stay in the USA.”
To Maf, picking up roots and moving to America would be OK, maybe even great. “I really like the people in America. I don’t think you can find more open minded people anywhere else. Plus it’s a creative hot bed. I thought there would be a lot of opportunity in film and music for us here.”
So they made the journey across the ocean, back to America. They left most of their possessions behind except for the music, her guitar, his movie camera, a theremin and copies of the CD they produced together.
But opportunity can fall on deaf ears when immigration is part of the act. One bad note and the whole musical score can be messed up. “I called the immigration office, to make sure I knew what I was supposed to do so we could make our lives here in America. They advised me that I could file my own paper work for my Green Card. I asked if I needed a lawyer, they said no, not really. So I was getting ready to do everything they said and then take a quick trip back to take care of some stuff in the UK. They made it seem like everything would be fine. I was this close to doing that.” Maf holds this thumb and index finger up. His little finger is wrapped in blue tape – an injury from playing kick ball with some mates. He shakes his head and gestures again, “this close.”
“A friend of mine said, ‘You had better check with a lawyer, just in case.’ So I started contacting immigration lawyers for some advice. That’s when I got the one line email. No one would help me; no one would give me any advice. Ten, I called ten.”
Tara passes through the room on the way to the kitchen for a glass of water. She’s been working on her album in the sound studio Maf built for her in their home. They smile at each other and he asks her how it’s going.
“It’s going,” she replies. From my ears she is too modest. I feel in concert she would blow you away.
“I could have lost it all you know, if it wasn’t for Bashyam & Spiro. They are the only ones who took the time to talk to me. They spent so much time with me on the phone when I called. They told me that if I filed that paperwork and went back to the UK I could be stopped from returning to America for many years. Can you imagine that?”
Tara decides to take a break from recording and sits next to Maf on the sofa. They sit close to each other, legs touching. She rests her hand on his knee.
“They are working with me now, with us,” he smiles at Tara. “They’re taking us through the whole process making sure it’s done right.” He turns and looks at his bride. “It won’t be long now, Luv.”
“If they hadn’t taken the time to talk to me, I would have just done what I thought I was supposed to do. Right now I would be back in the UK and it would be years before I could bring Tara home to her family.”
“We’re peas in a pod, all of us you know. We look exactly the same,” Tara says laughing. The bond is unspoken.
“That one simple act, a lawyer from Bashyam & Spiro actually picking up the phone to speak to me, just a bloke needing some advice, not even a paying client yet. That says a lot about them doesn’t it?”
About The Author
Murali Bashyam, Esq. is a partner in the law firm of Bashyam & Spiro located in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has worked in cases in employment-based immigration including immigrant and non-immigrant visa applications processing, inbound and outbound immigration, alien labor certifications, and professional and intra-company transferee visas. He is a featured writer on immigration issues providing ongoing information to both his clients and those affected by changes in immigration law. He also frequently counsels corporate attorneys on aspects of immigration law.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.
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