[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hile Odette Mukaji Kasal fried meatballs in her Colorado Springs kitchen, her adopted granddaughter Rose Nseya stared quietly out the window, mesmerized by the snow. A tall 13-year old, she wore pink leggings and Michelin Man slippers against the sudden cold. Rose grew up in a Zambian refugee camp. These flakes were among the first she’d ever seen.
“When we have visitors she is shy,” Odette explained, watching Rose. “But when we are alone together she is just so funny. She makes me laugh every day.”
Though they spoke on the phone nearly every day for much of Rose’s life, Odette waited years to meet her granddaughter in person. Odette is the matriarch of a large, diffuse Congolese family. When she still lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she had a good job teaching English at a local university, Odette supported and gradually adopted 11 of her nieces and nephews. A human rights activist, she also protected and sheltered some 26 Tutsi refugees. Authorities caught on in 2000 and the political backlash against Odette and her family was severe. First Odette, then her siblings and their children — many of whom Odette had raised — were forced to flee their home, scattering to refugee camps across Africa. One brother is still missing.
It wasn’t until 2005, when Odette had settled in the United States, that she was able to locate her adopted daughter, Kamayi “Annie” Kasala, and her infant child — Rose. The pair were living with other members of the extended family in a Zambian refugee camp. Odette began sending money and petitioning to bring Annie and Rose to the United States.
It took years, but by the fall of 2013 Odette had secured a visa for her daughter and, by extension, her granddaughter. Days before her final interview to secure the necessary papers to leave Zambia for the United States, Annie passed away. The death certificate points to dehydration.
“In Africa they don’t do an autopsy unless you are rich and can afford that, so we don’t really know,” said Odette, before excusing herself from the room.
The timing only compounded the tragedy of her daughter’s death. Annie had been the primary beneficiary of Odette’s immigration petition and under U.S. law that meant Odette’s granddaughter Rose could only immigrate as a dependent of her mother.
“The visa, and our hopes to reunite our family, died with my daughter,” Odette wrote in an official letter requesting federal and international authorities to reconsider the case.
Rose, then 12-years old, stayed on the refugee camp, orphaned, in a temporary house built of cinder blocks. Food was in short supply. There was no school for her to attend. She suffered from fainting spells and woke screaming in the night.
When asked about the camp, Rose kept her eyes trained on a High School Musical sequel, which played muted on the TV. “It rained,” she said quietly.
Eric Pavri, the Colorado Springs immigration attorney who has worked on Rose’s case says there’s no provision in U.S. immigration law for a citizen to bring their grandchild from overseas.
Pavri and Odette began to explore other options — refugee status through the United Nations, humanitarian parole through U.S. immigration, even direct adoption through some combination of Zambian and Congolese courts.
“We just tried throwing as many Hail Marys as we could,” Pavri said.
He sent about 500 emails and made more than 100 calls. All the while, more and more people in Odette’s adopted community heard about Rose. Parents at The Colorado Springs School, the private school where Odette teaches French, offered financial support to cover legal expenses. Friends brought Odette’s story to the attention of Sen. Michael Bennet’s office.
The office handles roughly 3,500 constituent services cases each year — with immigration efforts coming in a close second behind veterans benefits. Even so, staffers say Rose’s case was special.
“You think of one little girl sitting alone far, far away and it gives you the resolve to say, ‘If there’s anything we can do, we should,” said Annie Oatman-Gardner, the Pikes Peak regional director for Sen. Bennet who spearheaded their office’s advocacy efforts on Rose’s behalf.
Oatman-Gardner worked with congressional liaisons to bring Rose’s story — and a letter of support from Sen. Bennet — to the attention of officials in the State Department, Immigration Services and the United Nations.
“This family’s story is deeply compelling. It demonstrates the strength of character we seek in new immigrants to the United States,” Bennet’s letter reads. “[A]n entire community awaits to support Rose … if we can just get her here and into Odette’s arms, she can be nurtured and guided by her strong, accomplished, and loving grandmother.”
Time — everyone from Odette to Bennet emphasized — was of the essence.
“Since her mother’s death, and her being told that she cannot come to me, Rose has become emotionally distraught,” Odette wrote at the time. “I fear for my granddaughter, and cannot imagine how lonely and afraid she must be. When we speak on the phone I can hear the desperation and grief in her voice. It rips open my heart.”
After nearly a year, the team’s work with the UN paid off.
“We got ahold of the right people who pushed things through and expedited almost every step of the process. What usually takes three to four years happened in about 11 months,” Pavri said.
Rose was given permission to resettle in the United States as a refugee. Clutching a bag of precious official documents, she boarded her first plane. Always watchful, with the bearing of someone older, she navigated alone from Lusaka to Dubai to Chicago to Colorado Springs.
“When we have a success like that our whole team gets bolstered,” said Oatman-Gardner. “It was an honor.”
Though he sees Bennet’s support as an example of strong leadership and advocacy, Pavri thinks it shouldn’t take a senator to get a little girl to a safe home with her family.
“Under U.S. law, there essentially wasn’t a way to bring Rose here,” he said. “That’s not an issue with the officials or the agency. It’s an issue with the rules.”
Oatman-Gardner maintains that Rose’s case was unique, makinging it a natural fit for the kind of advocacy people should expect from their representatives. That said, Bennet’s office did note that the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate, though not the House, would have streamlined the asylum-seeking process that was ultimately just a few weeks too slow to save the life of Rose’s mother.
“Part of the reason it took forever during those five or six years we tried to get Annie here, why she didn’t live to make it to the U.S., was that we have very strict limits on how many family members can come in each year,” said Pavri, noting the waiting list in some countries is 20 years long.
It’s a problem even the bipartisan Senate bill wouldn’t have addressed at the level immigration attorneys like Pavri would like. In fact, he said that version of comprehensive immigration reform would have narrowed rather than expanded the categories that allow citizens to help family members immigrate. To that end, it wouldn’t have solved the problem Odette faced when unable to sponsor her granddaughter’s immigration.
“In my opinion, our society is founded on family, and strong families make a strong America,” said Pavri. “Our immigration laws have for over a century had as a basic, central tenet keeping families together, unifying families. Starting to chip away at that by reducing the number of categories that allow people to bring family members to this country would be a terrible mistake. This case is a good example of that.”
Rose arrived at the Colorado Springs airport the evening of September 30, 2014, exactly a year after her mother died. When she saw Odette, she dropped everything she was carrying and ran to her.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Odette remembers, laughing. “We fell.”
[Rose and Odette. Photo by Tessa Cheek]