Parents with U.S.-born children are currently getting deported left and right. Some of these parents have been living in the U.S. for more than 30 years and are forced to leave their families behind, like my father, who had to leave us in September 2007. At the time, I was too young to understand why.
It was like any other rushed, busy morning during the school week. As my mother prepared for work, my father got my brother William and I ready for school. My baby sister Mackenzie wanted to go. My dad agreed to take her after her crying fit, leaving us 10 minutes to spare before the 7:50 a.m. late bell.
When we returned home from school that day, my father wasn’t there, which was unusual.
Three days later, my mom drove me to my uncle’s house with my 7-year-old brother and my 2-year-old sister. I was 9. When we arrived, I saw my father conversing with our uncle. I found it rather odd that he had a suitcase with him. “Where are we going?” I thought.
While our parents conversed in hushed tones, I played with my cousins, hoping to enjoy time with them before we left for what I assumed was a family trip. After a while, my father found me and told me that he was going alone on a business trip and that he was leaving the next day. I remembered nodding my head impatiently so I could get back to playing before we left my uncle’s house. My father had never gone on any sort of business trip before, and for some reason, I didn’t express any curiosity about why or where he was going.
When we left my uncle’s house, my father didn’t ride with us. Instead, my uncle drove him to the airport while my mom drove us home. That night my brother and I slept in the master bedroom. We slept in the master bedroom for the next couple of years.
For 10 years, I kept my father’s absence a secret. Growing up, the reason behind my father’s absence was not something to dwell on. However, I felt like it was treated as the elephant in the room. Outside of the house, any conversation relating to the true reason he was gone was avoided at all cost. When I stepped out of the house, I was very careful to construct a narrative of who my father is. I live in a predominantly white neighborhood where everyone seems to be living the American Dream. How could I say the same when my father couldn’t be with me?
I was ashamed to say that he was an illegal immigrant that had to return to Africa or be deported.
Even some of my closest friends didn’t know, and for years, I pretended that my father was on a big business trip abroad. I was ashamed to say that he was an illegal immigrant who had to return to Africa or be deported.
I think I have gone so long without speaking about it because I do not want to accept this reality. Sometimes you can’t make sense of uncertainty. And it’s no one’s business; it’s family business. It only occurred to me that I have a significant story to tell because of what is happening in America right now.
I never cried initially. My mom is a pretty strong individual. Somehow, in the eyes of our Nigerian relatives, my father’s hasty departure was meant to be a burden on my mother. They expected my mom to quickly gather our belongings and follow my father to Nigeria. But they did not know my mother. She proudly lived her life and she helped us live ours. She helped me and my siblings adjust to my dad’s absence. Life carried on so swiftly — I don’t think I felt like I needed to be upset, or even angry after my mom told us the true nature of my father’s absence several years later.
When I do talk to my dad, we talk mostly about mundane things, like how school is going and if I’m doing my chores. Our conversations do not carry the same substance that talks with my mom do. I feel like I have failed to make our conversations more meaningful because of the time that has passed and the distance between us. He has remained very involved, given the circumstances, and I have not given him much to talk about on my part.
I collect souvenirs to reminisce about past experiences, and I find that my eyes often linger on the “milestone” tokens. Father-daughter dance invitations. College acceptance letters. Graduation tickets. These mementos were from experiences that he did not partake in. Sometimes this made me angry, and even sad. But more than anything I was confused. He didn’t leave by choice, and I just don’t think it was fair that someone could make that choice for him.
In 2014, I got a chance to see my father for the first time in seven years. My family flew 17 hours to Dubai. The Middle Eastern terrain coupled with my father’s presence made the whole situation surreal. However, I was more excited than nervous.
I was shocked by his appearance. Our communication over the years have been through voice calls, and this is still the nature of our communication. I naively pictured him as he was seven years earlier. He walked into the hotel room sometime around 2 a.m., and his thick hair was now a flat grey buzz cut, and his mustache was touched with grey. Before embracing him in a big hug, I took a brief moment to actually look at him while I was still in bed. Wow, I thought, This is no dream — he is right there.
In 2014, I got a chance to see my father for the first time in seven years.
For 11 days, I had a chance to hold his hand and hug him. I got to see his facial expressions when I said something silly.
One touching memory I have from the trip was watching my mom show my dad years of photo albums on her iPad. They were sitting on the bed in the hotel room and she scrolled through pictures of my siblings’ soccer games, clips of my track races, past vacations, and pictures of the new house. My father got a glimpse of the life my mother provided for us and he was astonished to see that we had not led the lives that reflected our situation. He was delighted, but part of him looked sorry. The magnitude of his absence was made evident at that moment.
A year after seeing my dad, his best friend died. He was the closest person that I had known to die and had often visited my father in Nigeria. Like my father, he had diabetes, and he succumbed unexpectedly from a heart attack.
Upon hearing this, I genuinely cried for the first time about our situation. My father’s friend was in the U.S. with access to the best medical care, and my father is in Nigeria with the opposite. I recognized how grateful I should be. Despite everything, I can speak of my father’s absence in the present tense.
My father has not been very proactive about trying to return to the U.S. In the past, when he was here, my mom was the kind of person who would take charge. When he had to go back to Nigeria, he just assumed that my mom would take care of everything. She did, up until she couldn’t anymore.
On April 13, 2017, my mom received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security stating that my father was unable to return to the United States. My mother had exhausted all appeals and the final verdict was denial. I became accustomed to his absence, but I, too, always thought he would eventually return to the U.S. Now I don’t.
Upon hearing this verdict, my father knew that for the first time he had to advocate for himself. He presently lives by himself in Delta State, Nigeria, near family. He is applying for a visa at the Canadian embassy, so we can visit him in Canada.
Like many people in this country, my harsh reality is a product of American immigration policy. It is not one that should be hidden, and it’s more significant than I ever allowed myself to believe. The media is now revealing the plight of immigrants and their families. My family and I have been dealing with ours for more than a decade.
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