How State Department Rules Are Denying An Orphan The Education She Deserves

Two years ago, I made a decision to move to Uganda. I’m a UPS pilot from Indiana – a job I love, in a place I love, with a wife and children who I adore. But it was time for a change, to give something back to the world. My family and I spent months volunteering, teaching math, and partnering with an orphanage in a war-torn country to help raise and protect children who are denied every opportunity. It was a humbling, rewarding, and deeply enriching experience — and that’s where I met Gloria.

Gloria, who celebrated her 15th birthday this August, is smart as a whip, with an unforgettable smile and a kind nature that masks the obstacles life has thrown in her way. She was orphaned at the age of seven when her father died; her mother had previously died when she was only three — and though the orphanage has taken good care of her, her access to a high quality education is limited, due to a lack of resources. 

A photo of Gloria sent to me on Father's Day from the orphanage in Uganda, Restoration Gateway, where she is living.
A photo of Gloria sent to me on Father's Day from the orphanage in Uganda, Restoration Gateway, where she is living.

Like so many orphaned children in Uganda, Gloria faces a future of deep uncertainty. There were 2.7 million orphans in Uganda in 2012, according to UNICEF — that’s three times the population of my hometown Indianapolis. And for many of these orphans — especially girls — getting a complete education is impossible. They are lucky to be in school after the age of 14. Too many are kidnapped, forced into slavery, married off as children still, or otherwise denied the opportunity to grow and to learn.

I went to Uganda with a mission to help those in need — and here I was, face-to-face with a child whose kind-heartedness was so completely at odds with the burdens life placed on her shoulders. I resolved to do something about it, and with my wife I began the work of trying to bring Gloria to the United States for a high school education. We have been blessed in this effort — Gloria won admission to the International School of Indiana, a private school near our home that we will gladly cover tuition costs for so she can attend. A High Court Judge of Uganda also granted my wife and I temporary guardianship over Gloria, which is a necessary step to bring her to the United States and realize this opportunity.

But then fate took a cruel turn. The State Department denied Gloria her Student F1 Visa. The reason? She is an orphan, and they don’t believe she will return home after she has her high school diploma.

Never mind the bitter irony that, as First Lady Michelle Obama tours Africa as part of her Let Girls Learn initiative, the State Department’s red tape keeps this ideal from becoming a reality. Never mind the cruel reality that because Gloria lacks opportunity as an orphan, they are perpetuating and compounding the barriers she must face. It goes without saying that their reasoning fails a basic test of humanity — as a society, we cannot claim boldly to support the opportunities and education of young girls and boys around the world, while throwing up barriers that make realizing the opportunity impossible.

But furthermore, the notion that Gloria (and orphans more broadly) lack an incentive to go home flies in the face of the reality on the ground. UPS would welcome the opportunity to employ Gloria in her home country after she graduates — and indeed, a girl with a high-quality American education would have more job opportunities in Uganda than she will likely ever grasp without. Furthermore, she has a deep love and respect for her home country, and she wants to return, to do good and give back.

Photo of Gloria taken by Restoration Gateway last year.
Photo of Gloria taken by Restoration Gateway last year.

Of course, issues around immigration and visas have taken on a renewed focus in politics these days. But it is the humanity behind our laws and regulations that we need to focus on. Gloria is just a girl — who wants to study to become a midwife, who likes to eat chicken, and who spends her free time singing like an angel. And she has an incredible opportunity that she deserves so deeply.

I will never stop fighting for Gloria — and despite the obstacles, my wife and I will not give up hope. Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone has someone fighting for them. There is a lot of division in the world — too many people who spend their time driving wedges between “us” and “them”. But we share a common humanity, and we can and must be better, do better, and help one another.

If you’d like to help send our message, join us in telling Secretary John Kerry and First Lady Michelle Obama to #LetGloriaLearn. See our campaign here.

In September 2015, I presented at a TED event hosted by UPS on my time in Uganda — which you can watch below. You can also learn more about Gloria’s journey on Restoration Gateway’s website.