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Revealed: The tough, rough life of Kenyans living in the US

A documentary released on Saturday has shed light on some untold challenges Kenyans face as immigrants in the United States.

Written and produced by Kaba Mbugua, the film, which was released in Raleigh, North Carolina, features a number of Kenyans who candidly narrate their experiences in the US.

Official estimates put the number of Kenyans in the US at 130,000.

The figure is, however, disputed, with some claiming there are at least 300,000 Kenyan immigrants in the country. Many are in well-paying jobs or run successful enterprises while others are students.


The documentary shows that many Kenyans, just like other immigrants, struggle to make ends meet.
Challenges have at times led some — especially the youth — to fall into bad company, ending up in jail, shelters for the homeless, on a forced flight back home or even death.

The film highlights 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.”

Ms Alice Raine, who has returned home tells of how uninformed she was about life in the US before flying out.

She says she was shocked when she landed.


“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 says many well-educated Kenyan professionals settle for demeaning menial jobs just to make ends meet.

“This is because they do not have the requisite papers to enable them compete on equal terms with others,” he says.

Ms Wariara Thuo explains how difficult it was to get a car and a place to stay soon after she arrived in America.

“Authorities wanted to see my documents everywhere I went,” she says.

US-based immigration lawyer Japheth Matemu 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 adds that many Kenyans married in Kenya are denied an opportunity to adjust 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 says people who overstay their visas have it rough but they hardly talk about it because they would not like their families and friends back home to know of their predicament.

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.

Mr Matemu warns immigrants against “marriage for papers”.

Mr Mbijiwe Mwenda, a counsellor with Family Development Institute says some people have made business out of marriage.

They marry 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 explains 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.