Participants and trainers at the three-week Fifteenth Healing and Rebuilding Our Community International Training in Rwanda which began on Sunday, July 7. The thirteen participants are from the Congo (South Kivu), South Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Liberia, and the United States.


The US Embassy in Nairobi. Notice the long line of people waiting to be served. Photo:

When my children, Joy and Tommy, were little I sent them to stay with my parents in St. Louis for six weeks each summer. One summer when Joy was about ten years old, two Japanese kids, the children of Michiko Shimizu who had been an exchange student with my family for a year in the 1960s, visited at the same time. My parents took the four kids to a St. Louis Cardinal’s baseball game and bought the two Japanese children Cardinal baseball caps. When they got home, Joy was complaining that she did not get a cap. My Mom asked me to explain to her why the foreign guests who needed a memento on their stay in the US got caps and she didn’t. I was a little annoyed with my parents about this, so I said to Joy, “Stop belly-aching. The world is not fair. Get over it.” My Mom overheard my comment, laughed, and said that is not what she intended me to say.

Getting a visa between Kenya and the United States is not fair. If the person has a valid American passport, he/she can get on the airplane, land in Nairobi, and pay $50 for an on-arrival visitor’s visa good for three months. Simple as that.

It is not that easy for a Kenyan to get a visa to visit the United States. First the Kenyan has to apply online for the visa. The applicant will need to pay the visa fee of $160. This is not refundable if the visa is not approved. The applicant then must schedule an appointment at the US Embassy in Nairobi. Since so many Kenyans are applying for a US visa, the appointment is about a month in the future.

On the scheduled day and time the applicant arrives at the US Embassy and goes through security which takes everything including wallet, cell phone, keys, and so on. The person is left only with the documentation needed for the interview. Besides a Kenyan passport valid for at least six months, a copy of the online application, and proof of payment, the applicant must bring at least six months of bank statements to prove that he/she is economically capable of financing the trip to the US. Other documents such as a title deed for property, itinerary with places the person is staying, leave from employer if applicable, and letter of invitation from the Unites States may also be required. Already a large percentage of Kenyans are not able to fulfill these requirements and so are unable to travel to the US.

As you enter the embassy compound itself, there will be a long line of people waiting for their interview. Once inside there are about 100 seats that all will be occupied. The applicant submits his/her documentation and waits to be called for the interview. When called for the interview, it will be conducted by an American consular official of the US immigration services. Normally there are only a few basic questions on the reason for going, length of stay, and so on.

It is estimated that 95+ percent of the applicants are turned down. The usual reason is as follows:

“Applicants are refused under Section 214(b) INA if they are unable to demonstrate to the satisfaction of a consular officer that they have sufficiently strong and long-term family, social, and economic ties outside the United States which make them depart the United States after a temporary stay.” This is so general and vague that it can apply to almost anyone.

People who do receive the visa are the wealthy elite and their children, politically well-connected individuals, and the elderly who have legally resident children in the United States who will pay for their journey. In 2000 shortly after Gladys and I were married, Gladys’ father, David Okwemba, then 78 years old, was given a five year visa to visit us. Someone who is under forty years old has a great chance of being denied a visa.

The visa determination is final. If the applicant wants to submit more information, he/she has to start all over again with a new appointment and again pay the $160 registration fee. My experiences are all before the latest Trump-induced efforts to make it even more difficult to get a travel visa to enter the United States. I wonder what the rejection rate now is for Kenyans who are Muslim.

Let me give an example. Friends United Meeting (FUM) has an international conference in the United States every three years. The Kenyan leaders of the twenty-one FUM yearly meetings in Kenya apply to attend. Most of these people are older, many retired, with substantial former employment, bank accounts, land, and so on. Nonetheless two-thirds of these people are denied the visa. There is no rational explanation of why some of these mature, substantial Kenyans are given the visa and others are not.

On the other hand this is not totally irrational. I do know Kenyans who legally entered the United States and then overstayed their visa and secured under-ground employment. Barack Obama’s half-aunt, the late Zeituni Onyango, was one person who did this.

Life is not fair.


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David Zarembka

Phone 254 (0)726 590 783
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