Patrick Onchwari is an immigrant from a small village in Kenya. I am a retired math teacher with a devastating terminal neurological disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It has left me paralyzed, dependent on breathing machines, and is now stealing my ability to speak and swallow. Patrick is my full-time caregiver, but he is so much more than that. He is my angel.
This is a story about an unlikely but beautiful friendship, with reasons for why I’m grateful that immigrants like Patrick choose to come here.
Patrick was a little boy with a dream to come to America. His family was “rich,” which meant they had land to grow their food and lots of children to help plant, harvest and fetch water from the river. His house in Kenya had no running water, no electricity and dirt floors. Their tiny home had two bedrooms, one for the parents and one for the seven children.
They learned the importance of a good work ethic and how to run fast because it was necessary for survival. His backyard had giraffes, elephants and baboons, but it was the hyenas that posed the biggest threat to young children and the family chickens.
Patrick and his family had few material goods, but his mother made sure the children made the many kilometer walk to school each day to get an education and learn the Bible. His mom was a strict disciplinarian who did not spare the rod, but also showered her children with love. Patrick credits his mom and her belief in him for his successful journey to America.
Sadly, Patrick’s mother became ill and the family was unable to afford treatment in the city for what turned out to be cancer. Patrick took on the job as her caregiver. For the next six years he lovingly took care of her until her death in 2006. I think that his mom knew how responsible, trustworthy and capable he was when she asked Patrick to always protect and look out for his siblings.
It was on her burial day that he vowed to find a way to get to America so he could better provide for the family.
It was not easy. He applied for a green card through the visa lottery for three years in a row and was lucky enough to be selected. Next was the mad scramble to obtain a birth certificate (the children were born at home so date of birth was only a guess), pay for a physical and background check, and pass an interview at the American embassy.
This process of thorough vetting took two years until he earned his visa. The next hurdle was scraping together money for an expensive plane ticket. He worked like never before, taking on any odd job available, selling vegetables and his prize goats. Patrick says the happiest day of his life was when he landed on U.S. soil, kneeled down, kissed the ground and said thank you, God. He had a bag of clothing, $200 dollars in his pocket, limited command of English and didn’t know a soul.
It was exciting but also scarier than coming face to face with an angry hyena.
He figured out how to apply for a job and worked double shifts doing laundry and cleaning at a local hotel. Patrick quickly realized the minimum-wage jobs would not be enough to support him and his family back home. His true calling was caregiving, so he took classes to become a Certified Nursing Assistant and began doing work he truly loves — and that is how we met.
We’ve been together for almost two years now. Caring for an advanced ALS patient is grueling and difficult but Patrick makes it look easy. We also have fun together and have become fast friends. He teaches me Swahili and I taught him to swim. He keeps me clean, fed and comfortable, and I teach him American ways.
One thing I can’t explain to him is the negativity surrounding immigration now, which is felt even by those going through the process legally. When he sees angry men with torches marching through the streets spewing unthinkable hate, I just shake my head and try to explain that most of us are good.
It is my strong belief that this country is better and richer in many ways because of our diversity. I know that my life is. Patrick is special but I don’t think his story is unique. I believe there are so many more immigrants like him looking for an opportunity to work hard, contribute and make a difference.
This is what makes our country great.
It is unlikely that my battle with ALS will last much longer, but it’s my goal to stick around long enough to attend Patrick’s naturalization ceremony. His mother would be so proud — najivunia — and so will I!