Out of Kenya

Book cover
Asylum Deniedby By David Ngaruri Kenney and Philip G. SchragUniv. of California Press. 360p $24.95

Good books with substantial content can often be read at different levels: each of the readings may offer a fresh story and some deeper insights. Asylum Denied is such a work. It is authored jointly by David Kenney, a former refugee from his native Kenya and now a legal U.S. resident, and Philip Schrag, professor at Georgetown University Law Center, Kenney’s onetime mentor and defender and now his friend.

The book reads like a suspense story. In a crisp style it recounts in Kenney’s own words the saga of a Kenyan man tortured and persecuted in his homeland who then seeks a new life in America. His journey was tortuous and full of surprises, with hope alternately waxing and waning. At one point during this quest all seemed to be lost: his petitions and appeals are rejected one after another, and he is ordered to return to Kenya, where he knows his life would be in peril. Yet, an unexpected event gently and dramatically changes the situation. David meets Melissa, a young woman from Oregon (like himself, a law student at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C.) and lo and behold, their mutual love blossoms into marriage. There is a new legal situation, which eventually the immigration authorities recognize; in place of “asylum denied,” an immigrant’s visa is granted. The suspense comes to an end; the reader sighs with relief.


But behind such a happy ending, there is another story, a remarkable human story of suffering and accomplishment. David, during his early life in Kenya, was thrust into a leadership role against an oppressive government. At that time he was known as Jeff (from giraffe) because of his unusual height. The name stuck. He organized a boycott of poor and exploited farm workers. The boycott was a success beyond all expectations, but he had to pay a price. He was apprehended and for a week or so was locked into a cell (container), where he could only sit, and was left with no food or drink. They “softened” him by flooding the place with water and letting the level rise and fall. He barely survived between the threats of being drowned by the fetid water or being suffocated for lack of air. Eventually he was freed but was kept under close surveillance.

As it happened, however, the young 7-footer caught the eye of Peace Corps volunteers working in the region, who were discreetly scouting among the Kenyans for prospective U.S. college basketball players. They spotted Jeff and they liked him. It mattered not that he had never seen a game, much less played one; he had the qualities to learn. Messages came and went, and soon a university in the United States expressed interest. Jeff was taught the elements of the game as a student visa was being processed. All went well; he landed safely in the States. Although the dream of a becoming a star basketball player soon faded, Jeff became a student, and an exceptional one at that. While attending a two-year Catholic college, St. Gregory’s in Oklahoma, he helped to initiate its expansion into a four-year institution. Eventually, a scholarship offer brought him to the University of San Francisco to complete his college education. After he graduated, he accepted a job offer from MCI in Virginia. His student visa allowed him to stay for one year of practical training.

Along with such accomplishments, clouds were gathering on the horizon. Jeff’s student visa was close to expiring. That would mean either voluntary departure or deportation. But for him to return to Kenya would be walking into the arms of his former torturers. The only reasonable solution was to apply for asylum in the United States. This brings us to the core of the book Asylum Denied. Jeff soon finds himself in the web of bureaucratic procedures. After the first interview and denial, he fortunately discovers one of the Georgetown University Law Clinics and finds as his advocates Bernie and Dave, two dedicated students under Philip Schrag’s guidance.

Page after page, we learn about the intricate and unpredictable ways of immigration agencies. Some officials are attentive and helpful, but the incompetence and indolence of some others are beyond belief. At one stage Jeff is told to procure a certificate to prove he had really been arrested—as if the Kenyan secret police had to obey a Freedom of Information Act. At another point, his story of water torture is contested. Where are the marks on his body? he is asked. He loses his final appeal on the ground that at an earlier time, when he quietly “risked all” and went back to Kenya to help his brother in jail, he “willingly” gave up his claim to asylum. Throughout this process, his lawyer, Philip Schrag, guides him and tries to intervene on his behalf. Some agents respect the attorney’s advocacy, others spurn and ignore him.

Each author rounds off this multilayered story with a separate chapter. “The Lawyer’s Epilogue,” by Schrag, offers a set of well-reasoned and detailed recommendations for improving the asylum adjudication process. His proposals are sound, down to earth and feasible; to implement them would do credit to this land of immigrants. They are too numerous to list here, but I single one out: “Train the Immigration Judges and Federal Judges.” I could not think of a better way to start such training than by encouraging them to read this book. “The Client’s Epilogue,” by David Kenney (Jeff), tells a different story: about the happy arrival of Mackenzie, his and Melissa’s son. There one story ends, and another is ready to unfold.

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