A family reunion seven years in the making

A family reunion seven years in the making

vincent-webVincent Ajuk, who left Uganda in 2001, is pictured with his children at Philadelphia International Airport. He worked for seven years to bring them to America.

Seven years after he started the paperwork to bring his four children to the United States, Vincent Ajuk was finally at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting for their arrival.

Wearing an “I’m Your Daddy” T-shirt, Ajuk paced and watched, watched and paced. He hadn’t seen his family since he left Uganda in 2001.

Ajuk, director of Faith and Families, a program of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Camden, left his homeland to seek refuge from a rebel uprising that decimated the village of Adwila, where he and his family lived. His family lost their home and their livelihood when fighters of the Lord’s Resistant Army terrorized the population, destroyed the farms and stole the cattle. Ajuk’s brother was lost to the violence.

“My family hid in the bush,” Ajuk said of the time. “They had nothing to live on.”

Ajuk’s children were sent to another district where he had extended family, and he was granted entry into the United States. At the time his oldest child was only 6 years old; the baby was not yet 2.

He arrived in the United States with a college degree — and little else but faith. His plan was to find employment and send money home to help his family rebuild. His prayer was that he would someday send for his children and his wife.

“This has been an 11-year-process,” Ajuk said. “It has been emotionally and financially draining.”

Ajuk, who grew up in a house with 14 children, said he was lonely without his own family. And he worried about his children. “My youngest didn’t remember me.” Ajuk fought depression and kept praying.

Ajuk’s journey took him from third-shift custodial work to social welfare positions. In 2003, he found employment in the offices of the Camden Diocese, and the next year he initiated the paperwork petitioning for his children.

The process proved to be slow and frustrating, and Ajuk said that without the help of others he never would have been able to bring his children here.

The first response to his plea for help came from the office of the late John Adler, Congressman for New Jersey’s 3rd District, who helped speed up the process. Ajuk found others eager to help him with the maze of requirements and mounds of paperwork that seemed insurmountable. Ajuk says that he is forever indebted to Msgr. Roger McGrath, vicar general; Father Ken Hallahan, of Blackwood and to the Office of the Bishop for their support and help.

In November 2010, it seemed that everything was in order. Applications and documentation was approved by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, and the file was sent to Uganda. Ajuk had acquired a house and eagerly set up rooms for his children, who were told they would soon be on their way to America.

Then Ugandan officials requested a paternity test. More expense, more time and further frustration for Ajuk and his children.

More medical tests were demanded. And the children were not spared, either. They were repeatedly taken out of school to go to the American Embassy for interviews and medical tests.

“This kind of scrutiny tormented the kids,” Ajuk said. When he talked to his children on the phone they asked him why they were being treated that way. “It was traumatizing,” Ajuk said.

With the paternity issue settled, the family’s name made it to the top of the wait list again. But Christmas came and went, and the children were not permitted to leave the country.

“I had everything ready,” Ajuk said. With their contact still limited to phone calls, he continually tried to calm his children and maintain their — and his own — sense of hope.

Finally, hope renewed, Ajuk’s children said good-bye to their friends, and were transported to the airport — only to be taken back to their schools.

“Denied three times,” Ajuk said.

He needed to apply for special transport visas. He needed to make special and costly flight arrangements because the children were under 18. Would it ever end?

“And if you are poor, there is no way you can come to the United States. The red tape and the costs are just too much,” he said of the process to leave Africa .

It wasn’t until February 2011 that Ajuk got a call from his wife that his children were actually on board a plane headed for Brussels and then Philadelphia. “Let me hear the plane taking off,” Ajuk told her.

It was a 20 hour flight, and Ajuk did not sleep. He arrived at Philadelphia International hours early. “I was happy, but I would not be content until they were here,” he said.

A flight attendant singled him out as he waited in the arrivals hall. “She said that I resembled the children on her flight,” Ajuk said. “That was the moment I knew they had arrived.”

“It took all my strength to remain standing,” he said with his widest grin. “The flight attendant said such nice things about the children — how quiet, well-behaved and well-mannered they were during the flight,” Ajuk was proud to report. “She congratulated me and wished us the best.”

The man in the “I’m your Daddy” T-shirt managed to say, “Thank you!”

Now Ajuk’s house is full of life and laughter. His children — Fiona, age 17; Elvis, 16; Patricia, 14; and Allan, 13 — are easing into their new life. They learned to speak English in Africa, and they are doing well in school, making friends, and enjoying what typical Americans consider small pleasures, like fresh food in the refrigerator — and milkshakes.

Ajuk said that the winter weather was a surprise to them, as was the concept of gender equality. “In Africa, children this age are fairly independent,” Ajuk said, explaining that they would be expected to handle adult responsibilities to help the family survive. And there are roles for boys and roles for girls. But with Ajuk now heading an American home, cooking, cleaning, and household chores are an equal opportunity experience for his family

Ajuk, now responsible for the day-to-day care for his children, is learning to navigate the requirements of school registrations and the scheduling demands of doctors’ appointments. He’s completing his MBA at St. Joseph’s University and working alongside of his children as they study to become U.S. citizens.

Ajuk’s wife is still in Uganda. He will begin the paperwork to bring her here.

His thoughts are never far from the situation he left behind. He’s established the non-profit charity organization American Friends of Northern Uganda (AFONU) to provide for those less-fortunate in his village of Adwila. Donations bring mosquito nets, emergency food and medicine, livestock, clean water, and educational opportunities to the impoverished region.

“I had to walk 10 miles for clean water,” Ajuk said. “Children in my village die from malaria. Orphans get little chance for education – the only way out of poverty.”

“I am so blessed to be in this country. I am so blessed to have my family,” Ajuk said. “I want to give back. I want to teach my children to give back.”

For information about Ajuk’s organization, visit www.AFONU.org.

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