A Kenyan somewhere is hurting every day because her husband is fighting a viciously recurring mental illness in the United States but she won’t be allowed to travel yet. He is alone, depressed and struggling. But all she can do is make calls and spend long nights ensuring he is getting by.
Another is raising her son with an American father in Kenya because the door to take her child to the other side of his family has been shut despite months of seeking a way to travel to the US.
Elsewhere, there is a Kenyan man with an American wife whose job allows him to travel virtually anywhere in the world. But he can’t be allowed to officially enter the US to join his spouse yet.
Those are among the frustrations shared with Parenting by Kenyans whose families are at risk of collapse due to visa processing delays by the US embassy in Nairobi.
Most of them have applied for a spousal visa but for the last two years, delays attributable to Covid-19 have seen their requests drag on.
The US, however, maintains that it is “quickly lowering” the wait times worldwide and that it is committed to promptly processing “legitimate” family travel requests.
Parenting has been informed that a WhatsApp group for Kenyans affected by these delays has “more than 500 families”.
“Most of them have been waiting more than two years, and the number continues to grow,” said Wiickliff Ondego, one of those affected.
Mr Jacob Vega, a 37-year-old American army veteran who is married to Marion Nduta, a 29-year-old Kenyan content creator, pulled no punches as he blasted his home country for the delays. They have a two-year-old son together and they are hoping to live together in the US because Mr Vega is not content with having to “watch my son grow on the screen of my phone”.
“I have missed his milestones of growing up like his first steps, his first words, even his first laughs. We have resolved to never choose divorce because we don’t believe in it. However, it doesn’t mean that we are thriving. It doesn’t mean that it has no effect on us, this separation. Being away from my family has taken a huge toll on our marriage, my family. My son still has not met my side of the family and he is two years old. We have to pick and choose what holidays to spend together each year,” Mr Vega told Parenting.
“We refuse to allow the incompetence of my government to dictate whether or not my family survives this,” he said.
Mr Vega is Hispanic by lineage. He noted that his people hold families dear.
“We view family as the most important aspect of life and have many traditions that revolve around that perspective,” he said.
He went as far as accusing the US embassy of neglecting the family visa category because it doesn’t bring in as much money to the embassy as others.
“I hate the way the process works and I am so disappointed seeing the embassy prioritise short-term visas to make money rather than prioritise family visas to unite families,” he said.
One of the aggrieved Kenyans said: “We do realise the immediate relative visas don’t fetch the embassy any income since we make payments to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and the National Visa Centre directly and so the embassy would be keen on the categories that fetch them income.”
The US embassy has defended itself against the claims that it is insensitive and nonresponsive as far as family visas are concerned.
In an email response to our queries, Mr Andrew Veveiros, a spokesman for the US embassy in Nairobi, said America is doing the best it can to process the applications while conducting the required checks.
“The Department of State is committed to safeguarding national security while facilitating legitimate travel to the United States. Timely visa processing for both immigrant and non-immigrant travellers is essential to the US economy and to family reunification. We are quickly lowering visitor visa interview wait times worldwide. This is a direct result of hard work by our teams in the field and a focus on innovation and efficiency in our processes,” he stated.
However, Mr Vega – a machine operator – feels his home country is being unfair.
“(It is) a long road full of complications, hoops to jump through, expensive fees, let-downs by my government to serve its citizens effectively. We have tried every avenue that is open to us and made appeals with senators of Texas, the National Visa Centre themselves, the embassy in Nairobi and will be sending letters and requests to congressmen in the hopes that someone, somewhere, can help unite my family. It has been a frustrating and heart-wrenching process that seems to have no end,” he said.
“My wife hates this long distance. When she needs me, especially during hard times like the passing on of her mother in 2021, the pregnancy of our baby boy during that same year and even when she, herself, became ill in April 2022, it strained us. She has suffered the most, having to raise our son almost singlehandedly and still deal with all these things without the emotional and physical support of her husband. It has forced her to stretch herself thin,” he added.
Mr Vega went on: “As a proud American army veteran who is also a very outspoken Texan, I would tell the government, my government, to let their words match their actions. They keep saying they value families. They say that families should be given priority and then go ahead to do something contrary to what they say.”
Below, Kenyans who have been having issues with spousal visa processing share their stories.
Marion Nduta: It feels like no one cares about our family
Marion married Mr Vega in Nairobi in September 2020. They had met online.
“I started the process in December 2020. It took us a whole year at the first stage. And then we got approved to move to the second stage that took us another six months. In these two stages, the issue of Covid backlogs was real and hence the delays,” she told Parenting. “We got approved for the next stage of the embassy in July 2022 and here we had to wait for an interview to be scheduled. And that’s where we have been stuck for 10 months now.”
She went on: “We really don’t mind waiting but as we do, each passing day feels like no one really cares about our family ... With each passing month, I see the embassy working so hard to reduce wait times for all other visa categories except for our category.”
She said it takes them at least three months before they can meet physically, and so they keep in touch mostly through video calls.
“My husband visits Kenya because if I apply for a US visit visa while I’m being considered for an immigrant visa, it has zero chances of being approved. The other option we have is to decide and meet in a visa-free country. Now my husband has started school and is still working full-time. So, his time is now limited; even the three to four times we meet in a year is definitely going to change and reduce,” she noted.
Marion said the connection via technology is a chore.
“I can’t mention how many times we video call and our son cries for daddy or tries to hug daddy through the phone. I can’t mention how many times my husband or myself have broken down due to this long separation,” she said.
“My husband honestly feels his country has let him down. He is a veteran who has served his country and even been deployed to Iraq. He did everything in his power to protect and defend his country but now that he needs a little help from his country, which he is paying for, his country seems not to care,” added Marion.
Maria: My husband is sick but I can’t take care of him
Maria is not her real name. The 28-year-old requested that we don’t reveal her identity to protect her husband, an American citizen who is battling a mental illness. They have been a couple since October 2021 when they held a civil wedding in Kitale.
They filed their first application in December 2021 but the long waiting times saw little progress made. Her visit visa application made last year was rejected.
In 2022, when the two were on a vacation in Dar es Salaam, Maria’s husband had a mental breakdown out of the blue.
“It was the most traumatising event of my life, considering that we were in a foreign country,” she said.
“I managed to rush him to Muhimbili National Hospital and he was attended to. He was to be admitted but I requested the doctors to help me get a transfer to a hospital in Kenya because I wouldn’t manage to handle him in that condition alone. We travelled that night and got to Nairobi at around 2pm the following day. The next morning, I had to take him to the Mathari Mental Hospital,” she added.
He was later taken to a hospital in Kiambu County and his condition improved. His US return date was also nearing.
“We tried to apply for a visit visa so that I could accompany him and stay till he recovered. The psychiatrist who was attending to him wrote a letter to the embassy,” said Maria.
When she was being interviewed for a visa, Maria was shocked to be handed what is known as the pink sheet — which meant that she had been flagged as suspicious. She thinks it is because she had been to Tanzania.
“This came as a shock to my husband as he was so sure I was getting the visa due to his condition. He was triggered and immediately got a manic episode. He was so stressed and depressed. He did not want to return alone. He feared for his life due to his mental condition. My parents-in-law advised that we take him to Chiromo Hospital Group,” shared Maria.
He postponed his return date. He got better at Chiromo and went home. But his condition would deteriorate some days later.
“The medication was not doing any good to him. He was not sleeping at all. He could stay awake for up to 48 hours. He was hallucinating and his blood pressure was very high. He had some weird behaviour that worried even us as the family. We had to organise for him to go back to the States for further medication,” she said, noting that he had a major relapse a few days after landing in the US.
Her efforts to apply to the embassy to allow her visit him to offer care to him have not borne fruit.
“Doctors wrote another letter to the embassy requesting them to grant me a visit visa to go help him. I applied for a visit visa and during my interview, the consular office told me to get someone else. Like seriously, your spouse is locked up in a mental institution and the only thing they can tell you is to find someone else?” she wondered. “Now our immigrant visa is ready for interview but the Nairobi embassy has a one-year-two-months backlog. There’s no way you can get an interview date.”
Maria is forced to offer whatever help she can, kilometres away.
“These delays risk breaking up my marriage because it is difficult to assist my husband when I am thousands miles away from him. I am forced to stay up late most of the time, especially when he is having therapy sessions and psychiatry appointments. At other times, he needs medical refills and he is afraid to go there because he still thinks they will admit him. Therefore, I have to make calls to the doctors and hospitals on his behalf. It is really draining,” she said.
“My partner asks every time when I am travelling because he is tired of being lonely and dealing with depression all the time as he does not have any family around,” added Maria.
Wiickliff Ondego: Our dreams have been put on hold
Wiickliff, 46, had a civil wedding with his wife Daranee Sanapak, an American, in December 2021.
“We have so many plans but we can’t achieve them if we still stay apart from each other,” the businessman told Parenting.
He added that he has tried to see the pace of processing spousal visas for the US embassy in other countries and he has realised that it takes days in some jurisdictions.
“If you send emails for an explanation on why they are not processing applications, the only response you get is from automated machines about Covid 19,” he said.
“Even if your spouse is sick, you will never get a visa to visit,” he said. “Our families are breaking apart.”
His wife told Parenting: “Sometimes they deliberately delay our case to see if people will get divorced and reduce the number of immigrants to the US.”
Brian Omollo Ongati: It’s not supposed to be this tough
The 30-year-old seafarer has been married to his American wife Samantha Heath since August 2020. They started processing their papers in October 2020 but because his schedule sometimes clashes with the interview dates given, it has been delays galore.
“It took seven months for our documents to be qualified,” he said. “We have been at the ‘document qualified’ stage since July 2021, with no communication.”
“We have tried to expedite our case and all requests have been denied. The saddest part is I can actually enter the US on a different visa since I am a seafarer but cannot go ‘home’. This has been frustrating to the marriage because it’s not supposed to be this hard,” he said.