San Diego International Airport’s grey tiles lay quiet except for an occasional pair of stray wheels that wound their way over the linoleum floor, clacking in their journey from carousel to pavement.
Kathleen Bolamba, a junior applied health science major at PLNU, shifted in her seat, the sheer, purple fabric of her dress sliding across the black leather of the airport’s couches where she, her parents, sister, aunt and niece waited.
Beside Kathleen’s mother lay a bouquet of flowers, the pinks, oranges and yellows blotching out the airport’s metallic monotony.
Kathleen suggests a picture be taken to remember the moment.
“No, wait until she gets here,” says Nelly, her mother.
Nelly has waited for this moment since she left her home in Democratic Republic of Congo in 1987. For a year and a half, her family filled out forms, paid fees and managed affairs halfway across the world to make this moment possible. Nelly’s dream is to reunite with her own mother, Noljoka Louise Esambo, known simply as Louise, in America after being away from home for 27 years.
On Feb. 25, 2014, Kathleen’s family welcomed Louise to San Diego after she had made the flight from her home in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Lubumbashi is the second largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kathleen compares it to Los Angeles, while the country’s capital, Kinshasa, is like Congo’s New York City.
Nelly left Congo when she was 21 to join her sister at the University of Laval in Quebec, Canada to earn a degree in social work. There she met her husband Digbo, and together they later moved to the U.S. where they obtained green cards and started a family.
Though her sister had never met Louise before, Kathleen met her grandmother while on a LoveWorks trip to Congo in the summer of 2012. On down time, her uncle, who lived in Lubumbashi, would taxi Kathleen from her host house to his own to socialize with Louise.
On the last day of her trip, Kathleen sat with her uncle, bonding over a breakfast of toast topped with strawberry jelly and salami, scrambled eggs and a cup of red tea while her grandmother sat in her favorite spot, a blue, plastic lawn chair out in the yard.
As the family descended the stairs to leave the house, saying their goodbyes, Kathleen leaned over Louise to say her final farewell. Cupping her face with her left hand, Louise looked her granddaughter in the eye and said, “Thank you so much for coming, come again, and may God bless you on your trip back.”
“She kept repeating ‘I love you’ and ‘God be with you,’ and when I looked back, I saw one tear drop,” said Kathleen.
Kathleen rushed back to her grandmother’s side and the two cried and hugged.
“I need to go,” said Kathleen, letting go of her grandmother. “I’ll be back. We’ll see each other again. I love you.”
As her uncle drove her back in his white, Toyota 4Runner, Kathleen’s last thought was “I don’t know the next time I’m going to be able to see her.”
In the summer of 2011, the Bolamba family decided to start the application process to gain American citizenship, thinking that this would assure Louise the visa she needed to come to the U.S. Out of the family of four, only Menza, Kathleen’s sister, was an American citizen as she had been born in San Diego. With application fees at $600 each, the family had to take out a loan to cover the costs.
After a lengthy process of applying, fingerprints and interviews, Kathleen, Nelly and Digbo swore into citizenship in April of 2012, just in time for Kathleen to turn in her passport for LoveWorks where she met her grandmother for the first time.
With their new citizenship, Nelly could now sponsor her mother to live in the U.S. as a permanent green card holder. The family began the process of application in August of 2012.
After three rounds of applications, forms and fees, tracking down birth certificates in Kinshasa from San Diego, a process that lasted until Nov. 2013, the family had only one more step to complete, another interview at the U.S. Embassy for Louise, which was scheduled for Jan. 15, 2014.
This time, Louise passes and Nelly is told she will finally be able to make her long lasting goal a reality when on Feb. 7 her mother receives a visa.
For the Bolamba family, they had to wait three years and apply for citizenship themselves before they could fulfill a dream of bringing Louise to the U.S, but for other families, applying for legal citizenship or green cards can take even longer, sometimes even spanning decades.
Family-sponsored visas are a tightly controlled commodity and their limits are calculated each fiscal year when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services determines how many visas will be available for the next year.
As of Sept. 31, 2013, in San Diego alone, 1,111 petitions were received by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for a family-sponsored visa. Out of the 1,111, only 371 petitions were approved while 45 were denied, and 2,470 were left pending. In all of the U.S., there are 885,935 petitions pending for this type of visa.
Waiting for that green card, which could mean fulfilling a long awaited dream of reuniting with family, is going to be a long wait as the 850,000 plus petitions struggle their way through the swamp of bureaucracy.
To work off her nerves, Kathleen paced between the couches where her family sat and the ever-shifting screens of the flight schedules, hoping at every pass to see that the notification saying her grandmother’s flight had landed.
Finally, the notification popped onto the screen, and the family bustled over to the base of the escalators. As more passengers descend with Louise absent among them, Nelly starts her own pacing, hoping to catch a glimpse of her mother above the escalators.
Then finally, they spot Louise.
“When I saw her on top [of the escalators] I thought, ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’” said Kathleen. “It was surreal.”
After a year and a half of long-awaited anticipation, Louise emerged from the elevator, where she had been taken down in her wheelchair.
Her eye caught Kathleen and she exclaimed, “Dembo!” (Kathleen’s middle name and the name every first-born woman in Louise’s family carries in their title). The family descended – mother, daughter and granddaughter reunited – crying and hugging Louise, celebrating in the joy of unification.
The family left the airport to head back home, where a feast of BBQ chicken, fufu (corn flour fried in oil) and white rice topped with pondu (cassava leaves compressed and cooked) and loso (oil with vegetables) awaited the weary traveler.
Soon, however, Kathleen had to return to PLNU and leave her grandmother for a second time.
“We were teaching her how to say ‘I love you’ in English, so when I left she said, ‘I love you’ with her little accent,” said Kathleen.
“Are you coming back?” asked Louise.
“Yes, I’ll be back.”