April 1, 2016
Editor’s note: The following is a personal perspective of Patti and Mark Armstrong who are serving as temporary hosts for a Kenyan family that is settling into their new lives in the United States.
When you hear the news of someone winning the lottery, you automatically think of a big pot of money.
But for some, winning the lottery means something much more valuable than cash—an opportunity in America.
Dennis Gichana, his wife Rachael, and their two-year-old son Jarrel (Jay), arrived in Bismarck from Kenya on Jan. 14 as permanent residents of the United States.
The story of how they ended up living with our family is rooted in the Bismarck Diocese’s African Mission.
Rachael’s name had been drawn in the green card lottery—an opportunity through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program to become a permanent U.S. citizen. There is a random selection among entries from countries with low immigration rates to the United States. In Kenya, less than two percent are chosen from among an average of 300,000 entries. But once selected, it is necessary for them to find someone willing to take them in until they get settled.
Asked to help
It was Calvin Motika, our son originally from Kenya, who called us in December wanting to know if we would take in an old childhood friend of his. He and Dennis had been close friends during 7th and 8th grades. In 2002, we had become Calvin’s legal guardians. Evan Beauchamp, an English teacher and missionary for the diocesan African Mission, had given in to Calvin’s pleas to help him find a family in the United States.
Two years later, Calvin’s younger brother, Joash, also joined our family. Calvin is now a doctor, living with his wife Kaley (from Minot) in Toledo, Ohio and Joash is a Marine in North Carolina, married to Kenecia and they have a son.
“I'm going to pull an Evan on you,” Calvin said over the phone. He asked if we would give the Gichana’s a place to stay after six other homes had fallen through. Just a few days earlier, my husband Mark had asked God to let us know if there was anyone else out there we were supposed to take in. The decision was easily made.
Dennis and Rachael’s story
Mostly grandparents raised Dennis after he and his five siblings were orphaned. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was seven years old; two years prior, his father died from dysentery. Since Dennis had an uncle living in South Carolina, he often dreamed of one day also moving to the United States.
“In 2003 when Calvin went, it made my inspiration seem possible,” Dennis, explained. Before departing for the U.S, Calvin came to say goodbye to his friend. Neither of them could have imagined that 13 years later, Dennis and his family would also be coming to Bismarck to live with the very same family.
Rachael came from a family of seven children and her parents are still alive.
“It was after I married Dennis, that I adopted the dream of one day coming to the United States,” she explained. Ironically, she admitted that she was once very fearful of being too far away from her family.
Their life in Africa
Even though they had professional jobs, life was hard. Dennis worked for a medical research organization that is partnered with the U.S. Center for Disease Control as a clinical officer (similar to a physician’s assistant) and Rachael was a registered nurse in a large hospital.
Long hours allowed them very little time together as a family and their wages were relatively low. The dream of finding an easier life in the United States grew stronger, but getting there seemed insurmountable until Rachael’s name was drawn in the lottery.
There were many roadblocks and Dennis and Rachael were often ready to give up, but Calvin kept prodding them on. After the Bismarck missionaries, Brent and Jessica Naslund, screened Dennis and Rachael and found them to be “of very good character,” the Bismarck African Mission agreed to sponsor them.
Co-directors of the Mission, Chuck and Tip Reichert, originally planned to take them in, but an illness in the family changed those plans. That was when Calvin called us.
New life in America
Dennis, Rachael, and Jay have become family to us. Jay brings new life into our home. He is learning English quickly, loves playgrounds, reciting the ABC’s, and dancing to music. While Dennis and Rachael wait to have their credentials evaluated, seeking an RN license for Rachael and determining the best career path for Dennis, they will be working as certified nursing assistants (CNAs).
“We began experiencing American generosity from the start,” Dennis explained and related their unplanned layover in Texas en route to Bismarck.
“Where will we sleep?” Rachael had asked the airline ticket agent. “We don’t even have a blanket for our baby.”
A lady standing nearby overheard their conversation and told them not to worry. She paid for them to stay in a hotel that included breakfast the next morning. Alicia and Leon Heick, who have spent six months at the diocesan African Mission, have helped Dennis and Rachael get their driver’s license and CNA licenses. The St. Vincent DePaul Society at Cathedral of the Holy Spirit has offered them much assistance and many others have come forward to help the family adjust to their new country.
“We really appreciate the African Mission and everyone who has touched our lives,” Dennis said. “In America, we understand that time is money so we’ve appreciated every little thing anyone has done for us.”
Before coming, Dennis said that he heard a lot about racial prejudice, which made him a little apprehensive. “It’s been two months now, and everyone we have meet has a smile,” he said. “No one has given us a frown or a single feeling of not liking us. The love we have been shown has made us feel like we’ve fallen into the right place.”
According to Rachael, “The North Dakotan weather is harsh during the winter, [it was -14 on the day they arrived] but the people are warm so they compensate.”
In February, when the African Mission Appeal video was shown during Masses, Jay delighted in seeing people he knew such as Jessica and Brent on the big television screen.
“That was so touching to see that time was given during church to ask people to help people in Kenya,” Dennis said. “Once we are on our feet, our promise is that we are going to join the African Mission so we can give back,” he said. “We want to help to educate orphans to make a better life for them.”