MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. On this program, we often talk about one of the most intense and emotional political debates of our time: immigration. And one reason we talk about it a lot is that it's right in front of us. We see it playing out in the news and hearings in Congress, in confrontations between people who favor more expansive immigration policies and those who want more restrictions.
But what we don't often see or hear is what it's like to be in that middle space or to be related to someone who is. We don't often hear about what it's like to be in limbo.
Today, we're going to continue our series called In Limbo with the story of Chinonye Oneje, who's known to her friends as Chi Chi. When Chi Chi was 14 years old, she suffered an epileptic seizure while stirring a pot of hot soup over a cooking fire. She fell into the pot, burning her face and body. At first, her very survival was in doubt, but even when she was stabilized, her injuries were horrific. And this is probably a good place to let you know that even hearing about them might be difficult for some people. She was blinded. Her nose, lips, right ear and eyelids were severely burnt and, even now, speech and breathing remain difficult, as you will hear.
Since then, an army of doctors, teachers and volunteers have tried to help her. They've helped her make the long trip from a local clinic near her home village in Nigeria to some of the most technologically advanced hospitals here in the U.S.
For the past six years, though, Chi Chi and her mother have been living in the U.S., but she's not yet well enough to go home. But because of her immigration status, she and her mother cannot leave, so they have not seen any members of her family in years.
We wanted to know more about this story and what it's like to be in limbo, in part because of medical issues, so we're joined today by Chi Chi and her mother, Helen, along with Lynne Eisenberg, Chi Chi's clinical social worker at the Perkins School for the Blind, which Chi Chi currently attends.
I want to welcome everyone and I also want to welcome an interpreter who's standing by who will be assisting in the conversation, if needed. And thanks, everybody, for joining us.
LYNNE EISENBERG: Thank you.
CHINONYE OMEJE: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you.
MARTIN: So Lynne, I'm just going to ask you to start by sort of establishing the story for us and bringing us up to date. How did Chi Chi come to be in the United States?
EISENBERG: As I understand it, she was in a clinic in Nigeria. And, Helen and Chi Chi, could you add to that?
HELEN OMEJE: We were at Nigeria clinic of the (unintelligible) hospital when a lady was visiting the hospital to pray for the patients and found us there and was shocked and cried and asked what happened to Chi Chi. I explained to her, then she cried and asked Chi Chi, what do you want God to do for you?
Chi Chi told her, I want to see. Then she told her, pray that God will use her to bring back Chi Chi's health. Then Chi Chi prayed and she prayed to and left. So when she come back to U.S., she planned for a visa and the hospital. She found hospital. She found a hospital who treated her and that is how we came.
MARTIN: Chi Chi, do you remember what went through your mind and how you felt when you heard that you would be coming to the United States?
OMEJE: I was happy, but (unintelligible) I'll be treated there.
MARTIN: Helen, is it hard? As we mentioned, you left behind seven of your children, as well as your husband, when you came here to accompany Chi Chi for her surgeries. Did you think that you would be here this long?
OMEJE: No, I didn't think so. I thought I would be here for about four years or five, then go back, but unfortunately, it didn't happen as I think. But because I want Chi Chi to get well, so I'm...
MARTIN: But none of the reconstructive surgery has happened so far, so she's still - as we mentioned, that, you know, her nose, her lips, her ear, her eyelids, all of those were severely damaged. None of those have been addressed so far?
EISENBERG: I think this is when she went - she had several years of treatment at Shriners, where her face was restored. The skin on her face. But what was remaining are very significant problems.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with people who are in limbo in their immigration status. We're speaking with Chi Chi Omeje and her mother, Helen. Chi Chi's been in the U.S. for the past six years being treated for severe burns that she suffered in her native Nigeria. We're also joined by Chi Chi's clinical social worker at the Perkins School for the Blind, which Chi Chi attends, Lynne Eisenberg.
So let's talk a little bit about the immigration experience and how this plays into it. We spoke earlier to a lawyer from the law firm, Mintz and Levin, who've been representing you pro bono. And your attorney said that she'd applied for the so-called deferred action status. That's the humanitarian status that allows you to stay in the country based on your medical condition. This requires these, which we mentioned, are these procedures that you can't obtain in Nigeria.
As I understand it, then you can now stay until September of 2012, but before that, it's like you had to apply, like, every six months to continue to stay.
MARTIN: What's been the most difficult part of it?
OMEJE: Oh, I can't see my family for a long time. Since I've come here, I have to pray (unintelligible) my husband will seek that my children was taken care of. My (unintelligible) husband passed away. It was my daughter, which have five children. I haven't gone home. All this was so hard for me. When I look back to that stage, I fell down and weeping. Then Chi Chi tried to encourage me that it's okay, that it's going to be all right. I say when will this end, that we will see my children and my grandchildren, including my daughter who lost her husband when I was here?
MARTIN: And why can't you leave?
OMEJE: Because of them, Chi Chi's treatments, I heard that when we - because our visa - when we leave U.S., they will not allow us back to U.S. for her treatments and I don't want her to lose her treatments.
MARTIN: So Chi Chi, what about you? What's been the most difficult part for you?
OMEJE: It's my family, as what my mom say, because since I left my country, we haven't been home. I miss them and my sister, my niece and my nephew, who I haven't seen. I want to see them, too.
MARTIN: Couldn't they come and visit you here?
OMEJE: It's not easy just apply and come to U.S. and they can't even afford the transportation forth and back.
MARTIN: Well, thank you both for telling me about this. But Lynne, I have to ask you a difficult question and I hope that you don't mind.
MARTIN: There are those who will be listening to our conversation and they will be wondering why they should care. They might feel that there are Americans - they, I think, would understand that Chi Chi's injuries were grievous and that she might not have survived had she not come to the U.S. with injuries so severe. But there will be those who might hear our conversation and say, well, you know, there are Americans who have difficult medical conditions and it's taking quite a lot of effort and support, legal support, medical support, educational support in order to maintain her here.
And for those who hear that conversation and feel that way, what would you say?
EISENBERG: Well, I think we like to think of ourselves as a humane society, this country that cares about people all over the world. We're not going to save every person in the world, but we do have abilities and advantages in this country that I think need to be shared with people who need it. And if we want to look historically, our advantages are based on wealth and our wealth, we could say, was based on taking advantage of other countries, exploitation of countries that have less than we do. They've had natural resources that we've taken advantage of and we've taken advantage of slave labor from other countries over the years and our country is built on wealth for many reasons.
And I think that we have an obligation to share what we have with people who need it.
MARTIN: What would you like for yourself in the long run, Chi Chi? What would you like? Would you like to stay here? Would you like to go back? What would you like for yourself?
OMEJE: For myself, I would like to stay here and go and visit my family so they'll see me because a long time since they haven't seen me.
MARTIN: But what would you like to do? You're only, what, 22 now.
MARTIN: But what would you like in the long term? What would you like to do?
OMEJE: I think I would like to be like a nurse, so I'll help like other patients as they helped me when I was still in the treatment.
MARTIN: Chi Chi Omeje is a burn victim from Nigeria. She came to the U.S. six years ago to receive medical treatment for her very severe injuries along with her mother, Helen Omeje. They were both with us from WBUR in Boston, along with Lynne Eisenberg. She's a clinical social worker at the Perkins School for the Blind, who has been working with the family. They all joined us from member station WBUR in Boston.
Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
OMEJE: Thank you very much.
OMEJE: You're welcome.