Sopuruchi Chukwueke grew up as an outcast in the village of Ovim in southeastern Nigeria. Tumors that distorted one side of his face wouldn’t stop growing, and doctors said he should be taken away and drowned. In 2001, when he was 15, his parents took him to an orphanage and abandoned him.
He was rescued by a missionary nun, who arranged medical care in the U.S. Eleven years and seven operations later, doctors have removed the benign growths caused by the genetic disease neurofibromatosis, and have performed reconstructive surgery.
In that time, Chukwueke, who lost his right eye to the tumors, has earned a high school equivalency diploma, achieved a 3.82 grade-point average as a biochemistry and chemical biology major at Wayne State University in Detroit and won acceptance to the University of Toledo’s medical school in Ohio.
“My own personal struggles to receive treatment have motivated, inspired and continually encouraged me to pursue a medical career,” he said in an interview conducted by e-mail because extensive surgeries to his mouth and jaw make it hard for him to speak clearly on the telephone.
He can’t start classes this month, though, because the visa that enabled him to travel to Michigan for treatment expired 10 years ago, and he has been in the U.S. illegally since then. The only hope Chukwueke has of achieving his goal is enactment of legislation sponsored by U.S. Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, that applies solely to him and would give him permanent U.S. residency.
The bill would grant permanent residency to Chukwueke – who goes by his middle name, Victor – as long as he applies for it within two years of the bill becoming law. It would reduce, by one, the number of immigrant visas available to Nigerians, and would bar preferential treatment for members of his family.
Chukwueke, 26, lives in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park with the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy, a Nigeria-based order of Roman Catholic nuns who work with the poor in Africa, Europe and North America. Members of the order have cared for him since he arrived from the orphanage.
“Nigerian doctors told me that there was nothing they could do, that they do not have the facilities and expertise to handle my sophisticated medical problem,” Chukwueke said by e-mail.
The nuns also connected him with the man he calls his “American dad” – Jerry Burns, a nurse-practitioner at Wayne State who has taken in 17 children over the last 12 years through the Lutheran Social Services of Michigan program for refugees.
“Victor is a remarkable human being,” Burns, a 58-year-old former Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, said in a telephone interview. “We immediately began to bond. He very quickly called me ’Dad.’”
Because of his visa situation, Chukwueke wasn’t eligible for assistance from the Lutheran Social Services program. Burns said he told the young man that he would help him go to college and found a financial benefactor who has paid for much of his education and wishes to remain anonymous.
Chukwueke’s family – his father, who is blind, his mother, and his six brothers and sisters – is still in Nigeria. Christopher Harris, an administrator in the pathology department at Wayne State’s medical school, worked with Levin’s office to arrange for Chukwueke’s mother, Mary, to travel to Detroit in May 2011 to see her son for the first time in a decade and watch him address his graduating class at commencement.
He had his seventh surgery that summer and applied to medical school in the fall. In November he was admitted to the University of Toledo with one condition: that he obtain permanent-residency status by August 1 of this year.
When he was accepted, “I was overwhelmed with emotion,” Chukwueke said by e-mail. “I said wow! This is a dream come true.”
For the last year he has volunteered at a medical research lab, shadowed a surgeon at a clinic, and been involved with the Children’s Tumor Foundation, a neurofibromatosis support group.
“There is no way that I would be able to overcome and accomplish what this guy has,” Harris said in a telephone interview, adding that Chukwueke still needs surgery to allow insertion of a glass eye and to repair his nose. “Medical school is the light at the end of the tunnel for Victor.”
Deportation Action Stalled
Immigration officials usually don’t start deportation proceedings on someone who is the subject of private-relief legislation, according to Levin’s spokesman, Gordon Trowbridge. Levin sponsored similar legislation for Chukwueke in 2007 and 2009; both bills languished in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Passage of the 2011 bill became time-sensitive when the medical school made his enrollment conditional on getting a green card.
Chukwueke said he initially reached out to Levin’s office with the assistance of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, an Arlington, Virginia-based charity that works on refugee and immigration issues worldwide. A private-relief bill “was my only option given my immigration status,” he said by e-mail.
When the bill passed the Senate last month, he said, “it was nothing less than a miracle.”
At the Aug. 1 House Judiciary Committee hearing on Levin’s measure, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the panel’s top Democrat, described Chukwueke as an “impressive, inspirational young man who has already contributed much to Detroit, and we hope one day will contribute much to the world.”
Including the Chukwueke legislation, the committee has approved seven private-relief bills that now await action by the House. All deal with immigration cases.
“Each of these individuals has a compelling story,” committee chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, said at a June 28 hearing on the other six bills. “For example, one of the individuals was abandoned to die as an infant on a Nairobi trash heap. Another came to the U.S. to care for a fiancé who became a quadriplegic after being struck by a drunk driver.”
Smith’s office declined to say how he plans to vote on the Chukwueke bill.
Approval of these private-relief bills is especially noteworthy given that the same committee has refused to consider major immigration legislation — including the bill known as the Dream Act, H.R. 1842, which opponents describe as amnesty for the children of illegal immigrants.
‘Hopeful’ of Passage
The lawyer handling Chukwueke’s immigration issues, Thomas Ragland of the Washington firm Benach Ragland LLP, said in an interview that Chukwueke wouldn’t be applying for temporary legal status under a new program allowing some young people who illegally arrived in the U.S. before age 16 to remain in the country on visas that must be renewed every two years.
The medical school “has been very clear that anything short of permanent residency is not sufficient for them,” Ragland said — a status that would take effect only if Levin’s bill becomes law. He said he was “hopeful” about House passage, since the Judiciary Committee’s approval was “a really big hurdle” to overcome.
Chukwueke will have to wait a little longer to find out whether House leaders will make time on the floor schedule for his bill, as Congress is in recess until Sept. 10. After that, lawmakers have just seven weeks of work scheduled before the end of the year.
With classes starting Aug. 20, he won’t be attending medical school this year. The University of Toledo has told him that he can start in 2013 if his bill becomes law.
His goals now, Chukwueke said, are staying in the U.S., getting his medical degree and “alleviating the pain and suffering of others, especially those in underserved communities and nations.”