College Graduate from Nigeria Fights to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve his Lifelong Dream
When Victor Chukwueke saw his mother walk into the baggage claim area of the Detroit Metro Airport, he ran into her arms, hugging her tightly. Looking at each other in disbelief, they held one another for the next five minutes, almost afraid to let go.
The last time the mother and son (both pictured below during their reunion) saw each other was when Victor, now 25, left Nigeria to live in the United States at the age of 15. Fast-forward a decade, and Victor is not only graduating with honors from Wayne State University, he is also a commencement speaker. His mother, Mary, arrived in Detroit to witness this major milestone in her son’s life.
BATTLING A GENETIC DISORDER
Just ten years ago, neither Victor nor his mother would have thought such an achievement possible. As a child, growing up in an impoverished family in a rural village in Nigeria, Victor developed large tumors on the top of his head and side of his face. His mother took him from hospital to hospital to seek treatment for his condition, an extreme case of neurofibromatosis. But doctor after doctor in Nigeria told Victor’s mom that nothing could be done for her son.
Victor feared the painful ostracism and teasing by other children more than the tumor itself. “I was so tired of the humiliation,” he remembered. Without treatment, the tumor continued to grow and severely deform his face.
In 2001, when Victor was 15, a missionary nun arranged for a plastic surgeon from Southfield, MI to operate on him free of charge. Leaving his family in Nigeria, not knowing when he would see any of them again, Victor came to America—a move that would forever change his life. Over the course of the past decade, he underwent six major surgeries and is scheduled for another one this summer.
The National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children (NCRIC) met Victor in 2005 after his original surgeon retired and he needed additional operations. NCRIC, a division of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), helped locate medical services for Victor and put him in touch with a mentor, Pete Dingeman from the Children’s Tumor Foundation. (Dingeman passed away in 2010.)
“Victor’s optimism, courage, and kindness are an inspiration to all of us,” said NCRIC Director, Tricia Swartz, pictured right with Victor. “We are proud of his accomplishments and honored to have had the pleasure of helping him along the path to achieving his dreams.”
Never one to take anything for granted, Victor calls or writes to Swartz regularly, thanking her team for everything they have done for him. “I don’t know what I would have done without your help,” he wrote in a recent email to Swartz. “Thank you for reaching out and extending your kindness to a poor kid like me. I appreciate all your support and cannot thank you enough.”
PURSUING HIS DREAM
While recovering from one medical procedure after another, Victor was also pursuing his dream of becoming what he feels he is meant to be: a doctor. Despite his physical challenges, he completed his GED, attended community college, transferred to Wayne State, graduated with a degree in biochemistry and chemical biology—with honors, no less—ran a marathon for charity, and continues to volunteer at a tumor research lab.
Rather than being ostracized by his peers—as was the case when he was a child in Nigeria—in America he inspires everyone he meets. His positive, can-do attitude prompted professor of pathology, Kenneth Hohn, Ph.D., who runs the lab where Victor volunteers, to nominate the Nigerian student to speak at the commencement.
“Victor has braved situations and challenges that would humble many and that could have instilled self-doubt or insecurity,” Hohn wrote in his nomination letter. “However, he created goals for his personal and academic life that he has systematically achieved with self-possession beyond his years.”
After Victor was selected to speak, Wayne State administrators helped obtain a visa for his mother so she can see her son graduate. “It’s like I’m dreaming,” said Victor of being reunited with his mother. “I didn’t know whether I would see her again.”
Victor’s commencement address was just as positive as his outlook on life. “Should I call myself a victim, or should I press forward to my dreams?” asked the graduate during his speech, which received a standing ovation. “Only in this country could something this wonderful happen to someone like me.”
A FUTURE IN LIMBO
But Victor’s dream of becoming a doctor, so he can help others like him in poverty-stricken parts of the world, is in jeopardy due to his still unresolved legal status. After the nun who brought him to the United States on a visitor visa passed away, Victor, unfamiliar with the immigration system, applied too late for a visa renewal.
NCRIC is currently helping him obtain legal status in the United States, where he needs to remain in order to continue the treatment for his continually growing tumors. The staff contacted Michigan Senator Carl Levin (pictured right with Victor), and put together a package for a private bill, a humanitarian measure to prevent deportation while Victor’s case is pending. NCRIC also provided the young man with a pro bono attorney from Duane Morris law firm to request Deferred Action for Victor, a status granting protection from deportation for an extended period of time.
“It’s sad that our immigration laws have not protected Victor and we have to go through the private bill, but it is critical,” said Swartz. “It’s the only solution for legal status for Victor, other than the state of limbo he has been in for years.”
Despite a full scholarship, Victor's medical school future and his ability to become a licensed medical practitioner are at risk without legal status.
“Victor’s future in medical school is in limbo until he has a proper status,” said Christopher Harris, administrator at Wayne State University School of Medicine. “Whether he can graduate and go on to help thousands of people for the rest of his life is all pending right now.”
Photo credit: Robert Neda and VictorsHope.org.
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