All I had was my name.
I was born on January 2, 1981 in Zambia, Africa. My mother was a citizen of Zaire (now the Democratic
Republic of Congo). I entered the US on my mom’s B-2 visa in 1985. Three years later, when I was 7
years old, my mother married a US citizen and obtained a green card for herself based on that marriage.
However, she never filed for me to gain lawful permanent residence. My stepfather died in 1993 when I
was 12; my mother became ill and died in 1996. Following my mother’s death, I became an orphan.
Eventually I came to the attention of strangers who were affiliated with the United Black Episcopal
Schools, whose work was to help qualified underprivileged youth get scholarships to attend private
school. As a result of my academic achievements, I was awarded a scholarship to attended St. Anne’s-
Belfield School in Charlottesville, VA for my junior and senior year of high school. I graduated from
St. Anne’s-Belfield School in May 1999, and got a scholarship to attend Hamilton College, a prestigious
liberal arts college in Clinton, New York. I majored in World Politics and graduated with a B.A. in May
2003. I also conducted research as a Ronald E. McNair Scholar at the University of Rochester in 2002.
I was awarded a grant to attend graduate school. I earned a Master’s in Public Administration along
with a Certificate of Legal Studies from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public
Affairs in 2004. My concentration was in Immigration Policy and Immigration Law. I started my career
in public finance by working for the City of New York. I transitioned into a career that allows me to use
my creativity and develop interpersonal relationships. I currently work for Macy’s Inc. as a Manager in
Learning and Development.
I began to explore my immigration options after my mother’s death. By the time I learned about my
options for adjusting my own status, that window had closed. At 19, I was told that adoption was not
an option because I was too old. At that time I was a dual citizen, of Zambia and the DRC; therefore it
would be difficult for me to establish an asylum claim due to the difficulty of showing a well-founded
fear of persecution from either country. Shortly thereafter, I lost my citizenship from both countries and
I became stateless. Needless to say, I was afraid for my life. Being sent to a war zone in the Congo or to
the neighboring Zambia, which was foreign to me; or being sent to a third country that I did not know or
being held in a jail cell, all seemed horrific.
Hamilton College made significant efforts to resolve my immigration status, but by the time I ended
up before Immigration Judge Philip Montante in Buffalo (known for his impatience and bias against
immigrants), the only avenue left to me was under the Violence Against Women Act. Still, if my case
had been aggressively prepared, my case might have been successful before Judge Montante. However,
that was not the case, and furthermore there was virtually no inquiry into the complex psychological
factors at play in my case. I went through six lawyers and seven years of struggle. After seven years in
deportation proceedings, my case was on appeal at the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and I did not
expect it to be reversed due to the streamlining of review by that body.
What happened next was unprecedented and shocking to so many individuals, including me. The BIA
overturned my case and I was issued a green card on July 2, 2007. Ironically, I remain stateless for the next five years, and I was
unable to obtain a passport to travel outside of the United States.
The spring and summer of 2012 brought new developments that would change the course of my life. Not only was I sworn in as U.S. citizen on August 3, 2012, but I received a Linkedin message from a stranger: “Are you Martine Mwanj Kalaw? If so , your father is looking for you.” My biological father, whom I presumed was dead was actually alive and had been looking for me for over twenty years. The last time I saw him was when I was an infant so I have no recollection of him. Along with getting a dad, I also got nineteen siblings who live thorughout Africa (Zambia, DRC, and South Africa). My story doesn’t end there as I have to make my pilgrimage back to my birth country to meet my father.
My immigration nightmare left me with many scars but in the
last two years, they have begun to heal and as I share my story, I am able to reclaim my power.
I transformed the adversity that I faced securing my citizenship into an opportunity to create public
awareness about immigration policy. I have been a featured speaker on immigration reform at various
forums and rallies, such as Senator McCain’s Town Hall Meeting on Immigration in New York City. My
story has also appeared in editorials in newspapers, and publications such as Metro New York and The
New York Sun. On May 18, 2007, I was a panelist and speaker to the U.S. House of Representative’s
Judiciary Subcommittee’s hearing on Immigration Reform pertaining to the DREAM Act (you can access
my testimonial on-line). Later that year, I was the featured speaker at St. Anne’s-Belfield Shool’s
A dear friend decided to nickname me “Against all odds” which I embrace. I went from being an orphan girl without a country to a U.S. citizen with a a loving father and nineteen siblings! If that is not an incredible story then I don’t know what is. I created my own identity by holding on long enough for my life to change. If I could do it, so can you. Even when life seems impossible, we have a choice. This is not just my story, it’s your story and the choices that you will make to not just survive life but to live it. I just offer a blueprint.
I am currently shopping for publishers in order to share my book with the