Photo by Olivia Ladd / Lifestyles Editor
Story by Helen Wilds / Contributing writer
Moving is a hassle. Possessions are packed into bulging boxes, which are then loaded onto trailers full of other bulging boxes, each one labeled with its content. Plastic totes are filled to the brim. Backs ache at the strain. Yes, moving is a hassle.
But not for Elvis Karegeya, 24, a theatre major at Middle Tennessee State University. He has few possessions and those he has mean little to him.
People? Now they’re a different story.
“I used to miss the superficial stuff, but people have become more of me,” Karegeya said.
“Every time you throw me somewhere, I’d rather get attached to people than things and places and minuscule things I can’t really take with me.”
His philosophical outlook comes from living the life of a man without a country, trapped in limbo by United States immigration law for 63 months. Karegeya (pronounced care-ruh-GAY-yuh) isn’t interested in taking things with him. Living out of a suitcase for so long makes him wish he could bring the people he has met along with him … wherever he’s going.
Karegeya and his mother and siblings have been in the United States since he was 18. They have been fighting for political asylum in the United States since 2011.
It’s a long way from Africa to Murfreesboro, thousands of miles that Karegeya may never travel again.
Born in Uganda, the MTSU student lived there until he was 3. The family moved to neighboring Rwanda, where his father, Patrick Karegeya, was appointed an officer in the new government set up after the country’s bloody civil war. The strife resulted in mass genocide that left more than 800,000 people dead. At that time, his father, a colonel, became part of the liberation army that set up a new government in Rwanda, so they moved. Fighting had plagued Rwanda for many years as rival clans, the Tutsis and Hutus, clashed. The Tutsi-led rebels eventually came into power under the Rwandan Patriotic Front-led government. Col. Karegeya was chief of external intelligence in this new government led by Paul Kagame.
However, the elder Karegeya and the president had a falling out. The Karegeyas left Rwanda in 2007 after Col. Karegeya was released from prison, settling as a family in South Africa in 2008. After an assassination attempt on an uncle in 2011, also an official in the government, who was shot, the elder Karegeya decided their home was no longer safe for Elvis and his siblings.
The preconceived notions most Americans hold about Africa — people living in grass huts in the jungle — puzzled the young Karegeya early in his arrival in the United States.
“I had a gate,” he said of his modern home in Rwanda.
Elvis’ family came from one of the wealthier families in his community. The area was urban, and he attended Green Hills Academy in central Rwanda. He went away to boarding school in eighth grade in South Africa. He wore school uniforms and learned English.
Elvis used to take offense to the ignorance of his culture and lifestyle in Africa, but he has learned people can’t be blamed for not knowing. He tries not to get upset about it now.
Elvis had a formal relationship with his father. It was loving but within the bounds of strict African family dynamics.
“We didn’t have that chummy father son relationship, but he was my dad,” Elvis says. “I loved him, and I knew he loved me. It was more than a lot of my friends had with their dads.”
His father stayed in South Africa while Elvis and his mother came to America. An older sister, Portia, left from Uganda earlier and moved to Canada. A younger brother, Richard, came to America after Elvis and his mother when he was 15.
According to U.S. immigration laws, to gain asylum, a refugee must face persecution based on race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social group. The refugee can either declare on arrival or after having been in America if circumstances in his or her home country have changed while in the United States. Once asylum is declared, a 26-page document must be filed: 14 pages of instructions and 12 pages of information to fill out. The application asks questions such as: “Are you afraid of being subjected to torture in your home country or any other country you may be returned?” This must be filed with the Immigration Office.
Of all petitions filed, only about 29% of applicants are granted asylum. The alternative is deportation.
“The problem is, we’re in limbo,” Elvis says with a shrug. “I’m no longer a citizen of Rwanda, but I’m also not a citizen of the United States either.”
Elvis is easily angered when he hears someone speaking negatively of refugees. After all, he understands their plight. He doesn’t understand racism or xenophobia.
“People are not running across the border for fun,” Elvis says. “What do you think these people are running from? If these people had a great life, they wouldn’t come here.”
Patrick Karegeya texted his son around 3 p.m. Central Time on New Year’s Eve almost two years ago. His message: “Happy New Year. I love you.”
Elvis had to work at a call center in Knoxville while his mother and brother traveled to Maryland for a holiday visit with friends.
“I decided to wait until midnight to text him,” Elvis says.
Before the new year came in, his brother asked if he had heard from their father. He told him about the text from the previous day. Later, Elvis noticed he had several missed calls from his mother and brother. He called his brother back on a work break.
Richard asked if he was sitting down.
“Dad is dead,” Richard said.
“Him dying didn’t cross my mind,” Elvis said of his father. “I didn’t really cry.”
After his dad’s falling out with President Kagame, a series of events that involved accusations of insubordination, the elder Karegeya was given an 18-month imprisonment that ended in 2007. Upon release, he fled to South Africa where he helped to start the Rwandan National Congress, an anti-Kagame organization.
The colonel was critical of President Kagame and the Rwandan government after fleeing. According to a BBC report in March 2014, he had meetings with intelligence officials in South Africa and Tanzania before troops from those two countries began sending troops into the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were battling the M23 rebel group, which the BBC said was receiving funds from Rwanda. Kagame’s administration denied the allegation.
On January 1, 2014, Patrick Karegeya’s nephew found him strangled in a Johannesburg hotel room. There was evidence of a struggle, but nothing missing from the room.
“We know who did this,” Elvis says. “It was the Rwandan government that killed my father.”
If his family were deported back to Rwanda, he fears the same fate would await them.
Elvis knows what people think of his name, but he assures them he’s not named for Elvis Presley.
“My cousins named me,” Elvis says. “One of my cousin’s names is Elvin, so it’s just kind of a variation.”
Although, Elvis does know his mother was reading Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice when she named her daughter Portia.
Elvis stands at just over six-feet-tall. His dark eyes match his dark skin and light up when he laughs, a high, lilting laugh. His accent is the only thing that would reveal he is from Rwanda.
Elvis recently starred in MTSU Theater’s production of Uncle Vanya. He played a quirky character named Waffles and even learned how to play guitar for the role.
“It was fun,” Elvis says. “My first show at MTSU was great. I loved working with the director, Helena.”
In the spring, he portrayed a “Shark Boy” in West Side Story.
This semester, he’s cast in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The show runs this coming February in MTSU’s Tucker Theater.
As his life and education in Murfreesboro rolls forward, Elvis waits to hear the fate of his citizenship from an immigration judge in Memphis.
His family’s appeal for asylum has already been denied once.
After their father was assassinated, immigration officials said the surviving Karegeyas were no longer in danger. An offer of a status known as “Withholding of Removal,” was offered. However, this alternative to asylum does not grant green cards, naturalization, international travel and can be terminated at any time should conditions in one’s home country change. The Karegeyas declined this, as asylum would give them permanent residency and the opportunity to apply for citizenship within a few years, safeties Withholding of Removal does not offer. Elvis is stuck in a cycle without permanent residence and no ability to travel outside of the United States.
Elvis and his family had their second hearing for asylum on December 7 in Memphis. They were again offered Withholding of Removal and again denied. They want to become citizens, not stuck in limbo renewing licenses and work orders every year.
“My attorney said, ‘maybe you’ll get married. That could help,’” Elvis said with a laugh.
On Feb. 22, Elvis and his family were again denied asylum in the United States. The family has appealed, but the appeal process to the Immigration Board takes years to complete. With no guarantee of asylum after appeal, Elvis is left in limbo yet again, renewing his license and work permit every year.
Time passes without his father.
“To this day I don’t think I’ve really dealt with it,” Elvis says of his father’s murder. “It’s just some type of unbelievable movie script type situation.” Elvis says he cannot really believe it’s real. He can’t really grieve because he hasn’t been able to.
“I think if the president [of Rwanda] is gone, I’ll know what you were fighting for is done and I think that’s when I’ll actually fully grieve but I don’t think I’ve lost my dad yet.”
Gaining asylum could be a step to healing this wound. One less “thing” to carry with him to a new place, with new faces.