I lost my job. I lost my car, but this is my family. —Siro Kang
SALT LAKE CITY — Bringing little Emmanuel Siro home from Kenya was complicated and costly.
It took weekly visits to a U.S. senator's office, $5,000 spent just on international calls to immigration officials, the cost of travel and other expenses, countless hours of the family's time, and the help of a nonprofit organization that provides aid to African families.
Worst of all, the boy's parents, Siro Kang and Emelia Ayaga, had to leave their child, then about 16 months old, with a woman they scarcely knew to preserve their place in line in a complex, inefficient immigration process.
"I'm so happy. It's just unbelievable. I never thought this family reunion would happen this year," Kang said Friday during an interview in the family's Salt Lake City home.
There were times a lot of people who helped make the reunion possible also felt overwhelmed by the bureaucracy that prevented Emmanuel, who is a U.S. citizen by birthright, from obtaining a passport to join his family in the United States.
Kang immigrated to the United States from Sudan and has been a naturalized U.S. citizen for more than five years.
Three years ago, he returned to Sudan to marry Ayaga. He stayed for six months, during which Emmanuel was conceived. While the family was able to obtain a visa allowing Ayaga to return to the United States, the couple was not able to obtain a passport for their infant son.
Until the mess could be sorted out, Kang rented an apartment in Kenya for his wife and son, which he believed would be safer than remaining in Sudan.
Kang, meanwhile, returned to Salt Lake City to work and to continue to labor through the immigration process to bring his family home.
Beginning in March, he reached out to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch's Salt Lake office for help, meeting weekly with constituent services specialist Sean Firth.
“Basically, Sen. Hatch, with staff, did what we always do — help someone navigate the federal bureaucracy," said Heather Barney, Hatch's Utah press secretary.
"But this one was a tough one, a tough, tough one. Sean, on behalf of Sen. Hatch, has been working on this daily for many, many months," Barney said.
It's unclear why it was so hard to obtain the boy's passport. The embassy in Nairobi is very busy, and some documents were apparently lost, Barney said.
All the while, the clock was ticking on Ayaga's visa. If it expired before she was able to return to the United States, she would have to restart the application process.
Seeing no other choice, Kang spent a month convincing his wife that the family's best option, in the long run, was for her to enter the United States before her visa expired in April. That meant leaving Emmanuel in Kenya.
"It was heartbreaking. It was a tough, tough decision to make," Kang said.
A woman Kang describes as "a good Samaritan" agreed to care for Emmanuel until Kang's return. No one involved imagined it would take five months, Kang said.
As the couple waited for news from immigration officials, Kang, quite by happenstance, became acquainted with Adam Miles, founder and CEO of Bridges to America, a nonprofit organization based in Park City that helps African families.
Kang is the choir director at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Salt Lake. A choir member put them in touch.
"I don't know how she knew about Adam. She gave me his card," he said.
The men met and Miles offered to help, explaining that the organization does not pay legal fees. It offers help people who have their immigration documents in order but are struggling to pay for airfares and other expenses to complete their journeys. The organization, run by Miles and his wife, Wendy, has assisted six other families.
When Miles met Kang, he was impressed by how much work and money he had already dedicated to bringing his wife and son home. Kang estimates he's spent some $30,000 in the past few years.
"He's worked so hard for this. This wasn't, 'Hey, Adam, give me a handout,'" Miles said.
Bridges to America was instrumental in helping Kang fly to Kenya in August for an interview at the embassy and to finalize Emmanuel's passport application. Miles also provided Kang some living expenses while he waited in Nairobi.
Although Hatch's office had worked on its end to ensure Kang had completed every requirement before flying to Kenya to pick up Emmanuel, he ran into additional roadblocks once he arrived.
By that point, Emmanuel was quite bonded to his caregiver. When Kang went to the government offices to work through paperwork, pay fees and go through an interview, Kang needed the boy's caregiver to accompany him.
That may have confused matters more, Kang said, because he had to repeatedly explain to immigration officials that the woman was not his spouse, that the boy's mother was in the United States, and that Emmanuel was indeed his son.
When Kang finally was able to obtain his son's passport, Emmanuel contracted strep throat. Kang spent all of the money he had left to take the boy to a doctor and purchase antibiotics.
They had no money for food and they were hungry as they faced another round of questioning at the airport in Nairobi. Finally, they were allowed to board a plane traveling to Dubai. From there, they then traveled 16 hours to San Francisco.
Miles, who works weekdays in San Francisco as a stockbroker and travels home to Utah on weekends, met the father and son at the airport. It took Kang nearly two hours to clear customs and border protection, after which Miles took them to lunch. They then boarded a plane to Salt Lake City, landing shortly before 11 p.m. Wednesday.
They were met by small group of well wishers, members of Miles' family and news media. All the while, Emmanuel clung tightly to his father.
He was initially wary of his mother, but Kang reassured Ayaga that it took Emmanuel nearly a week to warm up to him after he arrived in Kenya to pick him up in August.
On Friday, the boy played happily with a soccer ball and the made the rounds of his parents' living room, greeting each guest with a polite handshake.
Kang said he will take a few days to enjoy his family and figure out what to do next. He had to quit his job at a pork processing plant to finalize his son's passage to the United States.
"I lost my job. I lost my car, but this is my family," he said.
Miles, he said, was "the hero" who made the reunion possible.
"Adam is a great man. He says he likes solving problems. Without him, I would not have my family," he said.
Turning to Miles, he said, "I'm just speechless. I don't know how to thank you."
Miles said credit was also due to generous donors to Bridges to America, "some of them people I don't even know."
Kang said he was grateful for their kindness, too. But Miles' support wasn't purely financial, he said. He was a reassuring voice on the telephone and via text when Kang was in Kenya and feeling discouraged as he waited for his son's passport to be processed.
Kang said Miles would tell him, "I know God is there for you. You don't know how many people here love you and are praying for you."9 comments on this story
Kang says he believes God will bless Miles with many more years on earth to allow him to help other families.
Many people deserve credit for reunifying Kang's family, Miles said. They include Kang himself, Hatch's office and the many people who contributed to Bridges to America after reading about Kang on social media sites.
"This is why I love to do this," Miles said, pointing to the small family snuggled up on a love seat.
"This is the moment."