For Robert and Eunice Menja, the path to U.S. citizenship and a home in Edmond was nearly 9,000 miles and three decades in the making.
Their journey began in their homeland of Kenya, a republic located in east Africa between Uganda and the Indian Ocean. After Kenya gained independence in 1963, unemployment, child labor, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, civil unrest and a subpar education system — about half of boys and even fewer girls attend school after age 16 — contributed to poverty in the republic.
Eunice was born in a rural village in central Kenya. Both of her parents were teachers. Eunice, her parents and four brothers and one sister lived in a modest six-room home without electricity and running water. They did have a tank that collected rainwater.
The largest room was used for study, education — one of the values Eunice received from her parents. Others included respect for others and kindness. She recalls many people being helped by her parents who shared food, clothes and drinking water with neighbors. Her father taught about agriculture, and he made a small farm at home. It produced enough vegetables for the family and for them to sell or give to others.
Eunice said she encountered poverty. She said even though her family had shoes to wear she did not wear them to school since other students did not have them. She also spoke about the hardships women face in Kenya.
Growing up, she didn’t know about America, but she recalls hearing about people flying off to different countries.
“My mother said if you work very hard at school one day you will fly away in one of those planes,” she said.
After college, Eunice began thinking about America, which she had learned about through movies. She recalls its natural beauty, all of the glass (which is uncommon in many Kenyan villages), good food and flashy cars. In primary school she learned about the freedoms Americans enjoy. In college, she learned some about American government.
She said she didn’t know where Oklahoma was. But it would soon become her new home.
Robert was born in Nairobi, the capital and largest city in Kenya. After living there for a couple of years his family moved to a town in central Kenya.
He said his mother had a long career working in city hall as a secretary. His father was an administrator. Robert has one brother and two sisters; one of them is serving in the U.S. military in Germany.
Robert said values he received from his parents include an emphasis on hard, honest work and shining in all that he does. His father wanted him to have a better future, a better life, he said. After his father started building a home for his family he stopped at the foundation and used the money saved to educate his children.
Robert said in college he first learned about freedoms in Americans such as free speech and the right to assemble. At that time, Kenya was experiencing a renaissance through democracy.
He said he also noticed how Americans were able to voice their opinion, to protest against the government, how they were free to live as they wanted as long as they obeyed the law. And in America, he noticed, people who worked hard could move up the social ladder.
Robert met Eunice in college when she came to visit her brother who was a friend of Robert’s.
“I knew immediately she was the one,” he said.
Robert earned a degree in food science from Jomo Kenyatta University where Eunice earned a civil engineering degree (both would earn additional degrees at Oklahoma State University).
COMING TO AMERICA
In 1997, Robert and Eunice were married. In January 2004, when he was age 30, thanks to family financial support Robert made the 8,651-mile journey to the central United States; Eunice, who was also age 30 at the time, arrived in December 2004. They vowed to remember their extended family.
Through a missionary Robert learned about Oklahoma City. A blizzard was raging when he arrived. Since it was summer in Kenya, where things are green all year round, he wasn’t prepared for the bitter cold.
Eunice recalled how big everything seemed — trucks, roads, restaurants. Since, she has more than five years experience working with low-income families and children. Currently she is a resource specialist for foster families with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. Robert is licensed as a financial adviser.
Inspired by her desire to help children in her home country Eunice created Upendo Kids International. It works with churches and individuals to improve the lives of disadvantaged families and children in both Kenya and the United States. Robert is co-founder and the organization’s fundraising coordinator.
The Menjas, who have two daughters, are active members of the First Presbyterian Church of Edmond. More than a dozen members of the church were in the courtroom Friday to support their friends.
During Friday’s lunch hour the Menjas and a total of 93 individuals from 37 countries including Israel and Iran took the oath of citizenship at the federal courthouse in downtown Oklahoma City.
Candidates for citizenship are examined and must be of good moral character, have a knowledge of U.S. history and be able to speak adequate English. They also swear to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution.
The Menjas were selected to speak during the naturalization ceremony to their fellow new citizens, family members and friends who came to celebrate their achievement
“I’m so honored to be part of this society,” Robert said.
Eunice was emotional as she spoke about what women and children face in Kenya and her work to help them. She said her parents did their best for herself and her brothers and sisters. She has learned that education is a key to success. She spoke of how she had no freedom to worship God and how her father resisted her decision to follow Jesus. She acknowledged God’s favor through her journey.
“Today, I am proud to be called a U.S. citizen,” she said.
She spoke about her desire to prevent abuse of children in Kenya, about raising money for them by making necklaces and bracelets. She spoke of her hope that Kenyan children helped by her organization will in turn help other children. She has been involved in a children’s home in Kenya and in the building of an orphanage.
“Anything is possible through hard work and God’s help,” she said.
Chief U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange congratulated the new Americans, who viewed a videotaped welcome from President Barack Obama and watched a patriotic video using the Lee Greenwood song “God Bless the USA.”
“Our country is better off by having each and every one of you as citizens,” Miles-LaGrange said.
Now they have equal rights of free speech, freedom to assemble and the right to vote, Miles-LaGrange said. She said the tapestry of diversity, which they embody, “makes America great.”
ROBERT MENJA is one of the “20 Under 40” business people to watch, featured in the latest issue of The Business Times of Edmond.
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