Denied. Denied. Denied.
That’s what Evans Kaame, a 23-year-old Clark College graduate, watched in 2018 as he waited in line to apply for a student visa to the United States.
Again and again, those waiting in line with him in his native country of Kenya were denied visas. But still, Kaame waited. He’d had a vision, he said. After a life of extreme poverty, living on the streets, scrounging in landfills, this was his calling — to pursue an education in the United States, where his foster mother, RJ Swanson, was waiting for him.
Denied. Denied. Denied.
Finally, it was Kaame’s turn. He turned over his paperwork to the clerk, and waited.
“The interviewer looked at them and asked me, ‘Why are you going to the United States, and with whom are you going to stay?’ ”
“I’m going to educational purposes and my foster parents are my sponsors,” Kaame responded. “And I look forward to getting that education and coming back and giving back to my community.”
“Two weeks later, I was on a plane for the first time in my life,” Kaame said.
On Thursday, Kaame and Clark College students earned 2,500 college degrees, GEDs and other certificates, capping an unprecedented school year interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Kaame leaves with a slate of achievements. He was student body president, ran track and field and volunteered on campus, all while maintaining a 3.9 grade point average. Kaame, who will transfer to Washington State University Vancouver, is also the recipient of Clark College’s Presidents’ Award in Honor of Val Ogden, effectively covering tuition for two years at the university campus.
“Clark is always home to me,” Kaame said.
But Kaame’s accomplishments start with humble beginnings.
Kaame was born in northwestern Kenya in the town of Lodwar. When Kaame was 6, his father died, leaving his mother to raise Kaame and his siblings. But in Kenya’s patriarchal society, Kaame’s mother struggled. She was uneducated and worked long hours to provide for her children. Still, they were constantly hungry, and had to beg neighbors for food.
At 8, Kaame, like many other children in the country, left home to live on the streets.
“I didn’t leave home because I didn’t love my mom,” Kaame said. “My mom loves me like nobody else. She came constantly to get me to come back home, but she couldn’t sustain that.”
Life on the streets of Kenya is dangerous. Kaame’s foster mom, Swanson, first met the boy she would come to think of as her own son in 2009. She was there on a mission trip with an organization giving microgrants to Kenyans, when she headed past a landfill. There, she saw children scrambling through the garbage, collecting glass to sell on the streets.
Swanson said street children in Kenya are often manipulated and controlled by gangs of pimps, forced to make money for underground drug and sex trafficking rings.
“The pimps get them hooked on drugs, sniffing glue,” Swanson said. “They don’t feed them, make them go on drug runs, make them steal. They have to bring everything back to the pimps or they can get beaten, killed.”
Kaame said he was subjected to things in those years he had no control over.
“Like addiction to drug abuse and breaking people’s properties,” Kaame said. “I had no choice. I really feel so bad because of that. I had no other choice.”
The image of boys in the landfill stuck with Swanson, and knowing what they were experiencing behind the scenes frightened her. The following year, she founded New Hope Children, an organization dedicated to lifting homeless children in Kenya off the street and into education. Kaame was in that first class of students.
“(Kids) come in with this street edge, and then over time, once they feel safe and know they’re being cared for and loved, they open up and blossom,” Swanson said. “How many kids are out there have all of these unused talents because they’re in survivor mode?”
Kaame thrived in school. He graduated at the top of his class, but political corruption and high costs made college in Kenya inaccessible for him.
“That’s where I began to question myself, asking God, ‘Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? What is my purpose? What is my destiny?’ ” Kaame said. “God gave me the vision of serving people.”
It seemed unlikely that Kaame was going to receive a student visa. Even the colleges Swanson spoke to in the weeks leading up to his interview said it would never happen.
But Kaame is firm in his conviction that pursuing an education here is his destiny, and receiving a visa was proof. He plans to pursue degrees in political science, business administration and comparative religious studies, and dreams someday of launching a global leadership initiative.
“You have the ability and personal responsibility to expand your horizon in terms of thinking,” Kaame said. “It’s something I learned from the U.S. education system.”
And for a man who once dreamt of going to school but never thought it could happen, the chance to continue to learn and grow has made all the difference.
“I’ve been called to serve all the people,” Kaame said. “My responsibility is to serve people with one heart, love and compassion.”