by Cindy Knoebel
Efe and Kelechi Obaje* are two Nigerian brothers who fled their country after narrowly escaping death. The brothers were farmers in an area that has become internationally infamous for an escalating violence and refugee crisis, with over 1300 people killed and over 300,000 people displaced in the first half of 2018 alone. From 2015 to 2017, the Obaje family farm was attacked several times by Fulani herdsmen. In 2017, the brothers were attacked, critically injured, and their farm, their only source of livelihood, burned. They were pursued throughout the country, unable to find a safe place to hide. Efe and Kelechi were able to get to Ecuador and then walked north through Colombia, Central America and Mexico, spending many days trekking the jungle with no food.
They requested asylum when they entered the US over six months ago, and were immediately placed in Adelanto Detention Center.
I spoke with Val Katz and Isabel Frischman, both of San Fernando Valley Indivisible. They visited the brothers in Adelanto and were also present at their court hearings.
I asked them to describe their impressions of the brothers when they first met them in March. “I found them so charming, and polite – and completely believable and credible,” said Val. “And they were so devout in their Christianity. They trusted God would help them.”
“Efe did most of the talking,” recalled Isabel. "They each told us their harrowing story. I found them sincere; they told their story the way they’ve told it consistently all along, with completely believable emotion.” Both women noticed Kelechi’s speech was impaired by a machete wound to his mouth inflicted by the Muslim Fulanis.
Efe and Kelechi’s first court appearance was on March 20th. The immigration judge, James Left, recommended to the attorneys that the brothers be separated. “Neither Efe nor Kelechi seemed fazed by the request,” Isabel said. But both Val and Isabel thought it was because the judge didn’t want the brothers to hear each other’s testimony.
Efe testified first in a hearing that lasted three hours. Kelechi didn’t get to testify until the second hearing on April 24th, during another three-hour session.
Sometime before the first hearing, the siblings learned from their uncle, who was still in Nigeria, that their mother was gravely ill. When Val spoke to the brothers the next day, they'd just found out their mother had died. The brothers’ father, who was badly burned when the herdsmen burned the family property, had died in November of a heart attack.
During one of the attacks on the family farm, Efe lost part of a pinky finger to a machete wielded by a Fulani herdsman. During the first hearing, the judge was able to see his mutilated finger. A medical report from Nigeria confirmed the facts of Efe’s attack.
Kelechi had sustained injuries to his mouth and foot during a separate Fulani attack, also detailed in a medical report from Nigeria. During the second hearing in April, according to Isabel, “They had him stand up and take his shoe and sock off and show his foot to the judge."
“The government attorney kept trying to pick holes in the testimony,” Val recalled. “For example, the brothers had stated their mother worked only at the farm. During the hearing, the attorney asked if their mother had any other job. They said no, and the government attorney responded, ‘You said in these notes that she was the deacon at the church. Was she working at the farm or at the church?’ as if to imply being a deacon constituted a separate job.
“The brothers were still so upset about their mother that day,” Val continued. “But the government attorney kept hammering away about the mother and whether she had one or two jobs. She also questioned why, if the situation was so bad in Nigeria, the brothers had left Obi, their older brother, and parents there. Their response was that they only could only afford for two of them to leave.”
Two weeks later, on May 13th, the siblings learned they’d been granted a bond of $5,000 each. With no friends or family in the US, they had no means of raising the funds to free themselves.
The third and final hearing was held last week, on May 23rd.
Judge Left denied the Obajes’ claim for asylum. Said Isabel, “He said he didn’t find them credible, and that there were inconsistencies in their testimony, which was odd because the government attorney charged that their testimonies were too similar, and implied they’d rehearsed it.”
“The judge questioned why they hadn’t just relocated to somewhere else in Nigeria,” Isabel remembered. He said something like, ‘Why would they – meaning the Fulani herdsmen – bother chasing you all over Nigeria?’” Recalls Val, “He said, ‘You managed to survive for a few months in Lagos, and I don’t believe the herdsmen were able to track you down.’”
Efe’s injured hand had been bandaged during the second and third hearings; Judge Left dismissed the bandage as a “prop.” In his summary judgement he said the laceration on Kelechi's foot didn’t appear consistent with a machete attack. "The judge said it was odd there weren’t any medical records about it at Adelanto – which, if you know anything about Adelanto, isn’t particularly surprising,” said Isabel.
“The judge said he thought they’d made everything up,” said Isabel, “that he was tempted to believe they were neither farmers nor Christians.” Val said the judge seemed to think if they were deported to Nigeria, they could simply start another farm somehow.
Said Val, “The judge also said that given their farm consisted of only 10 acres, it would have been impossible for them to have raised the money to leave Nigeria. I think he said something like, ‘How could you raise that kind of money on only 10 acres of farmland … how could you even make a living on a farm that size?’ In fact, they used their family’s entire life savings to travel to the US.”
Efe and Kelechi’s attorney has indicated she will file an appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).
Claire Okeke and Glory, her husband, had agreed back in November, when the siblings were first sent to detention, to host them if they were released. “We thought they’d be released after the first hearing,” Claire said when interviewed. “We all believed they had such a strong case. Glory is Nigerian too, and I’d prepared Nigerian food to welcome them when they arrived here.”
Regarding Judge Left’s comment about farming in Nigeria, Claire noted that in Nigeria farmers can only farm on their family's historic land. Since the herders occupied the Obaje’s land, the brothers would not be able farm or make a livelihood anywhere else. And, she added, “The reason they weren’t safe elsewhere in the country is because of sectarianism and police corruption. Basically, the police are on the side of the herders, so they sent word throughout the national police force to kill the brothers.”
Claire had also visited Efe and Kelechi at Adelanto, shortly after the first hearing. “I told them how disappointed we were, and how I’d cooked Nigerian food for them in anticipation of their release. They seemed so hopeful back then. They are people of strong faith. I was glad I was able to offer spiritual encouragement.”
On Friday evening, Claire, together with Val, Isabel and others who have been following the Obaje’s case closely, received good news: Freedom for Immigrants had agreed to bond the brothers out. If all goes well, Efe and Kelechi should walk out of Adelanto on Wednesday.
When asked how long her family would be willing to host the Obajes, Claire replied, “It has to be indefinite, right? They’re traumatized. They’ll need help to reestablish their lives from scratch.”
* All names have been changed to protect the identities of family members
Author’s note: Please help Freedom for Immigrants fund the brothers’ bond campaign by contributing here.