Gillette man officially becomes U.S. citizen after long delay due to COVID-19

Mike Moore, Gillette News Record photos

GILLETTE — Just after 4 p.m. May 7, 2021, Valerie Bahige realized a dream.

In Courtroom 1 of the Campbell County courthouse, he stood in a room filled with friends and family, raised his right hand and participated in a ritual almost as old as America itself. He swore the Oath of Allegiance, and with those 140 words, Bahige officially became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

It was almost six years to the day since he’d first touched down in the U.S. in New Jersey, before a connecting flight would drop him off in Denver at 10 p.m. May 12, 2015.

He didn’t speak English and had arrived in America from the Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda, where he’d lived for seven years after rebel militant violence drove him from his birthplace of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

His brother, Bertine Bahige, was five hours away in Gillette, and after weeks in Denver awaiting proper documentation, Valerie joined his brother in Wyoming, a place that Bertine had made home years earlier after he’d gone through the same process of leaving Africa from a refugee camp and resettling in America.

Valerie Bahige, 30, had been waiting to become an American citizen. Refugees who come to the United States have to be in the country continuously for five years, never leaving lest he add more time to his wait. The U.S. government allows refugees to begin the application process after four years and nine months, he said.

“We started in two-oh-nineteen,” he said. “I could count, and my wife would count these final days.

“Ever since when I came here, we count, ‘Year One, Year Two, Year Three.’ And then when I entered my fourth year, I was like, ‘Nine more months, nine more months.’”

Then COVID-19 hit.

He’d been scheduled for an interview as part of the process in 2020, but then he received an email informing him that it had been canceled.

“I don’t know how to explain how painful that is, but you know what?” Bahige said. “The main thing which keeps me pushing is I know, legally, I’m here. I know that it’s not happening when I want it to happen, but I know it will end up happening. So I just keep the faith.”

The calendar turned to 2021, and he got the news that he had a new interview date.

“They give me two to three weeks,” Bahige said. “It’s happening. Feb. 12. In Denver. We have to drive down there. This is the crazy part about it, my wife think I’m crazy about it. Every time when we go to Denver, we have sister there, so we spend time with family.

‘This time, I was like, ‘Babe, no. We’re taking a hotel.’ She was like, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Sarah, I need to focus.’ I need to focus because when they call you for an interview, they’re like, ‘OK good, go to this website. These are the questions.’ There are like 100 questions you have to study. We will ask you 10 questions, and after 10 questions, you need to pass six questions.”

He had copied each of the 100 questions onto the front of an index card with the answers written on the backs.

“Every day, like every day from when I knew I was doing that interview to that interview day, I would study every night,” Bahige said. “Some of my staff here would be like, ’Hey Valerie, what are you doing?’ I’m studying. I have an exam coming up! I told myself, ‘I have to pass this test.’ I know they give people a second chance, but I told myself, ‘That’s not me. I have to pass.’”

The morning of his interview, he woke up at 3 a.m.

“Keep studying, keep studying, do my flash cards,” he said.

His wife Sarah, 26, woke up later in the morning and quizzed him.

“I answered all 100 questions, and I passed all of them,” Bahige said. “OK, I feel ready. But you’re still just anxious. You don’t know what to expect. These are the same kind of interview we did again in Africa before we come here. I know how stressful that was. ‘You’ve been accepted with the United States, but you have to go and sit with a U.S. (Citizenship and Immigration Services) agent and you have to convince them.’ That was the same thing I went through all over again. It took me back home again.”

Bahige remembered arriving for his interview on that February morning.

“Security, they ask me for one document,” Bahige said. “I give every document I have. ‘OK, show us how legally you in the United States.’ You could just give them, like, a green card. Nope. I gave them every document. ‘Do you want my credit card?’”

He laughed.

“I met this wonderful lady, she asked me for all my documentation,” he said. “Can you imagine, they don’t even need my marriage license? But I did send it. They didn’t even need the picture of my marriage. I did send it. This was to tell them, ‘Hey, I’m here legally.’”

He answered the questions. He passed.

“That person, the U.S. CIS agent, would be like, ‘I personally approve you,’” Bahige said.

But that wasn’t the end of the journey.

“‘I approve you to be considered for citizenship,’” Bahige said, with extra emphasis on the word “considered.” “I’m not approving you, like, ‘You are an American.’”

All he could do was wait.

“I have the website where you log in and check your status,” Bahige said. “It was like, ‘We’ll notify you.’ Every morning, I would come to work, before I start anything, I would pull my computer and log in. ‘We’ll notify you.’”

He had no idea how long it would take.

“It was a long wait,” he said.

Waiting would not be enough to break Bahige’s spirit. He’s made of stronger stuff than that. He’d survived tougher situations.

He remembered his apartment in Denver at Moline Street and Colfax Avenue. It was number 33A.

“First time in Denver, for me, that’s beautiful,” Bahige said. “Apartment? Oh man, I used to live in, like, a dirt house in the camp. This is nice! ‘Oh, we have toilet inside? This is awesome!’”

He immediately began taking English language classes. He stayed in Denver long enough to get his documentation, but fell in love with Gillette when his brother brought him to see his home. As soon as he had his paperwork in order, Bahige moved to Gillette.

He took English classes at Gillette College. He put together an employment application and got hired at Walmart. His brother began talking to him about a career in education, and he felt a connection with the field of special education.

He applied for a position as a special education para-educator.

“In July, I apply to Hillcrest (Elementary) with the school district,” Bahige said. “I remember going to my first interview with very bad English. Very broken English.”

“They interviewed me, and I told them, ‘I know I don’t speak the English. I know that I may not be on the same level or may not be the person you guys need or want, or at least my qualification is not there, but deep inside, I come from Africa, and I worked with this kind of kid,’” Bahige said. “‘I may not speak the language, but I may understand them. The only one thing I need, just a kid from Africa who needs a second chance — give me a chance to prove to you.’”

They gave him that chance.

He started at Hillcrest, where he worked from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., and he would “come home, just change, maybe grab just a chicken leg, eating while I’m driving to Walmart,” where he’d work from 4:30 p.m. until 10 or 11.

He started taking college classes beyond just English classes.

“I wanted to keep my job, so I could still learn more, I wanted to keep working at Walmart, and I wanted to stay with my family in Gillette,” Bahige said. “So I had the chance to go to Laramie or to Black Hills, but the good thing about Black Hills was I could do it online … one class at a time.”

He’s the type who’s always moving forward, one step at a time. In 2017, he met Sarah, who grew up in Sheridan. Their siblings taught school together and introduced them. He followed her when she left for Kentucky to complete her education, and after she did, they both came back to Wyoming to get jobs in education. She works at Northeast Wyoming Board of Cooperative Education Services as a behavioral analyst, and he works at Stocktrail as a special education teacher.

“The first night we met, he ran into one of his students,” Sarah said. “He was a para at the time, and he ran into one of his students and got down right there with him.”

That moment made an impression on her. They talked a lot that first night about special education, and it was an early sign that they were meant to be together. They started dating shortly after.

They married in June 2019, and are expecting their first child in June.

“He wanted to be an American before our baby was an American,” Sarah said.

It’s been just over a week since Bahige’s oath was administered by Judge Stuart Healy III of the 6th Judicial District. After it was concluded, Healy addressed Bahige, who was sitting alone in the well of the courtroom.

“As you know, this is a crazy time in our country,” Healy said. “We’re divided as citizens as we never have been. It’s so encouraging to me that at a time when we’re all divided, you want to be a part of this country and be a citizen of it.”

Healy recounted his own family’s immigrant roots, his father’s people from Ireland and his mother’s from Russia. He said it was a good occasion to “remember an American hero who sought to unite rather than divide.”

He then read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

“But in Lincoln’s words, we learned that the greatness of our nation is anchored in sacrifice, duty, devotion and honor, and not in petty strife and distractions, not in presumptions of entitlement, not in political acrimony fueled by 24-hour news networks,” Healy said. “So Valerie, go forth, do well, and be devoted to the cause of liberty and be guided by a principle espoused by another president of this country, John F. Kennedy, who said, ‘My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask instead what you can do for your country.’

“I will now sign the order of naturalization,” Healy said.

Then there was silence in the room, as if everyone was holding their breath to see if it would really happen. It was a silence that could be felt as if it had a weight all its own.

“Having affixed my signature on the order and by the authority granted to me by the United States of America and the great state of Wyoming, I hereby declare Valerie to be a citizen of the United States of America,” Healy said.

A huge round of applause erupted from those in attendance. Hugs and handshakes and high-fives followed.

“We have a new American!” Bertine shouted.

“Citizenship looks good on you,” said someone lost in the crowd.

Bahige leaned down and gently kissed his wife’s pregnant belly. He’d won the race. He will greet his child as a U.S. citizen.

As he walked out of the courtroom holding an American flag given to him by his brother, Bahige said to nobody in particular, “I came to this room as a refugee, but I’m going to leave as an American.”

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