U.S. lawmakers rally for undocumented Nigerian student living in Michigan

Victor Chukwueke (second from the left) is shown with his surgeon, Dr. Ian Jackson, the doctor's wife and the nun who has cared for him since he came to the United States.

Story highlights

  • Victor Chukwueke's visa expires after he comes to the U.S. for treatment of tumors
  • Michigan senator introduces a private bill to grant him a green card
  • Bill comes after he's admitted to a medical school that requires students to have a green card
  • In a rare act, Congress passes the bill last week

His journey started in Nigeria, a taunted teenager with large tumors on his face, driven into deep despair.

Eleven years later, Victor Chukwueke has undergone numerous surgeries and is a step closer to achieving his dream of becoming a doctor.

In a rare act, the United States Congress passed a private bill last week granting Chukwueke permanent residency after years of his living in Michigan on an expired visa. The bill is awaiting President Barack Obama's signature.

"The day Congress passed the bill was one of the happiest days of my life," says Chukwueke, who left Nigeria as a teen in 2001 to get treatment for the tumors.

Private bills -- which only apply to one person and mostly focus on immigration -- seldom pass.

His is the only private bill to pass in Congress in two years.

"I was overwhelmed with joy; it was nothing less than a miracle," the 26-year-old says. "Only in this country can so many miraculous and wonderful things happen to someone like me."

    Before coming to the United States at age 15, Chukwueke lived in the southeastern Nigeria town of Ovim.

    Victor Chukwueke attends his graduation at Wayne State University, where he served as commencement speaker.

    He suffers from neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes massive life-threatening tumors on his face.

    Treated as an outcast because of his deformed face, he was depressed and humiliated, he says. His family abandoned him at an orphanage.

    Nuns from the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy rescued him from the orphanage more than a decade ago and arranged for a Michigan doctor to perform surgery on him.

    He says he considers himself lucky to have developed the tumors.

    "Without them, I would not have met the nun, left Nigeria, arrived in the U.S. and had the miracle to attend medical school," he says.

    He lives with the nuns in Oak Park, Michigan. They have cared for him since he came to the U.S., where he has undergone seven surgeries, including one that left him blind in the right eye.

    Doctors performed Chukwueke's surgeries over a period of time, he says, which contributed to his expired visa.

    Despite the obstacles, he remains committed to getting an education.

    "My own personal struggles to receive treatment have motivated and encouraged me to pursue a medical career ... to alleviate the pain and suffering of others," he says. "A medical career will allow me many gratifying years of making a difference in the health and lives of others. I strongly believe one can make another person's life worthy of living ... I have experienced it."

    He finished his GED -- the equivalent of a high school education -- while undergoing treatment and enrolled at a community college.

    A benefactor later helped him attend Wayne State University, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and chemical biology last year. He had a 3.82 GPA and gave the university's commencement speech.

    "Should I call myself a victim, or should I press forward to my dreams?" he asked during the speech amid thunderous applause.

    Soon after his graduation, the University of Toledo in Ohio admitted him to medical school. The only hurdle: The program requires him to have permanent residency status, also known as a green card.

    Though he qualifies for the DREAM Act, which gives immigrants who came to the United States as minors temporary residency, the measure would not give him the permanent status mandated by the university, according to his attorney.

    And so began Chukwueke's journey to get legalized, a quest that has seen strangers rally to his help.

    His attorney Thomas K. Ragland took his case pro bono.

    "Victor's story is remarkable," says Ragland, who is based in Washington D.C. "Here is this kid who comes from Nigeria, he was taunted and teased for his diseases, and he comes to this country and excels, despite so many surgeries. It is a testament of not letting anything get in the way."

    Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, sponsored the bill, S. 285. The measure passed the Senate in the summer and the House last week

    "Already, his example has enriched Michigan and our nation, but I know that his contributions to our country are only beginning," Levin said in a statement.

    The number of illegal immigrants in the United States was estimated at 11.5 million last year.

    If Obama signs the bill, the State Department will reduce by one the number of immigrant visas available to Nigerians.

    That signature, Chukwueke says, will be his favorite holiday gift.

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