A friend of mine, Eritrean-American journalist Michael Abraham, is without resources or means of subsistence in Nairobi because a white US Embassy official will not give him the proof of his US citizenship that he needs to work as foreign correspondent or obtain emergency assistance from media rights groups as a journalist in distress having lost everything in the bloody South Sudan war. He has been offered both employment and assistance, if he can show his passport.
He can’t, because his passport is being held by a hotel manager who will not give it back until he pays the money he owes the hotel. But without a job, he can’t repay the hotel.
The embassy is refusing to provide a temporary proof of citizenship which would enable him to get a job as journalist. Isn’t that illegal? What can Michael do from here? Is there anyone reading this with the legal knowledge to give him free advice?
Here’s the whole story, which appears to be yet another tale of a white official acting racist. I have written it up as a press article, but I haven’t yet found any publication interested. When there is another unarmed Black citizen shot every few days in the US, I guess no one is up for paying attention to a Black citizen being blackballed by our embassy thousands of miles away. But if you have any legal advice, please do email me. The story in full:
For over a year Africa-born US national Michael Abraham has been shunned and ostracized as a journalist in distress by the US Embassy and media rights NGOs in Nairobi, Kenya. He has been denied access to his passport. Finally his story is being reported in the Kenyan press including The Nairobian [above], which recently reported his troubles caused by the South Sudan war.
Abraham had a distinguished career as a lawyer and journalist in Ethiopia before government death threats caused him to seek asylum in the US. In 2011 he returned to East Africa and then moved to newly independent South Sudan to serve as Chief Editor and Trainer with a leading national newspaper, The Pioneer. He trained many young journalists, and supplemented his income in the last few months of 2013 as a UNESCO Media Consultant as well as a hotel legal adviser and manager.
Following an outbreak of violent fighting in Juba in December 2013 he was airlifted to Nairobi for safety on instructions of the US government. “My departure was sudden and planned within one hour, which meant leaving everything behind,” he says. “This caused the loss of my earnings and belongings as fear and violence swept Juba, aggravating corruption and criminal activities in the country.”
He contacted the US Embassy’s American Citizen Services (ACS) head Mike Pryor and explained to him that he was a collateral victim of the South Sudan war.
Pryor’s ACS office then sent him an email dated February 20, 2014, stating that emergency assistance (accommodation, food, and other essentials) was available if he was not returning to the US right away. He passed on a copy of this ACS message to the manager of his Nairobi hotel, Sammy Chege, who then let him continue to stay on credit hoping there would be some kind of emergency assistance from the Embassy as stated in the email.
Since all US assistance appeared to be given in a form of a loan, Michael wanted only a small loan to enable him to work out a monthly installment payment plan as he negotiated job offers with the Kenya Daily Nation and considered other freelance work for a couple of foreign news outlets.
The embassy reneged on its decision to assist. When he challenged the refusal as an illegal action, Abraham says, “US Embassy official Mike Pryor, was so furious that he decided not even to confirm my US citizenship, which would have enabled me to accept nonprofit assistance and a job offer.”
Pryor did not use racist language but Abraham felt he was being profiled and stereotyped as an African American expecting an automatic welfare type of assistance.
Instead of offering an explanation, Abraham says “ACS head Mike Pryor retaliated by instructing my hotel manager Sammy Chege to disregard the assistance offer and lock me out.” Chege confirmed the embassy’s order in an interview with The Nairobian newspaper in early July, 2015. Asked by the same paper to comment on Abraham’s allegation of embassy’s inconsistencies, Pryor said he “has no obligation by law to discuss the matter with anyone.”
Obeying orders, Chege locked Abraham out of his hotel room, confiscating all his personal and professional belongings including his passport, laptop, camera, cellphone, clothes, documents and countless other valuable items.
In dire straits, Abraham contacted Father Anthony Awituria, Head of Administration and Finance for Caritas, the humanitarian arm of the Catholic church in Nairobi, and a close partner of a Catholic charity Abraham had worked for in the 1980s. Awituria needed to see his American passport before the church could assist him with shelter and food. Since the passport had been confiscated, he wanted written proof from the US embassy that Abraham was a US citizen. The US Embassy refused to confirm to Fr. Anthony that he was a US citizen, thus blocking his chances of getting emergency assistance from the church, Abraham said.
Unable to receive emergency help from Caritas or a job from the Daily Nation without proof of US citizenship, Abraham’s hopes to continue work as journalist in Nairobi were dashed. He said that after reversing its decision on emergency assistance, “the embassy suggested that it could grant me a limited travel permit to return to the US provided I acquired a government loan for a one way air ticket”. Abraham says it was impossible for him to go back home leaving behind his precious belongings at the Nairobi hotel as well as other personal and professional items in Juba and Addis Ababa.
Things got worse. Abraham recounts: “On April 8, 2014, there was a, thankfully unsuccessful, abduction and assassination attempt on my life in Nairobi by an African government’s agents assisted by four Kenyan police officers in retaliation for my critical writings as a journalist. I immediately called Mr. Pryor and informed him of the aborted incident. ‘Now you have become a problem not only to yourself but to others as well, Pryor yelled at me in abusive language and hung up the phone.'”
In addition to Caritas, Pryor also contacted the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters without Borders, the Kenya Human Rights Commission and many other rights groups pressuring them directly or indirectly to look the other way in the wake of the attempt on his life. Concerned that impunity only emboldened opponents and haters of a free press, Abraham tried in vain to obtain funds to hire a lawyer to prosecute those who tried to silence him. His case file is now collecting dust at the Kenya Prosecutors Office while Abraham continues to receive threats on his life.
After The Nairobian article came out, CPJ East Africa Representative Tom Rhodes apologized for his inaction, an apology Abraham gladly accepted though it was 18 months overdue. In an interview for this article Rhodes said “he had been overwhelmed by the volume of other cases and promised to contact Abraham and reopen Abraham’s case”.
The US Embassy has offered no explanation for its actions causing suffering and isolation. But Abraham hopes it will rectify the situation even at this late hour. What it can do is simply provide proof of citizenship so Abraham can get employment and start to pay back the hotel, as it should have done a year and a half ago.
Abraham (who also uses the spelling Abraha) is an Eritrean lawyer who became a prominent radio and TV news anchor in Addis Ababa in the 1970s and 80s. He exclusively interviewed leaders like Oliver Tambo, Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, Idi Amin, and many other politicians, writers and artists. Attempting to escape the increasing political demands of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, he took a job as press officer with Catholic Relief Services, the American Catholic charity, only to find himself a liaison for Western journalists and aid donors during the Ethiopian famine of 1983-5, when one million people died: a traumatic experience as he counted the bodies every week. Tipped off that he was on a list for execution by a Mengistu death squad, he managed to defect to the US, where he gained asylum and citizenship, settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many years followed in which he provided legal services to immigrants, while writing on African issues. In recent years he lived in San Jose. Finally in 2011 he achieved his dream of returning to Africa as a journalist. Michael believes that by writing from Africa, he can play a meaningful role in building a better bridge of understanding between the US and Africa.
As I wrote above, if you have any legal advice for Michael, please email me.