On Jan. 10, he embraced his wife, and, with tears streaming down his face, Dominic Boyi looked into his 3-year-old son’s eyes for the first time in person and said, “Henry, I am your daddy.”Boyi06Fr. Charlie Zabler, left, pastor of Our Lady of Good Hope Parish, Milwaukee, was instrumental in reuniting the Boyi family. Pictured with Fr. Zabler are Paulina, Henry, age 3, and Dominic. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)

Standing in the Milwaukee County General Mitchell International Airport, this was a long-awaited moment for Dominic, 42, and Paulina, 34, who hadn’t seen each other beyond online video chats through Skype since their April 2008 wedding in Nigeria.

It was the end to an almost four-year separation caused by immigration issues that Fr. Charles Zabler, pastor of Our Lady of Good Hope Parish, Milwaukee, parishioners and U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl’s office had spent countless hours trying to resolve.

‘Miracle’ entry becomes nightmare

Dominic’s “miracle” entry into the U.S., as he described it in an interview with your Catholic Herald in 2010, quickly became a nightmare. He had been alone in Milwaukee since he came from Nigeria on the Green Card Lottery, known as the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, a lottery for people who come from countries with low immigration rates to the United States.

According to the program’s website, it makes 50,000 immigrant visas available to these countries and allows those picked randomly from the qualified entries in the U.S. Department of State’s annual lottery, to live and work permanently in the U.S., and to bring their spouse and any umarried children under age 21.

Fr. Zabler said he and parishioners noticed Dominic immediately because he was present at weekly Mass and wanted to become a minister of hospitality.

“He approached me almost immediately and introduced himself and I asked him about his family and he told me what was going on,” said Fr. Zabler, who learned that Paulina, Dominic’s girlfriend at the time, stayed back to care for her father, who was dying from cancer. “And then he came and asked for help with marriage preparation because (Paulina) was in Nigeria and he was going home for the wedding.”

Armed robbery in Nigeria

Dominic and Paulina learned she was pregnant shortly after their wedding, but Paulina wouldn’t make it to Milwaukee before their child was born.

After Paulina’s father died in March 2010, armed military men stormed into their home in Nigeria May 26 holding a gun to then-22-month-old Henry’s head and demanding money. Fr. Zabler said Paulina’s father’s death may have prompted an attack because of the assumption that the family had money. 

“Just a bunch of soldiers, I guess, apparently thought there’d be money in the house because of the death, so they basically read the obituary, or the military found out about the death – it’s just a matter of public record – and then what they did was they robbed them.” Fr. Zabler said.

“Thieves came around to her apartment and they came with a machete, a shotgun and a long knife … they forced our door open, came to the room and then Paulina had to give them money or they would kill our son for her,” Dominic said.

After ravaging through the family’s things and taking what money they could find, they left Paulina and Henry unharmed.

Dominic remembered that moment clearly, not because he was there with his family when it happened, but because in Milwaukee his phone was urgently flashing after several of his wife’s missed calls. He remembered how helpless he felt listening to Paulina cry to him through the phone as she explained what happened.

“I didn’t know what to do,” said Dominic, who gave “thanks to God for the mild way that this happened,” and turned to Fr. Zabler for help.

Fr. Zabler becomes Dominic’s ‘agent’

Fr. Zabler, who’s on the commission for social justice of the Archdiocesan Council of Priests, told parishioners what had happened and asked to act as Dominic’s “agent” to bring the rest of his family to the United States.

“We just felt that the system is so overwhelming that if the church could put some leverage in, we could probably get some work done,” said Fr. Zabler.

Fr. Zabler also said the Boyis were afraid they’d have trouble getting Paulina to the U.S. after the attack, which he believes did interfere with the process.

“Quite frankly, they were afraid that there’d be retribution and apparently it just came in the slow processing of things,” he said.

Fr. Zabler contacted an agent working on immigration issues in Kohl’s office who was “extremely helpful” throughout the process.

Lauren Reeves, staff assistant in Kohl’s Milwaukee Office, told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview that while case details are private, these cases are important to the senator.

“I can certainly say that Sen. Kohl is devoted to constituent services, and that our office helps in casework with federal agencies in any way that we can,” she said.

Parishioners make apartment ‘family ready’

Our Lady of Good Hope raised about $3,800 for the family in June 2010 to help pay for general cleaning of the apartment and to purchase additional furniture, kitchen supplies and everything needed to turn a “very basic apartment” into a “family ready” one, Fr. Zabler said, noting that parishioners have continued to make donations to the family since.

By December, Fr. Zabler said they were still waiting for Paulina and Henry to arrive – one of the federal documents that should have arrived in the mail may have been stolen, which Fr. Zabler said is common there.

He contacted Kohl’s office in February 2011 to intervene “on behalf of the family and the congregation supporting this effort,” after Paulina’s visa was postponed “because nobody told them they needed a DNA test to verify the child as theirs,” Fr. Zabler wrote in an email update.

Despite setback after setback, Fr. Zabler said Dominic was doing well.

“It is very frustrating; Dominic is more patient and polite. Not sure I would be,” he wrote, explaining that Dominic was polite, dignified, patient and never raised his voice.

Loneliness is ‘biggest struggle’

Though Dominic said he wasn’t himself without his family, and that loneliness was his “biggest struggle,” he kept his faith.

“One will try to do his own thing … when it’s God’s time, it will come to pass,” he said. “No matter what the devil does, if it’s God’s time, the right will be as it’s supposed to.”

The DNA testing proceeded, and in May, Fr. Zabler asked Dominic during a Sunday Mass if he had any good news to share with the congregation.

“He said, ‘According to the DNA test, I am the father of the child,’” Fr. Zabler said, laughing. “Welcome to the Maury Povich show.”

With this information, Fr. Zabler said Paulina’s visa could be issued at any time.

By November, the process appeared to be moving along, and in December, Fr. Zabler sent a reassuring email to Dominic explaining that the plane tickets for his wife and son were paid for and all they needed were the date and arrival time.

Hard work pays off

In January, the hard work paid off. Though Paulina and Henry were delayed three hours from the original 6:10 p.m. landing time Jan. 10, that was the last glitch until the family was reunited.

Our Lady of Good Hope celebrated with the family at the 10:30 a.m. Mass on the Feast of Our Lady of Hope Jan. 22, with a rite of welcome for Paulina and Henry, a blessing for the family and prayer that father and son would bond, renewal of the couple’s marriage vows, and a wedding reception in the form of a pot luck luncheon for about 80 people – complete with a wedding cake, bubbly and gifts.

Paulina was confused by the generosity.

“She kept saying, ‘Why are we getting gifts? Why are people being so good to us?’ So, it was kind of precious,” Fr. Zabler said.

Dominic, who is employed as a caregiver, thanked the parish and Fr. Zabler on behalf of his family in a message printed in the program.

“On behalf of my family, I wish to show my deepest appreciation for your special support financially, morally and spiritually towards my family’s immigration from Nigeria,” it said. “This generosity and kindness of yours will forever be remembered in my life. My prayer is always for all parishioners of Our Lady of Good Hope.”

Family is part of faith community

Fr. Zabler said parishioners are still assisting the family with gifts, but that the Boyis are doing well. Paulina, who now has her green card, is looking for work.

“People are continuously being generous,” Fr. Zabler said of the congregation. “We are trying really hard – we’re not out actually opening jobs for them, we’re giving them opportunities, so they are following leads for employment,” Fr. Zabler said of the Boyis who are always present at 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass and “very much a part of the faith community.”

“It’s been such a reward, and they made the whole Triduum together,” Fr. Zabler said. “It was very, very nice.”

The congregation’s involvement with the Boyi family was a way to highlight its growth in immigration, Fr. Zabler said, noting that a significant number of the approximately 800 households that comprise the congregation include immigrants from the Philippines, China, India, Brazil and Mexico, as well as Sri Lanka and Peru.

“Everybody here’s kind of praying that their family will expand,” Fr. Zabler said, “and so I think it was just a very concrete way of saying let’s do something positive about immigration.”