Kenyan Activist Gains Political Asylum in U.S.
On the outside, Oliver Mashaka does not appear very different from his peers at Stony Brook University. He wears red SBU sweatpants to class, plays on the frisbee team and loves eating at Jasmine. But all it takes is one conversation with him to realize that this political activist and philanthropist has experienced things that most SBU students cannot relate to.
Although this is his first semester at SBU, Mashaka has been making a difference in his home country, Kenya, and in the United States for many years. After leaving Kenya in 2007 due to safety concerns, he is now continuing his altruistic lifestyle on Long Island.
Whether it is through talking about his journey with students at local high schools or risking his life by participating in an organization in Kenya to increase voter participation, Mashaka is and always has been doing things for others.
“Every human being has a purpose in life,” he said, “and mine, I think, is to help people. If I am not being of service to people, I will be miserable.”
Mashaka was born in Kenya on Feb. 17, 1982, at a chaotic time in the country’s history, when the air force was attempting to overthrow the Kenyan government. His mother went into labor after the 6 p.m. curfew that was being enforced at the time. His father then had to convince authorities to allow them to leave their house to go the hospital. For this reason his parents gave him the name Mashaka, which means ‘trouble’ in Swahili, one of the official languages of Kenya.
Mashaka, the youngest of four children, said that he had to constantly explain the story behind his name as he was growing up. This, in addition to the political involvement of some of his relatives, ensured that he would never be ignorant to the political atmosphere of his country.
After high school, Mashaka started working with the Red Cross. Through this job, he was given the opportunity to come to Long Island for six months in 2007 to work at a retreat center in Wading River, N.Y.
When Mashaka returned to Kenya in 2007, the country was undergoing a political transition. Mashaka became involved with a group called Biafra Youth, a group that would go door to door to talk with people and encourage them to vote, especially if they were not happy with their leaders and wanted to change them.
The increase in voter education and the promoting of what Mashaka described as “young, uncorrupted politicians” by the group accomplished a lot for the country when new leaders took seats in parliament. However, despite opinion polls predicting a different outcome, on Dec. 30, 2007, the incumbent leader of Kenya, President Mwai Kibaki, claimed that he had won a second term in office and refused to step down.
Mashaka did not have much time to dwell on his disappointment. The next day, while waiting to celebrate the New Year with his family, “goons” from the Mungiki, a political-religious criminal organization that is outlawed in Kenya, came to his house with torches and machetes. Mashaka said that they were there because of his role in Biafra Youth and that they threatened to burn his house down if he did not come outside.
“Thankfully there was a helicopter flying over that scared them away,” Mashaka said. “But I didn’t go to sleep the entire night, I stayed awake, scared, but they did not come back.”
The next day Mashaka went to his job at the Red Cross headquarters and continued to work with the organization, traveling throughout Kenya until he left for the United States and started the application process for political asylum, which was granted in December 2011.
After a year of presenting his case to the Department of Homeland Security, explaining his story and why he was afraid for his life if he returned to Kenya, Mashaka was granted political asylum. During this time, he became just as involved in the United States as he was in Kenya.
Mashaka joined the Council for Prejudice Reduction, a program to help stop bullying. Through this and the people he met during his first trip to the U.S. in 2006, he made connections with people that invited him to speak at conferences and even the United Nations. After that, he was invited to speak at different schools on Long Island for Hope Children’s Fund, an organization aimed at supporting the future of the children of Kenya, by teaching students about the state of education in Africa and encouraging them to donate books to the cause.
“There are places [in Kenya] where kids have only one book for their entire class or don’t even have a classroom and I think the best way to help people is to educate them,” Mashaka said. “Books and education are key to help improving the lives of people.”
Larry Hohler, president of Hope Children’s Fund, said that “[Oliver] has proven to be an energetic and effective spokesman for his people, and is a good friend of Hope Children’s Fund.”
This past summer, Mashaka worked at a law firm in Hauppauge, N.Y., for attorney Charles Russo and volunteered with Russo at Hope House Ministries, a charity organization.
“My experience with Oliver was phenomenal. He is a very hardworking and industrious man. He is a remarkable human being and I know he will go far in life.” Russo said.
Through some of his work on Long Island, Mashaka learned about SBU and felt as though it would be a good stepping stone for his future and would assist him in obtaining his goal of serving others. He is currently a sophomore majoring in political science and sociology. Although he wants to go to law school one day, he says that he does not focus very much on the future.
“I aspire to be the best human being I can be. I aspire to be the best brother, son, friend, helper, that I can be,” Mashaka said. “But really, I just do my best every moment. I live my life for every moment.”