Kenyan Family thankful for new home and new life in Lowell MA

LOWELL — In 2009, James Gicheha set out on a journey to bring his family from an uncertain future in Kenya to one of hope and opportunity in America.

In his hometown of Nyahururu in Central Kenya, Gicheha, 40, was a professional musician, skilled at singing and playing the drums. He played live shows and worked in a recording studio to support his wife and three children.

But the late nights at the studio posed a danger to Gicheha and his family. If he stayed at work past 10 p.m., he couldn’t be sure he’d make it home alive — and if he did, he may not come home with all of his earnings.

A gang, called the Mungiki, would extort money from people by demanding “taxes,” Gicheha said.

Carol Gitau, 15, plays with her brother, Michael, 19 months, at their new home in Lowell on Monday.

They often become violent, kidnapping and forcing people to join them or be killed, he said, among other brutal acts. (Today, terrorist groups such as al-Shabab are an even greater danger.)

While there is a good education system in Kenya, Gicheha said, there are no jobs for young people. His eldest son, Dancan Gitau, 17, wants to be a mechanical engineer. His daughters, Carol Gitau, 15, and Esther Gitau, 12, both want to be doctors. There are few prospects in Kenya for them to realize these dreams, he said.

“You cannot compare there and here (the U.S.),” Gicheha said. “If you are willing to go to school and work, there is an opportunity for many things. You can become anything you want here.”

With this in mind, Gicheha set out for the US. When he arrived in Lowell in October 2009, he relied on his Christian faith to guide him. Local church groups helped him get settled, and he went about finding a job.

Getting established in the U.S. was not easy, but Gicheha found support from the local Kenyan immigrant community. He missed his family dearly, and they missed him. They called each other often and Gicheha did his best to support them from afar, but he had difficulty finding a job at first.

James Gicheha sits with his son, Michael Gitau, 19, Monday in their Lowell home Monday afternoon. “If you are willing to go to school and work, there is an opportunity for many things. You can become anything you want here.” SUN/JOHN LOVE

“Still,” Gicheha recalled, he kept praying “and telling God, ‘I know and I believe and I trust in You that one day You’re going to open the way and a door for me to see my family.'”

That door began to open in January 2011, when Gicheha secured full-time employment as a direct-care staff member at LifeLinks Inc., a Chelmsford-based nonprofit agency that provides services for people with developmental disabilities.

In December 2011, his family was finally able to join him in Massachusetts. They were so happy to see each other.

“When we were coming here, we were so excited about that,” said Gicheha’s wife, Irene Kamau, 39.

The bitter cold weather they were greeted with was difficult for Kamau to get used to, she recalled.

Esther Gitau, 12, cuts up a tomato as she helps her mother make dinner on Monday afternoon in their Lowell home.

The children adjusted more easily.

Kamau, a professional gospel singer in Kenya, also entered the human-service field in the U.S. She became a certified nursing assistant, but injured her shoulder while lifting a client. Today, she’s a stay-at-home mom to their 19-month-old son Michael, born here, but she hopes to one day go back to school to become a nurse. She urges her children to keep up on their studies, be respectful to their teachers and to be careful about the company they keep.

“I know they are going to be what they want to be in life,” Kamau said.

The musical family is active in Grace International Church, where they perform gospel music in their native language of Kikuyu every week. Gicheha, Kamau and their daughters all sing.

Esther Gitau, 12, helps her mother, Irene Gicheha, clean the kitchen on Monday afternoon. SUN/JOHN LOVE

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Carol plays guitar, Esther plays keyboard and Dancan plays drums. Little Michael is turning into a budding drummer as well.

Gicheha said he loves his job at LifeLinks, where he remains employed. He also participates in the agency’s Shared Living Program, providing care for a 52-year-old nonverbal man named Paul, who has lived with the family full time for the past two years.

Paul’s story is very sad, Gicheha said. His mother died, leaving him alone, he said.

“We are his family now,” Gicheha said.

The family rented apartments in Lowell and Dracut before deciding earlier this year to buy a home in Lowell.

In the spring, Gicheha took part in a new homebuyer class through the Merrimack Valley Housing Partnership. He closed on the family’s Lincoln Street home on June 30 and they moved in the first week of July. Gicheha and Kamau are happy to have their own space and privacy — especially with rambunctious Michael running all over the place, Kamau said with a laugh.

They’re also excited to celebrate their first Thanksgiving in their own home. As of Monday, they hadn’t planned a menu, but Gicheha said he’d leave it up to his family.

“Anything they want, we can cook,” he said.

Kamau said that in previous years, they had always gone over to friends’ homes for a holiday meal. This year, they’re happy to host the celebration.

Much to be thankful and joyful for

And they have much to be thankful and joyful for.

Gicheha said he’s thankful God has enabled him to take care of his family.

“I don’t have to worry now, because I know that I’m holding my kids and I’m helping them,” he said. “And I know that where I’m raising my kids, I’m raising them in a land of opportunity and now they can achieve their goals.


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