“Don’t ever let anyone place limitations on your life,” said Martine Kalaw ’03 as she opened her discussion, Kindness: Community Through Inclusion, on Sept. 20. She shared her story about how the kindness of strangers uplifted her when she was most vulnerable, such as after her parents passed away or when she needed funding for her education.
During her time at Hamilton, Kalaw was an active member of the community as a member of the Hamiltones, McNair Fellow, and residential advisor, but she harbored a secret of which only a few faculty members and peers were aware. Kalaw was undocumented and endured a seven-year-long legal battle against deportation proceedings which began during her junior year at Hamilton.
Opportunity Programs Director Phyllis Breland described her experiences working with Kalaw while she was a student. “It is really critical and important that when you don’t have a home, you have a home,” said Breland. Kalaw, who had immigrated to America from central Africa at age four, was stateless, undocumented, and orphaned at 15. Her only form of identification was her Hamilton College I.D. card.
“We can save a life, or destroy a life, just by how we judge people,” said Kalaw. “My first act of kindness arrived when a stranger realized that the situation I was in was unhealthy and dangerous.” This stranger connected teenaged Kalaw with an organization that helps children of color get into preparatory boarding schools, which allowed her to escape her abusive guardians. A second act of kindness from an anonymous stranger who was touched by Kalaw’s story allowed her to receive the necessary tuition funding after being accepted to St. Anne's-Belfield School.
After graduating from St Anne’s-Belfield, the issue of Kalaw’s citizenship status interfered with her college application process. Despite these complications, Hamilton College accepted Kalaw based on her high academic potential. She described her time at Hamilton as “humbling,” and recounted the wonderful experiences she had during her Semester in New York City and Adirondack Adventure trips.
However, she also remembered the tumultuous legal battle with deportation proceedings that began in the middle of her junior year after attempting to get a working Social Security card. Kalaw’s fight for her citizenship lasted from 2002 until 2009 when the Board of Immigration Appeals mandated that her deportation order be overturned. She became a U.S. citizen in 2012. This journey took eight appeals to higher courts and nine court hearings in total.
Kalaw described her legal battle as traumatic for multiple reasons. She did not know where she could go if she were to be deported as she had no parents and no legal status in any country. To make matters worse, both her pro bono lawyer and the judge who oversaw her case treated her cruelly.
Kalaw’s lawyer, who she described as “impatient,” did not view her case as a priority and called her “a head case” when she acted emotionally distressed. The judge expressed malice toward Kalaw, believing that she was “making a mockery of the courtroom.” The unkind judgments of these strangers made a lasting impact on her.
“That’s why this conversation today is about kindness and belonging. We can save or destroy someone with our unconscious biases and actions. So, how do welcome others into our communities and including others in our communities?” asked Kalaw.
Kalaw now mentors undocumented immigrants as a way of giving back the kindness that she received during these traumatic periods in her life. She is a published author and entrepreneur with her own consulting business in New York City.
Martine Kalaw’s entire story will be published in her new book, Illegal Among Us: A Stateless Woman’s Quest for Citizenship. It is available for pre-order at her website.
Kalaw was interviewed by Utica's WIBX radio station by host Bill Keeler.