When Tochukwu Ibe-Ekeocha was applying to the University of Maryland in October 2015, he realized he didn’t know his Social Security number.
Ibe-Ekeocha, then a senior in high school, asked his uncle, whom he’d been living with since immigrating from Nigeria to America at 12. But instead of giving him a number, his uncle told him life-changing news: Ibe-Ekeocha was undocumented.
“It was just a range of emotions — me feeling like I couldn’t achieve my goals and my dreams in life,” Ibe-Ekeocha said. “At that point I didn’t know too much about being undocumented. I didn’t realize it would prevent me from going to college.”
Now, Ibe-Ekeocha is facing a December deportation hearing. He’s raised more than $3,800 on GoFundMe to pay his legal fees.
[Read more: ‘UNDOCUMENTED AND UNAFRAID’]
Ibe-Ekeocha and his brother are attempting to receive special immigrant juvenile status, which would allow them to work and stay in the country.
After Ibe-Ekeocha’s fundraiser, which was launched on Nov. 18, passed his original goal of $3,500 in two days, he began directing people to donate to the Terp DREAM Scholarship fund. The fund was established in September 2015 to support undocumented students.
“I was surprised in how fast we were able to gather the amount of money needed,” said Ibe-Ekeocha Jr., Ibe-Ekeocha’s younger brother. “I just hope we’re able to build a life and, as anyone else, become successful.”
After completing his first year at this university, Ibe-Ekeocha could not afford to return because undocumented students are not eligible for federal aid. He hopes to return to the campus next semester and gain admission to the engineering school.
“I don’t qualify for financial aid, I can’t take out loans. I can’t even get a damn job,” Ibe-Ekeocha said. “The thing I want the most is not to receive help from people, but to have that choice, that power, of going out there and doing things for yourself.”
Ibe-Ekeocha immigrated from Nigeria in 2010. Because he and his younger brother did not reside in the U.S. since June 15, 2007, they are not eligible for DACA status.
He believed his family was visiting America on vacation, but his father returned to their home country a few weeks after arriving, he said. His mother returned a month after and eventually left her two youngest sons to live with their uncle and enroll in Maryland schools.
Ibe-Ekeocha said his parents feared that Boko Haram, an Islamist militant organization based in Nigeria, would target his family because they were Igbo Christians.
After he was left with his uncle, he was unable to contact his parents. Later, he would learn that both had been kidnapped, he said.
“My father first was kidnapped,” Ibe-Ekeocha said. “And then my mother the year after that … I was angry for a long time, I was really angry. I asked [my uncle], ‘How could you keep this from me? What’s going on?'”
Although Ibe-Ekeocha has not seen his parents in about six years, he found out this year that they were returned from their captors in Nigeria.
“It was either you find some way to move on, or you just end it all,” Ibe-Ekeocha said. “So I had to find a way to keep going, to keep living and keep trying.”
Ibe-Ekeocha, who said he’s dealt with the emotional and financial toll of being an undocumented student since coming to college, added that he never wanted to share his problems with others and was reluctant to share the GoFundMe page. He was encouraged by Karla Casique, a senior journalism major, who used YouCaring, another crowdfunding website, to resolve about $5,000 debt with this university during summer 2016.
“The difference between now and then is this deadline of December 19,” Ibe-Ekeocha said. “That deadline being present, and the fact that it’s not just me on the line here, it’s my little brother too. I weighed my pride versus this stuff that has to be done. So I just went ahead and shared it.”
Laura M. Bohórquez Garcia, this university’s undocumented student coordinator, said she noticed how strong Ibe-Ekeocha’s support network was as old friends reached out to him. She hopes other students reach out to her office, she added.
“This is not just a tagline in the media,” Bohórquez Garcia said. “This is someone’s whole life. I hope other undocumented students take away the courage that it takes to ask for help.”