Photo of Frederick Uku by Darrow Montgomery
Photo of Frederick Uku by Darrow Montgomery

In the early 2000s, Frederick Uku found himself in D.C. on an expired student visa with no degree. He calls the decade he was undocumented in the U.S. the “Dark Years,” and points to one of his most desperate attempts to support himself financially—donating his bone marrow for $250. Uku had the procedure done in Rockville. “I was sitting in a wheelchair in the most excruciating pain until I could walk to the bus and the Metro,” he says. “I did that all by myself.” 

He likens the “Dark Years” to the experience of the protagonist in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The story chronicles the life of a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu who immigrated to the U.S. to go to college. 

“I cried when I read that book because I remember some of the demeaning, soul-crushing shit I had to do to survive,” Uku says. “The thing that kept me going was knowing if I quit and went home that’s ball game. I would go home with nothing to show for it—just a broken kid moving home to be with his parents.” 

Uku currently works at The Red Hen in Bloomingdale. On most nights, the stools that crowd the bar he mans are taken by 5:30 p.m. He’s the gregarious, hospitable bartender everyone’s there to see. And now he has an immigrant story of hardship and resilience that culminates in triumph: Uku became a naturalized U.S. citizen on Dec. 11, 2018. 

Like Ifemelu in Americanah, Uku came to the U.S. in 1998 to attend Howard University. The Lagos, Nigeria, native was only 16. While most Americans are attempting to grasp precalculus at that age, Uku was ready to enroll in college. “Nigerians are chronic over-achievers,” he explains.

Uku so yearned to come to the U.S. that he didn’t sit for the Nigerian national college entrance exam. Instead, he struck a deal with his parents. They would pay for his first year of tuition at Howard, but after that it was on Uku to land a full scholarship. “A younger version of myself and a younger version of my parents thought that sending a 16-year-old to a foreign country to start university with no real financial of familial support was a good idea. It wasn’t.” 

After his first year, Uku says, he successfully landed a scholarship to continue pursuing a degree in electrical engineering, but that scholarship wasn’t active long. Uku says he was among a group of international students who lost their financial aid. He believes the program was in danger of losing its accreditation and needed to make cuts. (A Howard University representative tells City Paper that they cannot confirm any details related to student scholarships due to Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act guidelines.)

At this point Uku was a junior and needed to pay his way to graduation. But when you’re a student on an F-1 Visa, there are rules governing where you can work. Off-campus employment was off limits, and he was only allowed to work certain on-campus gigs that paid as little as $9 an hour.

“There aren’t enough hours in the week to pay tuition,” he says. “But I tried anyway. I did that for as long as I could stand it.” He needed help, but his parents were thousands of miles away and had fulfilled their financial obligation. “I’d like to think that would break anyone … It definitely broke me.” 

Hopelessness and loneliness begot depression and even a suicide attempt. Uku did not finish school. His F-1 Visa expired on Dec. 31, 2003. The date is as permanent in Uku’s mind as a tattoo would be on his body. 

Those who remain in the U.S. on expired visas are known as “overstays,” and are considered “out of status.” Consequences of being discovered in the early 2000s included forced departure from the U.S. and barred reentry for three years.

When overstays seek employment, they become vulnerable, as many businesses utilize E-Verify. The website operated by the Department of Homeland Security tells employers whether an applicant is eligible for employment based on immigration status, positioning them to avoid penalties for hiring unauthorized workers. 

“You have three choices,” Uku says. “You find a way to get back into school. You go back to whatever country you’re from. Or you go underground. I chose door number three.” He gambled on the riskiest path because “job prospects for college dropouts in Nigeria aren’t the best … If I stayed here, I’d at least have a fighting chance at something.” 

Uku worked where he could. He tried to become a taxi driver; manned the door at night clubs; participated in paid clinical trials; and managed the books for a financial planner in Landover. He slept on friends’ couches at first, but eventually found a room in a group house on Capitol Hill. Uku lived with two men, both of whom are now deceased.

While one roommate, Chris Babor, was still alive, he introduced Uku to the industry that would save him. “He was like, ‘Let me teach you, train you on how to wait tables. It’s a much better way of earning money and if you find the right restaurant, the owner will look the other way.’” The pair worked at La Brasserie on Capitol Hill. “Chris gave me a skill set that I’ve now traded off of for 15 years.” 

La Brasserie closed in 2005. Uku’s next big break was at Left Bank in Adams Morgan, which is also closed. “That’s where I figured out that I’m good at this,” he says. “My strength is talking to people and figuring out some small way to make their day much better. If someone comes in and sits at your table or your bar, for a split second you get to parachute into their world.” 

“He makes [bartending] personable and really tries to connect with his customers,” says Peyton Sherwood, who co-owns The Midlands Beer Garden and first met Uku in 2004. The men are close friends. 

The hospitality industry started as a means to an end for Uku, but became his calling. “I love this business,” he says. “When I needed it the most, when I needed to survive, this industry and only this industry gave me an opportunity to have a life.” 

But while Uku was at Left Bank finding his professional footing, he faced another setback. In October 2004, Uku’s father visited him in D.C. “I knew the first time I saw him, I knew he was sick,” Uku says. They spent time together and then on an emotional bus ride to the airport, it became obvious Uku’s father intended the visit to be a farewell. “He said things on that bus ride that he never said before—telling me how he met my mom,” Uku says. He escorted his father to the escalator leading to departures. “I thought he’d turn around and wave, but he didn’t.”

Uku was between a double shift at Left Bank on Dec. 4, 2004 when he got the call that his father had died. “I was the only member of my family who wasn’t there,” he says. “When you go rogue there are certain things you can’t do. You can’t leave the country and come back, so I missed my father’s funeral. My sister got married and I couldn’t go to her wedding. I missed my kid brother’s entire adolescence. I couldn’t vote for Barack Obama the first or second time.”

Uku remained “Out of Status” from 2003 to 2013. “That’s 10 years of being scared. Of living in the shadows,” he says. “Any undocumented person in this industry will tell you that you learn to live very carefully.” 

Because Uku married in 2012, he was eligible to apply for a temporary green card that lasts two years, followed by a permanent green card, which is valid for 10 years. Even though Uku and his wife divorced, his permanent resident status positioned him to apply for citizenship.

“My time to apply for naturalization coincided with Donald Trump being elected,” Uku recalls. “My immigration lawyer called me and said, ‘Apply for your citizenship right now.’ He predicted that the number of people applying for naturalization was going to skyrocket, which it did.” 

The Post reported a sharp spike in the number of permanent residents applying for naturalization in August 2018, noting a resulting “growing backlog of citizenship applications at a time when Trump’s immigration crackdown has made even permanent residents feel like they may be at risk.” According to U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, as of March 2018 there were 20,485 pending applications in Maryland, 16,564 in D.C., and 4,762 in Virginia. 

Uku completed the application process, which involved paperwork, fingerprinting, an exam, and an interview. USCIS publishes about 100 questions in advance for applicants to study. “Some of them are harder than others,” he says. When his examiner asked, “Who writes the laws in this country?” Uku says it “took every fiber in me not to answer, ‘Lobbyists on K Street.’” 

He passed the exam and was assigned a ceremony date of Dec. 11, 2018. Uku was among more than 100 people who became citizens that day at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He hedges that the U.S. currently has its challenges, but calls his new country the only place where his story is possible. “That’s what naturalization means to me,” he says.

Several friends were in the courtroom, including Sherwood and Uku’s partner Andrea Tateosian, who heads the DC Craft Bartenders Guild. “It was great seeing him stand up and have his name called out,” Sherwood recalls. “I’ve watched him go through trial and tribulation with this country. It wasn’t easy for him. It wasn’t an easy thing for him to do.” 

Tateosian adds, “It’s been incredible to watch it come to the correct conclusion.” When she first heard her boyfriend’s story, she says it sounded like a movie plot. “The ceremony had special significance to me because about 33 years ago, my father was sitting in the same place when my mother got naturalized.” 

She admires Uku’s lovable candor and talent behind the bar, but notes that he’s not a “startender” looking for a squeeze of the limelight. “He makes eye contact with the people he’s meeting, smiling, offering a good handshake,” Tateosian says. “All these little things that people take for granted.” Though he wore a flashy American flag onesie to his citizenship party at The Crown & Crow, Tateosian says he’s never sought the public eye. 

After all, he couldn’t be the face of anything for 10 years. “I used to resent what I called ‘doers,’” Uku explains. “People who would be in newspaper articles, start bar programs, or create things, because I couldn’t be one of those people. I spent 10 years doing a fairly visible job in the shadows.” Now Uku is timidly reaching for his dreams. “I’ve had to relearn that I can do things. I can build things. I can create things.”