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The trials of Omar, Obama’s uncle

For almost 50 years, the president’s uncle has lived in relative obscurity. Now - facing possible deportation - he may wish for a less-famous name.

Onyango Obama, once known as Omar, faced a drunken driving charge in Framingham.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File 2011

Onyango Obama, once known as Omar, faced a drunken driving charge in Framingham.

Stephen “Hummer’’ Holmes, the soccer coach at the former Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, was standing on a wind-whipped field in 1963 when he met the most talented soccer player he would ever work with. A new student at school, that young man had loped on to the field barefoot and without shin guards, ready to play just as he did back home in Kenya.

His name was Omar Okech Obama.

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“He had been playing without shoes for so long that the bottoms of his feet were so deeply calloused they were like shoe leather. And his feet were so wide that he had to have special shoes constructed for him,’’ recalled Holmes. “But he never liked the shoes. He’d say, ‘Coach, I need to take the shoes off. Please, coach, I can’t feel the ball.’ ’’

Onyango Obama played soccer and joined the debate and newspaper clubs at the former Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Onyango Obama played soccer and joined the debate and newspaper clubs at the former Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge.

That same Obama is now more famously known as the uncle of President Obama. He is an enigmatic presidential relative who rocketed into the news in August when he was arrested on charges of drunken driving in Framingham, and told the booking officer, “I think I will call the White House.’’ As immigration officials consider whether to deport him, Obama, 67, finds his life in the United States the subject of intense curiosity not just by government officials and the media but among some family members and his old Cambridge classmates as well.

That spotlight has found him in the twilight of a meager life, nearly 50 years after he joined his older half-brother, Barack Obama Sr., the president’s late father, in Cambridge to seek an education. Notwithstanding the now-famous surname, his life here has mirrored that of countless others who have immigrated legally, but then simply stayed on, barely making do at the margins of American life.

Obama, who assumed his father’s name, Onyango, when he was a young man, seemed destined for much more. One of a hand-picked group of young Kenyans dispatched to the United States at the time their country achieved independence, Obama had the potential to be a key player in his country’s unfolding story. But when their homeland became riven by political infighting in the late 1960s and the great promise of independence appeared to founder, some Kenyans grew bitter. Like Obama, more than a few of those who left to further their education never returned home.

As the decades passed, Obama gradually lost contact with many of his childhood friends and family members. For the past twenty years, he has ignored a deportation order, living quietly under the radar until he allegedly ran a stop sign in front of a Framingham police officer. Obama, who works in a Framingham liquor store, now faces the possibility of an abrupt return to the country he left as a teenager, a place radically altered in most every respect. It is something he distinctly does not want.

A solemn figure as he strides into his court appearances, Obama never married or had children during the years he has been in the United States, according to his lawyer, P. Scott Bratton. He lives with a Kenyan family in Framingham near the liquor store where he has worked as a clerk for 10 years. Although he has a vast number of relatives living near Lake Victoria in western Kenya, many know nothing of him. He has never met his famous nephew, according to the White House.

In the spotlight

While the White House says it has taken no action in the matter, the elder Obama’s link to the president means that he has lost all hope of anonymity. Ironically, his prospects of remaining in the United States, of being given a second chance, might have been far greater if he did not have such a world-famous last name. While his case inches through the courts, talk show hosts and opinion makers periodically weigh in on his fate. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, for example, declared in a radio interview last month that Onyango Obama should be deported.

Onyango Obama walked with his lawyer, P. Scott Bratton (left) of Lowell, followed by reporters at a pretrial hearing in Framingham District Court in November.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File

Onyango Obama walked with his lawyer, P. Scott Bratton (left) of Lowell, followed by reporters at a pretrial hearing in Framingham District Court in November.

That’s not what happened to the last Obama relative found to be living in the country illegally. When the president’s aunt, Zeituni Onyango, was granted asylum in 2010 after she was found to have been living in the country illegally for several years, many objected that she had received preferential treatment due to her relationship to the president. Her lawyers, who are also representing Onyango Obama on immigration matters, will not discuss his case. It is conceivable that they could argue that the president’s uncle should be eligible for the same treatment as his aunt. But immigration experts believe that they are more likely to emphasize the unusually long duration of Onyango Obama’s stay in the United States.

Federal immigration law includes a little-used provision that allows immigrants who have been in the country continuously since before 1972 to be considered for permanent residence even if they are here illegally. But they must also be of “good moral character.’’ If Obama is convicted of the drunken driving charge and the two related driving offenses he is charged with, he could be disqualified due to character issues. But if he has not been convicted of any other criminal charges, immigration experts say authorities are more likely to take stock of the larger arc of his life in the United States in deciding whether he can remain. Bratton, of Lowell, said Obama does not have a criminal record.

“The question becomes, is he an upstanding citizen? Is he somebody who will not do harm in the US, someone you want to remain here,’’ said Crystal L. Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C. “It becomes a subjective inquiry.’’

A promising beginning

Some Obama family members, closely watching the progress of his court case in their local newspapers, say they would welcome their long-lost brother back. But they wonder if they would recognize him.

“When my brother left he was a young man with large hopes, but he has never come back,’’ his half-sister, Hawa Auma, said in Dholuo, the language of her Luo tribe, as she sold coal at the side of the road in the Kenyan village of Oyugis. “Even when his brother Barack died, he did not come back. His mother, Sarah, used to blame Barack for throwing Omar away to the whites. She has been mourning for him for years.’’

One of seven children born to the president’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango, Omar Obama arrived in the United States with the help of his half-brother Barack, who was working toward his doctorate in economics at Harvard University and paid $300 towards his traveling expenses. Omar was directed to Browne & Nichols, a prestigious private boys school, by Ellen Frost, a friend of the elder Barack’s whose father was the preparatory school’s treasurer.

Frost recalls the 19-year-old Omar on his arrival in Cambridge as, “a happy, bubbly outgoing boy. He loved to tell stories about lions and the wild animals of his youth. I don’t know if they were true, but the other boys were completely fascinated by him; he was so completely different from everyone else at the school.’’

The only African student at the school, Obama stood out in a number of other respects. Not only was he three years older than most of the boys in the sophomore class, his arch colonial accent immediately marked him as different. That he initially lived with his brother in a rented apartment in Cambridge, a place often churning with visiting Kenyan students, added to his exoticism. But within a few weeks the normally reserved Obama had made a large number of close friends, many of whom remember his sunny disposition nearly half a century later.

“Omar was great, friendly and very open,’’ recalled classmate Robert Krim, an assistant professor of management at Clark University in Worcester. “This was a time of civil rights and I was a white kid from Newton. So here comes Omar, black and African. I found this fellow completely exciting. It was as though he dropped in from somewhere completely different, which I guess he had.’’

Nonetheless, Obama seemed to fit right in. He joined the debate and newspaper clubs. He posed for class photographs of the Class of 1966 in his crisp white shirt and tweed blazer. And when the varsity soccer team headed to the field, with Obama as its lead striker, many on campus flocked to watch him.

“People were fascinated to see him play: students, faculty, everyone,’’ said Stephen Burgard, a classmate and now the director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University. “They would sort of divert on campus if they had a moment to go watch him handle the ball.’’

An unrecognizable Omar

By the time Obama was pulled over by the Framingham police, some members of the Class of 1966 had largely forgotten their old classmate. The Obama in the newspapers had a different first name, and the dour mug shot looked little like the amiable young man they once knew. But they soon realized it was indeed their Omar.

“We are still waiting. If my brother reutrns I would welcome him with love. I have missed him,” said Hawa Auma, who lives in Kenya.

Sally Jacobs/Globe Staff/File

“We are still waiting. If my brother returns I would welcome him with love. I have missed him,” said Hawa Auma, who lives in Kenya.

As e-mails flew among a group of his classmates keeping abreast of the matter, they debated whether to step forward to help their friend of years past. A couple of lawyers in the class expressed concern that Obama be provided good legal representation. Another lawyer in the group raised a flag of caution, pointing out that none of them had any idea what sort of life Obama had led or if he had any criminal involvement. In the end, classmate Ben Bradlee Jr., a former editor and reporter for The Boston Globe, spoke with Bratton.

“I was not offering help but just telling him that some of his former classmates were asking about Omar,’’ said Bradlee. “Bratton seemed interested and happy that people were inquiring and said he would pass the message along. And that was that.’’

Bratton said that Obama is considering talking with some of his classmates whom he remembers fondly. But for the moment, he is focused on matters in court and has been given permission to return to his job as a clerk at Conti Liquors. Obama has been granted a temporary stay of deportation, according to Bratton, and has a hearing before US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Bratton has said that he intends to challenge the legality of the traffic stop that resulted in Obama’s arrest on the drunken driving charge.

For Obama, the call from Bradlee must have triggered memories of a very different phase of his life. Despite his initial success at the Browne & Nichols School, Obama’s star did not shine long. His brother returned to Kenya in the summer of 1964, leaving Omar to be hosted by a Newton family. For reasons that are unclear, Obama withdrew from Browne & Nichols in the summer of 1965 and enrolled in what was then Newton High School, according to Beth Jacobson, director of alumni programs for the Buckingham, Browne & Nichols School. Obama stayed at the Newton school for barely a year. He left abruptly in 1966, apparently because his host family moved out of state, and did not graduate, according to a school spokesperson.

Times of struggle

Obama returned to Cambridge to live with Kenyan friends and remained there for many years. Then in his early 20s, he told others that he was enrolled in what was then Boston State College. Obama, like his older brother, was an acquaintance of the prominent Kenyan political leader Tom Mboya, a member of the Luo tribe like the Obamas. Mboya was an ardent advocate of education and the organizer of the famed airlifts of young Kenyans to the United States that had brought Obama to Boston, according to a list of the 1963 airlift participants in Mboya’s records at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.

In a 1968 letter to Mboya, Obama asked for help in finding a financial sponsor for his continued education. Referring to an earlier conversation between the two of them, Obama wrote, “I am just finishing my first year at Boston State College . . . I would really appreciate it if you can find or suggest a way possible for my next academic year sponsorship.’’

It is unclear whether Mboya, who was assassinated the following year, responded. But, according to the University of Massachusetts Boston, which merged with Boston State, there is no record that Obama graduated.

Obama moved to another Cambridge building occupied by Kenyan friends in the early 1970s, but his path during the decade is unclear. By the late 1980s, he began to encounter multiple problems, most of them financial. In 1987 and 1988, “Omar H. Obama’’ failed to pay the IRS $3,876, according to a lien filed at the Registry of Deeds for Southern Middlesex County. The agency later filed another lien against Obama, identified as Obama O. Onyango, saying he failed to pay $971 in taxes for 1990. The court has no record that Obama paid either debt.

At the same time, immigration officials were also looking askance at Obama. In 1989, an immigration judge ordered Obama to leave the country voluntarily. It is unclear if the judge issued the order in response to Obama’s tax debts or for some other reason. Obama appealed the order to the Board of Immigration Appeals but lost and was ordered deported in 1992.

He never left.

As the years passed, Obama’s contact with family members back home began to diminish. Hawa Auma said her brother wrote to her regularly after he left Kenya and sometimes sent her money after he got out of school. Auma keeps the e-mail address of the family her brother lives with on a tiny piece of folded paper, but she said she has not heard from him in more than a year.

Once, in the early 1990s, Obama’s mother, Sarah Ogwel, traveled to the United States and tried to get her son to return to Kenya with her.

“Omar told her to go back home,’’ said Auma. “He lied to his mum that he would follow her after two weeks but of course he did not come. We waited and waited for Omar’s return. And we are still waiting. If my brother returns I would welcome him with love. I have missed him.’’

Keeping Mass. as home

By the early 1990s, Obama Onyango had became the treasurer of a small convenience store in Dorchester called The Wells Market, according to state corporations records. Despite his immigration problems, Obama often worked there as a clerk and in 1994 he was attacked during an armed robbery. According to a police report, two masked males wearing black hoodies and armed with a sawed-off rifle assaulted Obama and robbed the store before taking off on foot. Obama, then 50, was treated for a head wound at the hospital and released.

In the same year as the assault, Obama got a new landlady when Gail Greenberger bought the four-story Roslindale building where he rented an apartment. In an interview with the British Times Online, Greenberger said she remembered Obama as “being decent but then I think he lost his job.’’ When Obama failed to pay his rent, Greenberger attempted to evict him and ultimately filed for unpaid rent of $2,200 in Boston Housing Court in 1999. Obama fled from the apartment, and when he did not appear in court a judge ordered him to pay the outstanding sum.

At some point, Obama moved into a small house in Framingham with another Kenyan family. For the past decade he has quietly worked the afternoon shift at the Conti liquor store on busy Route 126 six days a week, according to his lawyer. Even as the name Obama became internationally known in recent years, no one in the small store ever linked the weathered clerk with the man at the helm of world power. When reporters flocked to the store after Obama’s arrest, staffers there were shocked.

“We call him Obama,’’ said one clerk who asked not to be identified. “But we didn’t know that this Obama was related to that Obama.’’

This Obama is staying quiet for now. He declines to speak with the reporters who trail him when he shows up in court. And his lawyers have refused all requests for interviews. But every now and then he calls his old friend in Nairobi, Moses Wasonga, with whom he shared an apartment in Cambridge in the late 1960s, to discuss the situation.

Wasonga, who arrived in the United States a year before Obama, has closely monitored developments in Obama’s case in the Kenyan newspapers. He would like nothing more than to have his old friend back in Nairobi. But, like some Obama family members, Wasonga wonders what sort of life he would have as an old man returning to the country of his childhood.

“What does he have here?’’ asked Wasonga, a retired computer programmer. “He has few friends and only his old mother here. Why after 48 years in America does someone decide you must suddenly leave? It makes no sense.’’

Beatrice Akoth, from Kisumu, Kenya, contributed to this report. Sally Jacobs can be reached at jacobs@globe.com.
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