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Nigerian Rebuilds Life After Blindness, Burns

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Advisory: This segment contains language that may not be suitable for all audiences.

Tell Me More is continuing its series "In Limbo," which takes a deep look at the complicated experiences of immigrants caught between being in the United States legally and illegally.

In this installment: What is it like to be in limbo mainly because of medical issues?

Chinonye Omeje (also known as Chi Chi) lived in Nigeria where she was barred from school because of epilepsy. She suffered an epileptic seizure when she was 14 years old while stirring a pot of scalding hot soup over a flame. She fell into the pot, and thus her eyes were blinded and her nose, lips, right ear and eyelids were severely burned. She barely survived.

Everyone from doctors to volunteers helped her travel from Nigeria to America where she would be treated at some of the most advanced hospitals.

Omeje, now at age 22, has not undergone reconstructive surgery, but she has had several treatments to restore her facial skin and eyesight. However, later she lost her recovered eyesight due to an infection.

She has been living in the United States for the past six years with her mother, Helen, and they have not seen any members of their large family.

"I have three grandchildren that I haven't seen. My husband was sick. My children were taking care of him. My first daughter's husband passed away. It was my daughter with her five children," Helen Omeje told Tell Me More host Michel Martin. "I haven't gone home. All this was so hard for me. When I look back to that stage I feel down and weeping. Then Chi Chi encouraged me that it's okay."

Omeje was granted "deferred action status," which allows her to stay in America until September 2012 to get surgical treatment for her burns — procedures she cannot get in Nigeria. Depending on her physical needs after that, the law firm that has been representing her pro bono, Mintz and Levin, may file for a status extension.

Immigration services will not allow them to return to the U.S. once they leave.

Some people may question the justification of allowing those like Omeje to stay in the United States on grounds that her stay consumes this nation's medical, legal and educational resources.

But Lynne Eisenberg, Omeje's clinical social worker at the Perkins School for the Blind, sees it differently: "We're not going to save every person in the world, but we do have abilities and advantages in this country that I think need to be shared with people who need it. And if we want to look historically, our advantages are based on wealth; and our wealth, we could say, was based on taking advantage of other countries."

The Perkins School for the Blind helps Omeje gain the education she was never able to receive in Nigeria.

Omeje says she would like to stay in America, but be able to also visit her family in Nigeria. She says she wants to become a nurse so she can help others as they have helped her.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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