Pursuing the American Dream: A physician’s incredible journey from Kenya to Fort Wayne

This story is made possible by Parkview Health.
When Dr. Alexander O. Ondari recently shared a bit of his life’s story, one sentence stood out above the rest: 

“There’s a hidden cost we pay as immigrants for the American dream.”

The cost can’t be measured in dollars and cents. The cost, for him at least, was a tumultuous journey of more than 20 years that can never be quantified.

Today, Dr. Ondari says he is proud to be a doctor with Parkview Physicians Group – Family Medicine in Fort Wayne, as well as a U.S. citizen. But his path to achieving both of those dreams was anything but easy. 

His journey started in 2002, when he first moved to the United States from Webuye, Kenya. He received his bachelor’s degree from Texas Southern University, a public, historically Black university in Houston, Texas, which he refers to as his “American home.” While there, he worked at Houston Methodist Hospital, solidifying his interest in becoming a doctor. 
Dr. Alexander O. Ondari
Dr. Ondari went on to attend the Indiana University School of Medicine. While in medical school, he lost his father, who passed away due to a tragic car accident in Kenya. As the oldest of four children, Dr. Ondari felt compelled to help his family and offered to care for his sister, Annabelle, who moved to Indianapolis to live with him.  

This was when he first saw the compassion of his fellow medical school students. 

“The girls in my class would take her shopping, or help out with anything she needed,” he says. “In Kenya, we would call it ‘Ubuntu,’ which is another word for community.”

Unfortunately, because his family and financial situation had changed, Dr. Ondari no longer had someone to co-sign his student loans. He thought he would have to drop out after just one year of medical school. Classmates caught wind of the situation and formed a small committee to help.  

“They sent an email on Saturday, and by Wednesday, they had raised $65,000,” he says. 

It was enough to get him through the next year. Most of the money came from fellow medical students – all with their own student loans and expenses to worry about. Classmates also connected Dr. Ondari with a group of practicing physicians who offered to co-sign his loans for the rest of medical school. 

One of those classmates was Dr. Matt Pfister, who today is a physician with Parkview Physicians Group – Weight Management and Bariatric Surgery in Fort Wayne. Dr. Pfister helped introduce Dr. Ondari to Dr. John “Andy” Isch Jr. and Dr. Rod Bucher, who ended up co-signing Dr. Ondari’s student loans with three other physicians – Dr. John Isch Sr., Dr. Steve Smith, and Dr. Kent Erb. 

“Rather than say, completing a medical mission in Kenya, they decided to sponsor me right here,” he says. “And I will be forever grateful.” 

After medical school, most physicians go directly to a residency program. As an immigrant, Dr. Ondari faced additional challenges. 

“Programs tend to select U.S. citizens because they won’t have to deal with the visa requirements,” Dr. Ondari says. While he waited to match with a program, he started a post-doctoral fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.  

Ultimately, he knew that U.S. citizenship would be the key to finishing his training as a physician. That’s when he discovered the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, program. MAVNI recruited non-U.S. citizens with critical training, such as physicians, nurses and translators. As a benefit, individuals in the program could immediately apply for citizenship. 

Because he didn’t have a medical license yet, Dr. Ondari couldn’t join MAVNI as a doctor. However, he is fluent in Swahili, which qualified him to serve as a translator.

“It was basically an express pass to becoming a U.S. citizen,” Dr. Ondari explains. 

Or at least that’s what he thought when he signed up in 2016. With his citizenship pending, he was accepted into a family medicine residency program at the University of Texas – Galveston. 

Dr. Ondari thought he finally had the Golden Ticket. However, the MAVNI program was suddenly suspended, leaving him and hundreds of other immigrants caught in the middle of an intense political and legal battle. 

While awaiting the outcome, Dr. Ondari started his residency. Two weeks in, Hurricane Harvey hit the Galveston area. Living just two blocks from the ocean, his home was flooded, and he lost all his belongings.

But he says he never lost hope. 

In the summer of 2019, a judge ruled that individuals who had enrolled in the MAVNI program must be offered citizenship, per the contract they signed. However, the government continued to delay the process for Dr. Ondari and others.

Suddenly, even though he had a work visa and pending citizenship, Dr. Ondari was deported.

It happened after a vacation to Italy for a friend’s wedding. Following his flight home, he was stopped in the Dallas airport and subjected to an eight-hour interrogation, then put in handcuffs and taken to jail. His visa was revoked, and he was deported back to Kenya and banned from the United States for five years. 

Dr. Alexander O. OndariLater, he learned that several other immigrants in the MAVNI program had experienced similar circumstances in an effort to deter them from citizenship. 

“It takes an act of Congress to reverse a deportation,” Dr. Ondari says. 

Thankfully, he got one, metaphorically speaking. 

To get back to the United States, he sought out powerful lawyers and legislators. Friends also created a petition that went viral, and his case started to gain media attention. 

After four months, Dr. Ondari was granted his visa to come home and complete his journey.

“The U.S. is my home,” he says. “I’ve been here since I was 19, and poured my blood and sweat into my dreams. I wanted to serve my country, and this was my path.” 

On Feb. 7, 2020, Dr. Ondari finally took his oath and became a U.S. citizen. An avid traveler, he was even more excited three weeks later when he received his U.S. passport. 

“This is what I’ve been fighting for 20 years,” he says. “Still to this day, I travel to test and make sure my passport is working.”

Though he is often subject to additional screenings and scrutiny, he won’t be stopping any time soon.  

“Travel is my hobby, it’s what I enjoy,” he says, noting that he has visited more than 40 countries in his 40 years. “I want to demystify that for other immigrants and people of color who are afraid of being racially profiled. If this is your thing, you can still enjoy it.” 

After completing his residency, Dr. Ondari once again saw support from med school classmate Dr. Pfister, who suggested that Dr. Ondari visit him in Fort Wayne. The rest, as they say, is history, and Dr. Ondari moved to Fort Wayne in March of 2021. 

In July of 2022, he chose to continue his military career as well and re-enlisted as a major in the U.S. Army Reserves Medical Corps. 

“That’s been my life,” he says. “You pick up, you leave what you’ve built behind. You get somewhere and start a new community.  Wherever I pick up and go, I create family there. What do we need as humans? We need love, we need community, we need acceptance.” 

Though Dr. Ondari is still paying the literal and figurative costs of being an immigrant, he’s finally seeing a payoff. Not only did he achieve his American dream of becoming a physician and U.S. citizen, but he’s also built an amazing community of friends and family – here and around the globe.   

He offers a quote from one of his heroes, Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai: “Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.