Monica Medina | KPBS
Carmen Kcomt is filled with pride. On June 25th, this 2014 Hispanic Heritage Month Local Hero, who hails from Peru, finally became a United States citizen. The journey to citizenship was filled with challenges and setbacks that included 11 years of struggling to maneuver through the system in her quest for political asylum — and spending five of those years as an undocumented immigrant.
“My case is emblematic of asylum seekers,” she says. “I came in 2003 and got my asylum in 2008. After six months my tourist visa expired, and I was living undocumented, invisible. I didn’t exist. No documents meant no job, no work permit. No Social Security card. Nothing. I was not in the records. Not me, not my family.”
Kcomt, who had served as a judge in her native country, came to San Diego with her family, including her parents and her three sons. She left Peru because she felt she had no other choice.
Her troubles in Peru began as she was approaching her 40th birthday. She remembers feeling restless at the time.
“I hope something happens in my life,” she would say to herself, “because this life is so boring and I want to have something different. Something challenging.”
At the time, Kcomt was enrolled in special classes at the Academia de la Magistratura to improve her legal skills. One day, as she left class someone stopped her to inform her that her courtroom had just been handed one of the most high-profile cases in Peru — a paternity case involving Alejandro Toledo, a powerful man who was then running for president of the country. Soon, the news was all over the media in Peru.
Kcomt realized that her wish had come to fruition. What she didn’t yet know, though, was that the case would forever change her life. Standing up to Toledo would eventually necessitate her emigrating to the United States.
Toledo was elected president within a few months of Kcomt receiving the case. Through it all, Kcomt stood by her convictions, faithfully following the letter of the law. But the stakes were high.
“My life became so weird,” Kcomt says. “In my country, executive power has power over all others. Everything was horrible, messed up. I really put my family in danger. I was a little bit afraid something would happen to me, and I was going to school with a police guard and carrying a gun. My parents and I knew that my career was almost over. There were too many threats against me.”
Kcomt already had a brother living in San Diego who offered to sponsor her to come to the States. She initially turned him down. But as things became more heated, she reconsidered.
“Those were very bad, stressful times for us. The newspapers were saying very negative things about me. My parents were having a hard time. We had bodyguards,” Kcomt says, but she wasn’t sure if they were watching out for her family’s safety or just spying on them. “They were always trying to look for something [suspicious] in my story, so they could remove me from my position, simply because I wouldn’t cut a deal with them.”
When the case at last ended, Kcomt moved to San Diego.
“Those [early days in San Diego] are very hard to describe,” Kcomt admits. “It was a mix of many feelings at the same time, blaming myself for putting my family in this situation. We came here from living in a beautiful home to an apartment where we all were living together. No jobs. Poor. I remember my oldest son, who was 15, asking me, ‘Are we poor now?’ Yes we are.”
Kcomt credits Survivors of Torture, International, for setting her on a path to political asylum.
“One day I read how they needed volunteers, so I talked to them about volunteering. But they said, ‘Carmen, who are you?’ I told them my story. They listened and suddenly I became a client, not a volunteer. They were my big supporter, and they still provide me with therapy.”
“I then went to the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program,” Kcomt says, “which gave me an opportunity and for five months I volunteered in the El Cajon courthouse in domestic violence and received an award for that.”
She also became a volunteer guest lecturer on post-crisis reconciliation at the University of San Diego.
Finally, after five years of living undocumented, Kcomt received political asylum. Soon after, she found work with the Center for Community Solutions.
“I was a family advocate in an emergency shelter, helping victims of domestic violence,” she says. “I’d go pick them up, take them to the shelter. Get clothes, toiletry for them, bus passes, therapy, everything in order for them to start a new life.”
Today, she works for La Maestra in City Heights as a legal advocate, a position that specifically was designed for her.
Kcomt gives a presentation on children’s rights and human trafficking at the University of San Diego.
“I was at a meeting on violence with the police in Balboa Park and other organizations,” she remembers. “Somebody was talking about the immigration remedies for victims of crime in the United States. So I said if you are a victim of crime you can file for a visa. If you’re a victim of domestic violence and your partner is a permanent resident or a U.S. citizen, you can also file. If you are victim of human trafficking you can file. If you’re a victim of persecution you can file for asylum. Afterwards, a woman asked me if I was interested in managing an office to help victims.”
The woman was La Maestra’s President and CEO, Zara Marselian, who immediately recognized Kcomt’s potential.
“Zara’s one of the most amazing persons I’ve met in this country,” exclaims Kcomt. “She said, ‘Do you want to do help victims who come to La Maestra?’ And I told her, ‘Yes!’”
That was in 2011. Kcomt has been with La Maestra ever since.
“La Maestra is in City Heights, the largest immigrant community in the United States. Anyone who goes there who needs help, I try to help. For example, somebody may arrive at the office with a black eye, though she didn’t come here for the black eye. She may have come for a stomach pain, but because of the black eye, she’s referred to my office. La Maestra offers therapy, but I also provide support for family issues, child support and divorce. Our goal is to provide a complete service.”
With a job she loves and U.S. citizenship at last, Kcomt, who last year served as a delegate representing California in the United Nations Refugee Congress, couldn’t be happier.
“I love my work with La Maestra. At last I’ve turned a page and I’m not going back to Peru. Every time Alexander the Great conquered a new city, he would ask his soldiers to burn the bridge so he wouldn’t go back. He moved forward. Well, I’m going to apply that in my life. I’m not going back. I’m moving forward and I am proud of that story.”