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The Nairobi-North Tonawanda connection: Family stays close despite far-flung homes

Plenty of grandparents pack bags and take flights to stay with their grandchildren for the holidays, or welcome the youngsters into their homes during the summer.

But of all the far-flung families that catch flights to keep family ties strong, it’s hard to imagine one farther-flung – or emotionally closer – than the Kurbiel-Kimuyu family.

Christine and Stephen Kurbiel live in North Tonawanda. Their daughter Lisa, her husband, Johnson Kimuyu, and their children Sofia, 9, and Roman, 7, live in Johnson’s hometown of Nairobi.

That’s Nairobi, as in the capital of Kenya. That’s Nairobi, which is 7,554 miles away as the crow flies – and as anyone planning a trip will tell you, not exactly how jets fly.

It could be worse – and it has been worse. Up until this year, the Kimuyus lived in Maputo, Mozambique, which is 8,306 miles from North Tonawanda.

No matter the distance, the Kurbiels are undaunted. They make the trip twice a year, spending Christmas with their only child and her family, then arriving again for Easter for a lengthy stay. After the spring visit, they bring Sofia and Roman home with them, where the youngsters enjoy American suburban life, complete with pizza, a backyard pool, church services, trips to the zoo and library, gymnastics and music lessons.

“They take over the house,” said Christine Kurbiel, and indeed the comfortable home is packed with signs that it’s child-centered, from the piles of Legos and Matchbox cars to the backyard swing set.

The tradition of bringing the children to N.T. for the summer began in 2005, when Lisa and Johnson were living in New York City.

“And I used to complain: ‘I have to go to New York and get them,’ ” said Christine Kurbiel, laughing. “Can you imagine?”

In Nairobi, where the Kimuyu family moved this year, Christine Kurbiel works as a human rights advocate for UNICEF and her husband operates a business assisting newcomers to Kenya.

Besides the grueling trip, the expense of round-trip travel for four adults and two children is daunting.

“Flight costs are a reality that we’ve factored into our cost of living,” Lisa Kurbiel said. “To us, coming home each summer and being together at Christmas is not optional. We do seek out the best flight deals – passing through Dubai rather than Europe saved us several hundred per ticket this summer – but at the end of the day, it’s a jagged pill that needs to be swallowed and is never regretted.”

When they are apart, the Kurbiels speak daily to their daughter’s family via Facetime, Skype or on the phone.

Lisa Kurbiel’s cellphone has a 716 area code, “naturally,” probably the only one in Africa that does so.

“When Johnson and I are in Nairobi, we typically ring after dinner our time, which is lunch time here and speak to them daily,” she said.

The grandparents fly to Africa together, but before the children’s summer visit, Stephen returns home early to open the pool and prepare for their arrival, so Christine accompanies them on the long flights.

“It’s five hours to Dubai, a layover in Dubai, 13 hours from Dubai to New York, then a one-hour flight to Buffalo,” Christine Kurbiel said. “Their behavior is excellent. They don’t sleep much, they watch movies, they play games, they read, we eat and have snacks. Once we get to New York they get a little anxious because we are close to home and by that time we are tired.”

“You have to stay entertained,” said Sofia. With the individual screens in front of each seat, “You can watch a bunch of movies, and you can also watch TV shows or listen to music.”

For Roman, food is the highlight of the flights.

“Before dinner, they give you a bunch of crackers and candy, and it’s really entertaining, then they give you dinner, then they give you more candy and stuff,” he said.

Before they join the youngsters in North Tonawanda in July, Lisa Kurbiel and Johnson Kimuyu schedule couples’ time, including date nights and weekend getaways.

The pair met in 1998 when Lisa Kurbiel was working for the United Nations in Somalia, training ex-combatants in human rights in preparation for them to work as police officers.

During a vacation, Lisa took a safari in Nairobi with a friend.

“And I happened to be their safari guide,” Johnson said. “I’m still trying to guide,” he said, “but married life is different.”

The couple were living in New York City when they married in 2004 in the chapel at Niagara University, Lisa’s alma mater.

The newlyweds spent their first Christmas together in New York City, but once Sofia arrived in 2005, they spent the holidays in North Tonawanda, said Lisa Kurbiel.

“Mom would also stay with us in NYC when I traveled for work and Johnson’s hours were heavy with Deloitte and Touche. She would often keep them home from day care for the week I’d be away. Basically, I don’t know how we could have managed without my parents. They have always been a phone call away and regardless of the continent, they are there for us.”

But Lisa Kurbiel is not the only member of her family to find a new home halfway around the world. Her mother, Christine, was born and raised in Turek, Poland, coming to Buffalo in 1958. The children call her the Polish name for grandmother, “Babcia.”

“I’m the Buffalo connection,” said Stephen Kurbiel, who was born and raised in Black Rock.

The family traveled extensively when Lisa was young.

“They took me everywhere when I was a kid – to Mexico, the Bahamas, Poland, Venezuela and most of the islands,” she said. “We met her family, got to meet some of Dad’s family in Poland. There always was the sense that there’s a big wide world out there, beyond.”

Lisa became interested in working overseas when she was in law school at St. John’s University in Queens.

“I interned for the U.N. in my third year, and I was amazed,” she said. “My eyes were opened. And it’s such an amazing world to discover, and within my first year I was already in Mongolia, traveling via China, seeing the Great Wall, I was totally bitten by the bug.”

“She’s got this desire to go out beyond, and save the world,” said her father, “and Africa is probably as good a place to save it as anywhere else. There are a lot of people in Africa that need a lot of help. And this is a lifetime job for her, there’s no end to the work that she’s been doing.”

Did Johnson Kimuyu ever dream of spending summers in a tree-shaded backyard in North Tonawanda?

“He didn’t even know where North Tonawanda was,” said his mother-in-law.

Kimuyu agreed, but added:

“I did know about New York State, it’s one of the most famous places, every other movie you watch is set there, on Broadway, in Times Square. Also when I was doing geography in school, we learned about the Great Lakes, but we didn’t talk about what was around them. We knew about Niagara Falls, but not Buffalo or North Tonawanda. I grew up watching ‘Dallas,’ so I knew about a place called Dallas, about New York City and California, those are the places you hear about. But a small town like North Tonawanda, it was a surprise.”

Johnson Kimuyu has only one brother still living in Nairobi. His mother, sister and brother live in Dallas, and his mother travels to Western New York for visits, including a family reunion for Sofia’s First Communion in Our Lady of Czestochowa Church in North Tonawanda.

The volatile political situation in Kenya, which prompted the Peace Corps to pull its volunteers from the country in late July until threat levels there decrease, is a concern for the family.

“Security is definitely an issue,” said Lisa Kurbiel. “We stay updated via the U.S. Embassy and U.N. security services. Kenya’s proximity to Somalia and the growing influence of Al Shabaab is the largest concern. We are rather insulated in the expat community and live life to the fullest, albeit with a sense of caution.”