Francis, a Beninese national who moved to the Ithaca area last spring, recently visited Catholic Charities to let us know how he was adjusting to a new job we helped him find. As Francis described his new job where he visually inspects lasers for quality assurance it became clear how he is a good example of how an immigrant comes to the US and actively pursues the “American Dream.” In less than a year, he has learned a significant amount of English, is successfully transitioning into America’s workforce, and is taking steps toward furthering his education. He is the quintessential “where there is a will, there is a way.”
Back in Benin, Francis played the Diversity Visa (DV) Lottery while he was teaching biology at a local school and attending his 3rd year of University. He said he had dreamed of coming to the US and winning the lottery would be the first step towards making that dream come true. In 2012 he was notified he was a DV winner and 2 years later he arrived in the US as a green card holder. Shortly thereafter, Francis took on the extraordinary task of learning English. Although he wasn’t from an English-speaking country he said he had learned how to speak/read a little. He admitted though English was something he “never really paid close attention to.” But now in the US his dream included one day working in the medical field so he knew he had to take it seriously and enrolled in adult ESL classes at TST BOCES.
While learning English was a priority, Francis also had an urgency to become employed. Although he arrived in the US with some savings, there was housing, food, clothes, phone, and transportation to pay for – necessary things that a tight budget would only cover for so long. Therefore, he was relieved when he landed his first job as a housekeeper at Cornell, even though it was temporary. Once his temporary position was about to end, he regularly met with ISP staff (Allegra, Anthony & Sarah) to help him apply for jobs online. His determination paid off; he was scheduled for an interview at a manufacturing company and they offered him a position.
Francis is currently on a probationary period and works 12 hour shifts, 3 or 4 days per week. He is tasked with looking at lasers through a microscope – a job that requires a lot of concentration. He plans on taking advantage of his work schedule because on his days off, he will be able to continue to attend ESL classes, and then plans to attend college. He’s currently taking the steps towards getting his international degree translated and evaluated and then plans on furthering his studies so he can pursue a nursing career or become a radiologist.
The best advice Francis would give to new immigrants is to “go slowly, go to learn English – that’s the first thing everybody needs to do. If they don’t come from an English-speaking country they need to do that. At the same time, they need to apply for a job. I would tell them to apply for any kind of job and still look for new opportunities. If you keep looking, you will find the right thing.”
For Francis, his current job seems to be the right thing at this stage in his journey. “My prayer now is that my probation period goes well and they hire me full time. I also pray to have 3-4 days off so I can continue my studies.” He also knows how fortunate he is to have people in his life who are supportive of his journey. For example, he said his night supervisor is someone he greatly appreciates working with. “She’s so friendly and good to me and I can say it seems like she knew me before I came to work there. It’s like God put me there to work with her.” Another person he is grateful for is Julie, the coordinator of BOCES ESL classes. “Julie is someone I thank a lot; she has done everything for me. When I need to find an apartment, she helped me. She is very kind.”
Francis’ journey currently includes going to work and working 12 hour shifts dressed from head to toe in sterile, disposable clothing and looking through a microscope as pictured above. It’s just one step of many he will take to pursue his version of the American Dream. Once this dream is fulfilled though – a dream that started in Benin and will include his time Ithaca – it will most likely be the result of having had supportive people in his life, an abundance of hard work, determination and gratitude, not to mention his unwavering faith.
Many Ithacan immigrants have received their green cards through the diversity lottery and have come to the US hoping to improve their lives. A fair-share of the clients we serve at Catholic Charities entered the country on a diversity immigrant visa and had emigrated from countries from all corners of the world ranging from Cuba and Venezuela to Morocco and Nepal. Earlier this month, Immanuel, a Liberian national who also won the diversity lottery, visited us to see if we could help him find employment. It was at that time I learned more about his experience with the diversity lottery process.
The Diversity Immigrant Visa (DV) Program was established to diversify the immigrant population in the US and was part of the Immigration Act of 1990. Thanks to IMMACT90, 50,000 visas are currently made available to immigrants residing in those countries considered to be under-represented in terms of how many of its citizens have been awarded immigrant visas to the US. In countries where the diversity lottery is available, a great deal of excitement is generated every fall when the registration period opens. According to Immanuel, this was certainly true in Monrovia, Liberia.
Immanuel had heard about the lottery for years through word on the street…. “I heard people talking about ‘DV, DV’ all the time they were talking about the ‘DV’ so I got a packet of information from the Embassy.” To initiate the process, Immanuel went to an internet café and paid someone to help him go online and fill out the application. “Everything was in English but you can pay those guys at the internet café to fill out about anything. That’s their job. I had to send everything to Kentucky – I never heard of Kentucky – but I had to send my application and my photo, and about $100 dollars USD in Liberia. I mailed it in 2012; that’s when I applied for the DV.”
A year later, Immanuel got the news that he his application for a DV had been “selected” – the first step of many before someone actually becomes a lottery winner. He then had to complete additional paperwork, meet certain eligibility requirements (e.g., have a high school diploma), and have an affidavit of support filed on his behalf by someone in the US. It wasn’t until those steps (and more) were taken that he actually “won” the lottery. At that time Immanuel said he was excited when he was accepted because his goal was to get higher education. “In Monrovia I couldn’t afford to get educated – there is no work and no scholarships from the government.”
Prior to winning the lottery, Immanuel described the lack of opportunity he was faced with in his home country. He told about a life that included living in a small home where 15 other of his relatives resided. While he went to work on a daily basis – he was often considered a volunteer and was rarely paid in cash. “I was volunteering for the government. I was sweeping streets for them and they would give us money to buy soap so we could wash our clothes. Later on, I went to a Coca-Cola factory and explained my situation to them and they gave me a job. At first I had to work for free, but after that they saw I had improved and they sent me to training to be a syrup technician. After the training I would earn $2.00 USD a day. But, I was not related to the boss so he finally let me go. I then started to work as a volunteer at a school taking care of children during their recreation time. For my work, they would give me soap and food to carry home.”
Two years after he applied, Immanuel’s diversity visa was issued and his green card began to be processed. Immanuel is thankful he is now in a place where he can start taking the steps to further his education. Not only did he have luck on his side to make this happen, but he also had the collective effort of many people including the people who passed IMMACT90 into law in the first place, the internet café employee whose English was good enough to complete his DV application, and probably most importantly, the aunt who opened her US home to him, who also filed the paperwork necessary showing he wouldn’t become a public charge.
As I write this, Immanuel is busy resettling his life in the US and recently started a new job that we helped him land. Even though the DV process can be complex and tedious, for immigrants like Immanuel who dream about improving their lives, the pay-off of winning the lottery can be tremendous. For Immanuel, a long-held dream of studying engineering is now within reach.