It is a particularly beautiful Sunday evening in the lush suburbs of Houston, Texas, as small groups of Kenyan families arrive in their posh cars at one of their compatriot’s home for an evening out.
Ordinarily, such meetings, which are regular fixtures, would just be for sharing an evening together and catching up. But the gathering on this particular Sunday has greater significance.
The previous evening, some members of this group had hosted one of the most successful and well-attended meetings in recent memory: the first annual Mashujaa Awards ceremony.
The event was held a day before the October 20 Mashujaa Day fete in Kenya and the US-based Kenyans are meeting to toast to the success.
Among the arriving guests at the home of Mr Wale Mutambo, a Kenyan resident of Houston, is Mr Robert Simiyu and his wife Lucy — who were part of the Mahujaa event organisers.
“The Mashujaa meeting was one of a kind. We have never seen such a large crowd here in Houston, Texas. I’m proud to have been part of a team that made that happen,” Mr Simiyu told Lifestyle.
He is a Kenyan living the American dream. And he owes all that to the game of chance known as the Green Card lottery or the Diversity Visa Programme.
“Yeah, the Green Card works man, and it has worked for me. I have no regrets for having played the lottery,” he says.
Since 1992 when he graduated from the University of Nairobi with a Bachelor of Arts degree, Mr Simiyu wanted to further his studies in the US. The chance came in 2000 when he won the Green Card lottery.
Mr Robert Simiyu having dinner with his wife Lucy in Houston, Texas. Photo/CHRIS WAMALWA
“I had a job in Kenya after graduation but my dream was always to come to the US, especially to pursue further studies,” he says.
A father of three boys and a girl, Mr Simiyu remembers how expensive it was when it came to processing the Green Card for five people.
“It can be a slippery slope for somebody to process the Green Card, especially if it is a family of more than two. That is why many families prefer one partner, mostly the husband, to come over first as an advance party to prepare the ground for the rest to join later,” he says.
HAPPY ABOUT HIS JOB
Thirteen years later, Mr Simiyu is happy in his job as a Licensed Vocational Nurse/Home Health Nurse (an equivalent of a medical doctor in Kenya) at Regency Home Health. His wife is a hospice nurse while their children have excelled in school.
“If you set clear goals and focus on them, the sky is the limit. If you work hard in school, for instance, you will get scholarships. If you hold many jobs and put in more hours, you will get money and, therefore, get rich. It’s your bed; you play a part in making it,” he says.
While Mr Simiyu is living the American dream, the same can’t be said for Ms Sarah Kimani (name changed to protect identity) a resident of Ridley Park, Pennsylvania.
This writer met her last Monday morning after she got back home from a double shift as a nursing assistant. Ms Kimani, originally from Thika, is so tired and exhausted that we have to reschedule the interview.
All she wants, as she kicks off her shoes, is to go bed and sleep.
Ms Kimani’s family moved to the US on a Green Card in 2003 and it wasn’t long before things started falling apart.
“In Kenya, my husband was a lecturer and I was a primary school teacher. We were not rich but we had enough to sustain our family of four — and we were happy,” she says when we finally settle for the interview.
“If I knew what I know now, I’d not have played that lottery thing”.
Her story is all too familiar within families that immigrated to the US without first finding out about what to expect upon arrival.
“Even though he had a PhD from the University of Nairobi, the only job my husband could get when we got here was either as a watchman (security guard) or in a nursing home. He did some of these jobs and he hated them with a passion. Before long, he started drinking heavily and became violent,” she says with tears welling in her eyes.
ACCUSED OF HAVING AN AFFAIR
Ms Kimani says that one day, after they had been in the US for only four months, her husband came home accusing her of having an affair at work and beat her so badly that the neighbours had to call 911 (emergency services).
“They took him away and detained him for three days. When they interviewed the children, they said he always behaved like that when he came home.
They added that he was always drunk so the police gave him a restraining order and ordered him to stay away from us and only visit over the weekend during the day,” she says.
Things have never been the same again since then. Indeed, her husband became even more bitter and disillusioned.
“In 2006, he was arrested for drunk driving and he was given a court date. He bought a one way air ticket to Kenya and we hardly hear of him since,” she says.
This meant Ms Kimani was left with the responsibility of raising three boys aged 15, 12 and seven, alone. To make ends meet, she has to take two full-time jobs.
“It is tough. It’s even tougher to the boys because they don’t understand what happened to us as a family. I’m hardly at home to supervise their homework and they are always complaining how nice it was when we were still at home in Kenya. That is what the Green Card has done for us,” she says.
The scramble for the Green Card is on and this time the interest seems to be so intense that Kenya’s Foreign Affairs ministry has been forced to warn those who apply for the Green Card that there is no guarantee of winning.
And it is not only successful applicants like Ms Kimani who are of concern. In an unusual step, Foreign Affairs Political and Diplomatic Secretary Robert Ngesu says that many Kenyans are getting into “both mental and financial distress” after failing to win the lottery for the Green Card, which allows one to be a permanent US resident.
“Granting of a visa is a prerogative of the receiving state and the government (of Kenya) cannot compel such a state to grant a visa or refund the monies paid if the visa is not granted,” he says.
Mr Ngesu explains that many Kenyans have in the past been contacting his office for help after “incurring heavy expenses” on non-refundable visa and medical examination fees.
It was not immediately clear why a warning was necessary about a programme that has been going on for more than two decades, but whose future now looks uncertain.
However, it is thought many Kenyans are rushing to beat the one-month window during which one is allowed to apply between October 1 and November 1.
This could be the last chance for anybody to move to the US on a Green Card as US lawmakers are considering an immigration law to abolish the programme.
An official of the US embassy in Nairobi told Lifestyle that the status of the Diversity Visa programme in any final legislation is not yet known as the US Congress has not passed a Bill in the current session that would affect the programme.
If congress passes the law, it will be a blow to thousands of people who dream of a better life in America. Africa has been a major beneficiary since the programme started with at least 5,000 Kenyans thought to qualify annually.
The diversity programme makes 55,000 visas available every year to countries with low immigration rates to the US.
Those awarded the visas are chosen by a lottery, with about half typically going to African immigrants.
Republican lawmakers have in the past targeted the programme for elimination, arguing that the lottery system can lead to fraud and undermine national security.
The Green Card may be replaced by a competitive “merit-based” visa programme, which awards visas based on a point system that measures education and employment, among other criteria.
“This would pit us (Kenyans) against the rest of the world in terms of competitiveness. We will be competing with other advanced economies and preference will be for those with PhDs and masters, particularly those who have lived here in America and those immigrants who have their masters and PhDs from American universities,” says Regina Njogu, a US-based Kenyan immigration lawyer.
Ms Njogu says that, if approved, the new merit-based visa will not be in effect until after five years of the Bill being passed into law. However, the Green Card lottery is likely to be eliminated starting next year, depending on the decision of Congress.
“We are at a disadvantage since there won’t be favourable means for continued immigration from Africa,” she says.
But the million-dollar question remains: has the Green card programme been good for Kenya in particular and Africa in general?
“This is part of the grand old scheme by the US government to acquire cheap skilled labour from underdeveloped or developing countries.
This so-called lottery programme is nothing but modern day slavery without chains,” says Prof Mark Rogers of Neumann University in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
The costs of processing the lottery visa are also considered high, with medical examination rates alone estimated to be at least Sh24,000. This, however, may go up depending on the tests one is expected to undergo.
The green card visa fee is $330 (Sh28,380) while United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) immigrant fee is $165 (Sh13,860). Since February 1, 2013, all individuals issued immigrant visas overseas have to pay the USCIS immigrant fee before travelling to the US.
The US embassy in Nairobi says the “medical exam fees is generally about Sh20,000, but can fluctuate based on medical condition, required vaccinations for immigration to the US, and other exam factors.
“Considering that one is never assisted in any other way other than to be given a mere permit to live and work in America, these costs are very high. Many people have sold everything they own, including pieces of land, only to come here (US) and realise it’s completely different from what they had expected,” said Mr Johnson Kinyua, a resident of Houston, Texas.
LAND OF DREAMS
Cases of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and suicides among Kenyans living abroad have exposed the myth that all is rosy in the land of dreams.
“It takes very long to adjust to life in the US. Men especially find it very hard to adjust to the changing gender roles at home and doing jobs considered to be of less prestige,” says Jane Rurigi, adding that these are usually the key causes of separations.
However, there have also been numerous success stories.
“There is no limit to the horizons one can set for oneself because America is still a place where hard work, dedication and vision can transform dreams into reality. It can also lead to lost dreams, broken promises and a miserable existence,” says Mr Simiyu, who, however, warns that the dream can also easily turn into a nightmare.-nation