The following was first published in my weekly column in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria, on December 9, 2006.
By Farooq A. Kperogi
Sometime ago, while browsing Nigerian newspapers online, as I always do, a news item caught my attention. It was the report of the declaration by the chairman of the University of Lagos branch of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities, Waye Adefolalu, that the American Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery program is the modern reincarnation of slavery.
The man was speaking at a seminar organized by the Poverty Eradication Vanguard, apparently anti- poverty NGO. “I [hope that]…our brothers and sisters that are in captivity under the pretext of American visa lottery will return to this land. Whether you agree with me or not, American [Green Card] lottery is another modern slavery,” he was quoted to have said in the Aug. 19, 2006 of Punch. Could he be right?
For obvious—and I think justifiable—reasons, many Nigerians look up to the United States, perhaps more than any other Western country, as the country where they can materialize their aspirations for the economic stability that their country cruelly denies them.
Nigerians are not alone, however. America is an incredible magnet for a whole host of economic refugees from different parts of the world who throng here in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. This fact makes America perhaps the most multicultural country on Earth, not only in contemporary times but in the entire history of humankind. Almost every race and ethnicity in the world is represented here.
According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, Nigerians are the most represented group of Africans in this country. And a significant percentage of Nigerians came here, and keeps coming here, courtesy of the yearly Green Card lottery program. Of course, many other Nigerians are here either as students, visiting scholars, guest workers, and so on.
But it is the case that the most popular means to come to America lately has been through the Green Card lottery program. But are Green Card holders in America really no more than 21st century slaves?
First, what is the Green Card? Being the journalist and teacher that I am, I like to define my terms, sometimes at the expense of exposing myself to the risk of being charged with condescension. However, from the many private emails I have received from readers of this column about the Green Card program, it doesn’t seem to me that it is entirely out of place to explain briefly what the Green Card is.
Reduced to its barest essentials, the Green Card is a document (an ID card actually) that invests the holder with the right to stay and work in the United States. It is officially called the “United States Permanent Resident Permit.” It, however, does not make the holders citizens, even though it qualifies them to apply for citizenship after a specified number of years of residency in the country and upon passing a citizenship test. Call it a transitional citizenship document, if you like.
The Green Card can be obtained in two ways: through lottery, which gives opportunities to people with at least a secondary school certificate from parts of the world that are least represented in the United States to come here by a game of chance, and through getting a job with a U.S. employer. In the latter case, the employer must legally prove that it has a need for a specific job that no U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident has the skill to do. This seems a difficult requirement—and it is— but many people have obtained Green Cards through this process.
The strange thing about the Green Card is that it is not green. The name “Green Card,” I learned, derives from the color of earlier versions of this card before 1945. Over the years, the government has experimented with many colors in the design of the card. As of this year, the card is mostly yellowish-white, and the only noticeable green color is the inscription on the back.
The first time I encountered a Nigerian Green Card holder was sometime in the midpoint of last year when I lived in Louisiana. It was on a searingly hot and sticky summer day. I was sauntering on the campus along with an African American acquaintance when I saw a face that struck me as distinctly Nigerian.
The man looked traumatized, disheveled and disconsolate. He didn’t seem to be going to any direction in particular. His gait was timid, his eyes sunken and his clothes almost threadbare. But in his visage, you could still see the residues of a man who had previously lived a good life—or so it seemed to me.
I told my friend that the man who was approaching us was Nigerian. He, like many of my African American friends, always marvels at how I am often able to tell African Americans from continental Africans. On this occasion, however, he contested the validity of my observation.
He was sure that the man was an African-American junkie (that’s how Americans call drug addicts) because of the man’s fair, if sallow, skin texture, and his overly melancholic and bedraggled looks. African Americans have a stereotype of Africans as dark-skinned, self-assured, usually formally dressed and sometimes arrogant people who always have an air about them that says to the world, “I know where I come from!” This man defied all that.
So as we closed the distance between us and the man, to demonstrate my cocksureness that he was Nigerian, I greeted him aloud in Pidgin English. “How you dey my broda?” I greeted. He was jolted and animated beyond description.
“Old boy, you be Naija man? Wetin you dey do here? What part of Nigeria are you from? Ah, thank God I see you o!” He assailed me with a seemingly endless barrage of queries in just a split second—and in an accent that at once betrayed his Igbo ethnicity. In time, we got immersed in a lengthy discussion about how he found himself in America and the troubles he’s been encountering since he got here.
The man’s name is John. I have left out his last name to protect his privacy. His wife won the Green Card lottery, and the entire family of six relocated to America to materialize their American Dream. He and his family had been living in a small village near my city for over a year. Neither he nor his wife had gotten a job when we spoke.
He holds a master’s degree in sociology from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife and his wife holds a bachelor’s degree in physical and health education from the same university.
He was a senior public servant in Nigeria who was obviously doing well. He had two houses in Suleja, a fleet of cars and his wife had a big shop. Then the wife won the Green Card lottery. The joy in their home was boundless, he told me. They had won the passport to paradise on earth, they thought.
While the conversation was going on, my friend excused himself and left us because he couldn’t understand our code-switching and code-mixing, that is, our annoyingly endless vacillation between Pidgin English and Standard English. Plus, our accents were unapologetically Nigerian, which was probably too “thick” for him to make sense of. But the pathos of John’s story inspired so much sadness in me that I was in no mood to show sensitivity to my American friend’s comfort in our midst.
John sold his houses and cars and auctioned his wife’s shop to come here. He has four children, who are all grown up. His woes in America started almost immediately he got here. His host, an African-American whose daughter is married to John’s cousin, told him that he could accommodate him and his family for only a week. Strange and shocking as this was to him, he quickly regained his poise and looked for a low-income mobile home (usually constructed with wooden planks) even before the expiration of the one-week grace given to him by his in-law.
Well, because he sold his houses, cars, and other valuables in Nigeria, he was still rich and could afford to do that. He even bought a car cash down—something that is unusual in America. Most people here don’t buy cars cash down; they buy cars by installment plan—or what the British call hire purchase. But John’s hopes were fertilized by the infectious optimism of the American Dream.
Over a year after arriving here, neither he nor his wife had gotten a job. No employer recognized his Nigerian qualifications. What was worse, even tormenting, he said, was that most people told him they couldn’t understand his accent. When it dawned on him that he couldn’t possibly get a job that befitted his academic status because of the low opinions Americans have of “Third World” qualifications, he resolved to lower his expectations and look for a job as an elementary school teacher. But his lack of teaching credentials disqualified him.
Then he reasoned that since his wife has a degree in physical and health education, he should allow her to apply for a teaching job instead. So she went out in search of teaching jobs. But no secondary would employ her.
Then, like her husband, she decided to apply to teach in an elementary school. Her degree was submitted to the school board for certification. Fortunately, she was certified to teach. However, no elementary school was ready to accept her because they said her accent was almost incomprehensible.
If adults had difficulty understanding her, her interviewers said, little children with little or no exposure to “thick” African accents would certainly be clueless when she teaches them. It was as if all the schools she applied to had the same script.
At the time that John was sharing his woes with me, neither he nor his wife had gotten a job—one year after living here. The money he brought from Nigeria, which had been sustaining the family, was in danger of depleting. And he was desperate. He needed my counsel since it appeared to him that I had integrated well into the American society.
Do Americans also have problems with my accent? What of my students? Do they understand me? And do I always understand the whining, nasal, fast-paced accents of these Americans? How do people make it in this society? Or is America only a huge façade, a mirage, sustained by lying Nigerian “been tos” who give the impression that this country is a land flowing with milk, honey and dollars in every nook and cranny?
I will conclude John’s story next week and relate more anecdotal accounts of the experiences of other Green Card holders that I have met here.
Nigerian Green Card Holders in America: Catching Hell in Paradise? (II)
Nigerian Green Card Holders in America: Catching Hell in Paradise? (III)