By Farooq A. Kperogi
I want to apologize for my inability to write my column last week. Last week was a particularly exceedingly hectic week for me. It was the last week of the semester, and it was practically impossible for me to spare any time to do anything other than schoolwork—administering exams, grading my students’ papers, researching, writing and presenting my final seminar papers, and a whole host of other things I don’t want to bore you with. But I am back.
In the first part of this series, I used my encounter with a certain John as the springboard to tell the story of disillusionment among many Nigerian winners of the American Green Card lottery program. I will continue with the story this week.
John told me that his inclination was to return to Nigeria. Even his children, he said, prodded him to take them back home. But he couldn’t go back home for two reasons: shame (or is it pride?) and financial vulnerability. Remember he sold all his assets in Nigeria.
His situation was complicated by the fact that he was living in a small village, a village that has the notoriety of having literally burned to death hundreds of black Americans who resided there. This was many years before the Civil Rights movement.
Well, what were my responses to John’s concerns? First, I advised him to lower his expectations, shrink his ego (if there was anything left of it, that is,) and look for a menial job. In such kinds of jobs, I told him, nobody gives a damn how thick your accent is as long as your body is thick enough to do the manual jobs you’re assigned to do.
I suggested that he apply to Wal-Mart, America’s (some say the world’s) biggest retail store. I also advised that he should enroll his wife in the university to study for a nursing degree. She would not only have an American qualification; she would also easily get a job and earn good money after she graduates. He was persuaded.
The end of the story is that he now works at Wal-Mart, doing what President George Bush calls “jobs Americans will not do.” He moves wares from shop to shop. Following my advice, he also secured a federal loan to enroll his wife in my former university where she’s now reading for a degree in nursing.
By a curious twist of circumstances, before I left Louisiana, I became her informal mentor. An American colleague of mine brought her to my office one day and said she wanted me to meet my compatriot who was facing some difficulty adjusting to the American educational system. When she found out that I was the same person who had advised her husband to allow her to enroll for the course, our meeting became even more emotional.
I am still in touch with John and his family. He says the money he makes from his job is only enough to save his family from starving, and the work he does at Wal-Mart wears him out every day because it’s physically strenuous. He was not used to that kind of hard life—or had gone past that kind of life when he was in Nigeria. However, he is hopeful that things would improve.
John is only a sample of several Nigerians who come here with exaggerated expectations and become disillusioned when they confront a different reality. About two months ago, I met another middle-aged Nigerian in the train. How did I meet him? Someone asked me a question. When I responded, my accent gave away my Nigerian identity. So he came up to me and asked if I was Nigerian.
He said he was originally from Lagos. He, like John, won the Green Card many years ago and brought his entire family here. Now he is forced to work several menial jobs to sustain his family. He looked distraught and resigned when he was narrating his experiences to me. “At my age, I have become a hustler [sic] again,” he said ruefully. That sentence stung me so hard.
His wife is illiterate and therefore can’t work. The family of five is supported by his sole earnings. He said he has no social life, scarcely rests, and does jobs he never imagined he would ever do again in his life.
“If you feel this way about your stay here, why don’t you go back home?” I asked
“My brother, go home? What will I tell people at home? That I have failed where others have succeeded. No way!” he said.
“But do you think you can make it here with the kind of life you said you’re leading and the kind of money you’re making?” I asked.
“Well, even if I can’t make it, at least my children would. They are receiving quality American education, and I think that’s something to be consoled about,” he said.
“But do your folks back home know what you’re going through here?” I probed further.
“Why should they? I won’t give anybody the pleasure to laugh at me. Of course, they think I am in paradise.”
We both laughed. Then he shared many more stories of Nigerians who are in worse situations than he. For instance, he told me the story of his friend who used to work at the Shell Petroleum Company. The friend won the Green Card lottery and was predictably elated.
He said he advised the friend not to resign his employment with Shell and warned him of what might become of him here. “He got angry with me and said I wanted to be able to boast that I am the only one out here,” he said.
Well, the former Shell employee is now working three jobs (as Americans say it) as a security guard in three different places. At a point, he became so disillusioned that he applied to go back to Shell, but Shell disobliged him. So he is now condemned to the drudgery—and tragedy— of being a “maiguard.” He probably had several of those in his personal employ when he was in Nigeria.
In Seattle, in the state of Washington, I met another Nigerian, apparently in his 50s, working as a security guard at a hotel I lodged. This was back in 2003. I was part of an International Visitors Program organized by the U.S. State Department.
I was about retiring to my room when someone tapped me in the back and asked if I was Nigerian. It was easy to isolate and identify me because I was proudly dressed in my northern Nigerian traditional robes, which attracted not a few curious stares my way.
It turned out that the man was from Rivers State and had been living in the United States for years. He said he came here with an MBA, but that when he didn’t get a white-collar job after searching many years, he decided to work as a security guard. He works in several places to make ends meet because the wages from one job can’t pay the bills.
A friend also told me of a Nigerian Ph.D. who won the Green Card and is now here. His Ph.D. was not trusted to be the equivalent of an American Ph.D., so he couldn’t get a university teaching job. I am told that he is now pursuing a master’s degree here so that he can get a decent job.
I know of two other Nigerian PhDs who are luckier: they are teaching in secondary schools here.
However, there are equally a good number of Nigerians who got their PhDs from Nigeria and have respectable teaching and research jobs. I think it is not so much the location where the PhDs were obtained that worries prospective American employers of our PhDs as the absence or inadequate evidence of publication records to show that they are university teachers.
The motto here is: publish or perish. If you are a PhD and you have no publications, you might as well prepare to be a security guard.
Our lawyers and medical doctors face a slightly different problem. Here, people get law and medical degrees only after they have acquired a bachelor’s degree. Americans don’t go to law school or medical school straight from high school as we—and the British—do.
That’s why when our doctors and lawyers come here, they find out that they have to either retrain to retain their former jobs or forgo their professions and become security guards, taxi drivers, or do some other kinds of lowly jobs to survive.
The first shock that winners of the Green Card lottery confront here is the reality that there are no jobs waiting for them. Most of the Green Card holders that I have met here often tell me that they had thought that the American government had made prior arrangements to get jobs for them as soon as they got here. I don’t know why anybody would feel so self-important (or are they merely being ignorant?) as to expect that kind of princely treatment. Even American citizens don’t have automatic jobs by virtue of being citizens.
When our Nigerian Green Card beneficiaries come here, they realize that the only jobs that are readily available are menial, low-paid jobs that most Americans will never touch even with a barge pole. It seems to me that what perpetuates this “Green Card” disillusionment is that people back home are not told the truth about life in the United States. This country is far from the land of milk and honey that it has been cracked up to be by Hollywood—and by Nigerians living here.
A good number of Green Card holders from Nigeria with false notions of the prosperity of this country resort to fraud when they can’t come to terms with the nakedly unpleasant reality that they meet.
There has lately been a lot of focus on Nigerian criminals here by the U.S. media. Two months ago, several Nigerians (all of them from the South-south and the Southeast) were arrested in a sensational Medicaid fraud in Houston, Texas. They defrauded the state of millions of dollars for years, but the long, icy arm of the American law finally caught up with them.
And about the time our minister of information, Frank Nweke, came here to launch his international image laundering project, the ABC, of one America’s four major TV networks, aired an investigative documentary about Nigerian 419 fraudsters both in this country and in Nigeria.
However, there are also success stories among Green Card holders here. Read about that next week.