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Archive for January 10th, 2010

The American pipe dream

Posted by Administrator on January 10, 2010




In Summary

  • Former Kenyan student in the US reveals the trials foreigners have to go through to live and work in the land of great promise


Do you want to go to America? I was asked this question six years ago while sipping a cold Coke at a restaurant on the first floor of the Kenya Cinema building in Nairobi. I remember the hurried “yes” that I blurted out unconsciously.

And, now, as I walk down the streets of New York, I realise the complexity and intricacy of the question had eluded me at that point.

Would my answer be any different now? Probably not, but if I had known what I know now about America, I would have made a similar but educated response.

I look into the distance and see the statue of liberty. It represents a woman wearing a crown and carrying a torch in her raised hand. It’s a gift from the people of France after the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence, representing friendship between the two countries.

Most important, it welcomes visitors and immigrants, international students like me, Green Card lottery winners, parents attending their children’s graduation, and couples on their honey moon to America.

I walk through Central Park and feed the birds with rice grain as my mind pensively wonders. Maybe there are a few things Kenyans need to be refreshed on before making that bold move to America; jobs, college, immigration.

Priority would have to go to jobs due to the impression by most Kenyans that America is the land of milk and honey. We Kenyans watch MTV and look at pictures sent by our friends abroad and we get the impression that the streets in America are paved with gold.

I remember my exact words to Mum the day before I boarded the plane. “Mum, as soon as I get to America, I will get a job and send you lots and lots of money!” What I did not know was that, as an international student in America, one is not authorised to work without a social security number.

What is a social security number? A nine-digit number issued to US citizens, permanent residents, and temporary (working) residents. Its primary purpose is to track individuals for taxation purposes.

Now, international students are issued with a temporary social security card which has a stamp saying “Not authorised to work off campus”. This means that an international student is confined to work a maximum of 20 hours a week, doing odd jobs on campus.

So it was to my chagrin when I found myself washing dishes in the college cafeteria while I tried to find a way to explain to my mum why the bucks were not flowing as I had promised.

To beat this system, most Kenyans work odd jobs off campus that are not very strict with the paperwork. These include house cleaning, waiter jobs, caring after old folks, moving boxes, overnight shelf stockers, watchmen, etc.

These jobs are degrading and the only comfort that the Kenyans derive from doing them is that they are able to send money back home to their families, keep enough to help them survive and, for the lucky few, pay tuition.

Green Card lottery winners are the most advantaged in this situation. They automatically qualify for a social security card and have as many rights as the American citizens. The only problem is when they seek a good job.

Most American companies don’t recognise degrees from Kenyan universities and one is either forced to re-enter college and try and transfer as many classes as possible from the Kenyan campus.

Alternatively, one who has a Kenyan degree is forced to take up a master’s programme in a recognised American university. But there are a few recognised institutions in Kenya that could make transition swift, such as USIU or working for the United Nations and some NGOs.

My Kenyan roommate used to work at the New York Airport carrying bags for the arriving and departing passengers. His wages were inconsistent as they were based on tips from grateful passengers and empathisers. One day he came home with a “lost” Kenyan girl. She had just arrived from Kenya and he had found her stranded at the airport.

“Someone from college was supposed to pick me up,” she said in an exhausted voice. We took care of her and eventually got her college.

For Kenyans students flying to America, it is important to verify all the information about who is picking you up and to what address you are going. It’s always an advantage if you know other Kenyans abroad. They can make your stay more comfortable by showing you the ropes.

The tuition fees in American universities range from $10,000 to $30,000 (Sh755,500-2,266,500) a year depending on the status of the university.

Most Kenyan students are awarded partial scholarships and, after the second year, most drop out due to lack of fees. Many students take up odd jobs and the smart ones take part-time classes as they finance their way through college. The Green Card lottery winners are the lucky ones because they qualify for financial aid, which is a student loan repayable after graduation.



Nodding off

Can one work and take classes at the same time? Yes, but it involves a lot of sacrifice. It involves kissing good sleep goodbye. It involves dozing off in the middle of lessons, running home to take a nap in between classes, or doing homework at your workplace.

As a student, I worked all night in a factory doing hard labour. In the morning I would take a shower and rush to class. In the afternoon I would rush home and sleep for four hours and in the evening I would be in the soccer field training with the college soccer team. Life was no picnic; my eyes were always red. This was my new life – my life in America.

Finally, the biggest obstacle to Kenyans in America is the immigration department. Kilonzo, my college mate, wanted to go visit his family back in Kenya.

“I miss them so much!” he said. I tried to talk him out of it because his student visa had expired and he would have to go to the American embassy in Kenya to renew it. “I have been in school for two years,” he said.

What he forgot to remember was that in one of those terms in college, his grade had dropped below a 2.0 GPA, which is lower than a C grade in Kenya.

Needless to say, Kilonzo was denied re-entry into the United States. His life took a tumble down the cliff, from the glamorous America to the ghetto life back in Kenya where he was born. His dreams were shattered, his heart ripped from his body.

The international students’ requirements by the immigration department are very simple; one has to renew his visa before it expires, and one has to stay in school until graduation.

All students have the luxury to drop out of college for a maximum of five months after which the privilege expires. The catch is after college when most Kenyan students suddenly realise they are about to fall from status. They are thus required to go back to their country.

The college issues graduating students with a one-year temporary work permit as a farewell gesture and a key to their new life. It’s very hard for a graduating student to get a job without papers.

American companies in need of accountants, doctors, pharmacists and pilots will issue students with H-1B visas. This requires a sponsoring US employer to file a labour condition application (LCA) with the Department of Labour attesting to several items, including payment of prevailing wages for the position, and the working conditions offered.

The employer must then file an I-129 petition with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (previously INS) and, unless specifically exempt under the law, an additional $500 fee to sponsor the H-1B worker. Based on the bureau petition approval, the alien may apply for the H-1B visa, admission or a change of non-immigrant status.

After graduation, my roommate was in a dilemma. He had graduated with a business administration degree, which is not characterised as a profession worthy of a H-1B visa. What was he to do? Should he get married to an American woman for the sake of getting a Green Card like some Kenyans do? No, he couldn’t do that. He had vowed to get married once. His parents had brought him up on strict African morals and profound ethical guidelines.

One day, while we were sleeping, there was a knock on the door. It was 6 o’clock on a Monday morning. My friend sleepily stumbled to the door and flung it open. Two men were standing outside.

“Is your name Titus?” one asked sombrely.

“Yes,” he replied groggily.

“We are from the immigration department and we have a warrant for your arrest and a deportation order for you, back to Kenya.” My roommate was jailed for three months in America before we could bail him out and raise enough money to acquire the services of an immigration lawyer.

Most Kenyan students abroad are confused as to the way forward after college because they fall out of status. The immigration department receives a report from universities on all international students and they have a right to pick them up and deport them. It is imperative for all Kenyan students to figure out the way forward before graduation. It’s the prudent thing to do. It’s the only thing to do.

So, if someone took me back to the restaurant at Kenya Cinema and asked me, “Do you want to go to America?” this time I would pause pensively and then say, “Yes!” But then I would exhaustively address the delicate matters that would affect my life forever: jobs, college and immigration.


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