Tag Archives: i-20

Lost in America – 2

One was sent to America with fees for a semester. With the disclaimer that others have made it so why not them. Go forth and pull this family out of the resident poverty was the unspoken message.

Picture a nineteen year old landing in a new country with the hopes of an entire family, clan, weighing them down.

Back then internet and mobile phones were less prevalent; Kenyan media was not so open, social media was unheard of, so exposure to the world outside Kenya was very limited. Imagine the culture shock.

What no one told people was that undergraduate fees for non-Americans are very high. Living costs are also exorbitant. Another thing not shared was the issue of law in America. Unlike in Kenya where one can err and get away with it, in America the arm of the law is long. I shall return to why this matters.

The most important document to get a visa was the I-20 which is what the universities would send to show that they have accepted your application to join the university. Majority of the visas issued were student visas.  Which meant one was not meant to work or one was only allowed to be on work study for a few hours at the university to earn credit hours  (school pays your fees for unit x and you work at place y at the school for a semester).

Remember one left Kenya with only fees for a semester, so actual dollar paying work was not optional but rather a necessity so as to be able to live in America.

Upon landing in America one discovered that the most important document was now a Social Security number. A social security number is the universal identifier for those living in America. One cannot work without it. This made getting it the Social Security number a matter of life and death.

Originally it was not very difficult to get. T who lived in the States for 15years before coming back to Kenya for good last year told me when he arrived in the mid-90s he had several socials to enable him send dollars back home without authorities figuring out he was a student who worked many jobs.

However in the aftermath of September 2011, America changed.

The officialdom tightened its screws and what was easy to get like in T’s case became almost impossible to get. The hours guys could work were also reduced. Schools were also tasked to be more vigilant so the taking leave of absence (skipping a semester or two to earn money) from uni trick so popular of Kenyans in America could no longer work.

Many of the guys who went to the States in the mid-to-late 90s managed to scrape through school and help out their folks back home as America was relatively easy-going. However many of the guys who went to America in the turn of the new millennium did not manage the same feat.

Remember that the American dream was get dollars and get an education. With a Social being hard to get, school being expensive and the hours one could work being reduced guys had no option but to quit school and work at making at least one part of the dream – getting dollars – come true.

If you went to USA on a student visa and you do not go to school you void your status and became an illegal. Underground living becomes your forte with menial minimum wage jobs your only source of income. Keeping one step away from the long arm of the law becomes a daily chore.

At this point the truth dies. The family back home is kept in the dark of the happenings. Guys become experts at putting up a front. Relatives and friends who are also abroad and know the true state of affairs are signed into a code of silence tougher than the Mafia one. Pictures of them appearing to be doing well and living it up are posted online. An occasional hundred or even thousand buck is wired home even though that means working 20hours-a-day.

America is a very individualistic country. Thus old people are left to fend for themselves by their families. This inadvertently resulted in an industry for many a Kenyan abroad, nursing.

I am talking of the years between 2003-2008.Guys flocked into the industry in droves. It paid better than the waiting tables or packing stuff in supermarkets. Guys could make enough to live well, send dollars home and even go to college to study nursing. Never mind that one went to America to study Computer Science.

Another trick that the innovative Kenyans perfected was the marriage for papers. Here one got into a business transaction with an American citizen. Pay x amount per month for a given period. Live together and act like a married couple. Then apply for a citizenship and upon being granted the residency papers go your separate ways. With residency ones status changed from illegal to legal and one could come to Kenya at will.

This period was a good period but like all good things it had to come to an end.

The years of 2008-2012 were to prove to be terrible for Kenyans in America. In my next post I shall seek to show how this happened, the current state of affairs and why it matters to you.





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