Wednesday, January 5, 2022

This year is 28 years since I first came to the US

Chapters thirteen and fourteen of Peeling the Onion. Edited as promised here. Chapter thirteen covers how I won, and qualified for a Green Card. Fourteen describes my first ever journey to the US.

I first heard about the Green Card Lottery in February 1993. My life had hit rock bottom. My job was dead ended. As a female, and over forty, I had no value in the job market in Ireland at that time and my manager had taken a dislike to me. I couldn't even get an interview, let alone another job. My marriage was over. My daughter had already moved to France and was independent. My two boys needed me to let them grow up and get on with their lives, and I knew I could never kick them out—so I decided it was time to kick myself out. 

Irish Intercontinental Bank became KBC
I was working in an investment bank. I had started as a typist, moved into a secretarial role and eventually talked my way into the newly created computer programming group. I was doing a computer science degree at night and my main job during the day was to support the secretaries as they struggled to move from typewriters to word processors. One of the secretaries called me because her printer was jammed. As I got it working, the page she had been attempting to print rolled into the tray. It was an application for a Green Card. She explained the lottery to me and showed me the notice in the newspaper. I made a note of the requirements and decided to apply.

Applications for the lottery that year had to be received between March 10th and March 30th—somewhere in West Virginia. I took great care in making sure that my application adhered to all the formatting rules. I carefully measured the envelope to be certain it was the exact size specified in the rules, and I went to a photographer who had past experience in taking the photographs exactly in accordance with the requirements. Finally I mailed my application off and prayed that it would arrive in the middle of the specified date range. Then I waited.

I waited impatiently for a few weeks, and slowly forgot about it, assuming that I had been unlucky. After all, this was my first application and I heard of so many people who had applied year after year, only to be unlucky.

I was stupefied with excitement when, early in July, I received a large brown envelope, containing a letter advising me that I had been drawn to receive a Green Card. Along with the letter was a frightening amount of paperwork to be completed. The instructions were very precise. I needed to gather together every piece of official documentation identifying me. Birth Certificate, Passport, Marriage Certificate and Separation Papers, divorce was not yet legal in Ireland—and every detail on each document must match exactly, the details on all the others. I also needed to get a police certificate, to confirm that I did not have a criminal record, and I needed a valid job offer. 

That year there were one hundred thousand applications from Ireland with only ten thousand Green Cards allotted. I had once emigrated to Canada with my first husband, when we first married, twenty-five years earlier. We only stayed six months because my husband couldn't hack it though I loved it there. Despite that, I had never considered going back, nor going anywhere else. Winning the Green Card was a sign to me that I needed to take control of my life and make it work.

In gathering the information required, and carefully inspecting it, I discovered for the first time, that my birth date was incorrectly noted on my marriage certificate. It took almost six weeks to have this corrected. What took the longest time, and caused me to almost give up, was the job offer. How do you get a valid job offer from a company in the US, when you have never been there and know no one there, and don't even know when, or if, you will be able to start work?  The job offer was not legally binding on either party, but no self-respecting American is going to get tangled up in immigration matters, particularly if they consider what they are being asked to do is somewhat shady; and I didn't know any Americans, self-respecting or otherwise.

Finally, just when I was about to despair, a friend worked a miracle for me. A friend of hers with a restaurant in New York agreed to give me a job offer. He was aware that I had no intention of living in New York. And I was aware that he didn't need his office computerized. But he was Irish so not afraid to take chances, and I had my precious job offer.

Once I had all my paperwork in order, then I had to send off my application to be interviewed for my Green Card. The police certificate needed to be obtained within three months of the interview, therefore it had to be left till almost last, what was last was the medical exam. I was required to have a full medical which included an X-ray for tuberculosis and a blood test for the HIV virus. The results of the medical were sent directly to the US Embassy, and the X-ray was handed to me—the instructions clearly stated that I must carry the X-ray negative with me for a full year after entering the US, as I could be required by immigration authorities, to produce it, any time during the first twelve months as a resident in the US.

The interview was scheduled for mid-April. I was both terrified and excited beyond description. The process was surprisingly simply and over before I realized it. All my papers were in order and the job offer passed muster. I handed over the two-hundred Irish pounds I had borrowed from a friend, and took possession of a large brown envelope, which had a dire warning in large black lettering, advising all that this envelope was to be opened only by the US Immigration authorities at the port of entry, and was only valid for four months from the date of issue. In other words, I needed to enter the US before the beginning of August that year—1994.

During the six months prior to my interview, following on a lead given to me by my sister, I had contacted, and been interviewed by, Camp America. This is an agency that match students with summer camps in the US. They supplied J-1 student visas, paid their return fare and packed them off to work in a Summer Camp somewhere in the US for a period of two months. For this they received pocket money, and had two months during which they could remain in the US and travel around. Because I was not a student, didn't require a visa and was not planning on using the return ticket, I was not sure that Camp America would be interested in finding me a position in a Summer Camp. But it seemed to me to be the ideal way to become acclimatized to my new home, and while I had a job offer, I did not yet have a job. My plan was to look for a real job once I got there. I need not have worried. Once Camp America heard that I was a qualified horseback riding instructor, they couldn't beam me over fast enough.

The Summer Camp opened on the 20th of June and so I made plans to leave Ireland on 14th June. I spent four days with my daughter in Toulouse, in the South of France and, from the limited ports of exit available for me to choose, from Camp America, I chose the closest to my daughter's home—Frankfurt. My son-in-law and daughter organized a train ticket for me to travel from Toulouse to Frankfurt, changing at Paris. My daughter gave me careful instructions on how to achieve this difficult transfer. I speak no French, and the idea of taking the metro across Paris, to get from the train station into which I would arrive, to the station from which the Frankfurt train departed, was quite challenging. 

Because I was emigrating, I had packed as much as I thought I could carry. This did mean that I left an awful lot of my belongings behind. I told my sons that they could have the furniture to do with as they wished. I packed clothes that I knew I would need at the summer camp, and that was about it. But that was quite a lot. I had purchased a large rucksack, believing that would be the easiest way to carry my belongings, plus I had a large sports bag, also packed to capacity.

Like a snail with his home on his back, I staggered from the train in Paris. I found the ticket desk for the Metro just as my daughter had described to me, and managed to purchase a ticket without too much difficulty. As I turned away from the ticket counter I dropped my Walkman. Without thinking of the consequences of such an act, I bent down to pick it up—to my horror I was instantly pinned in a squatting position on the floor of the station. My back pack, almost the same size and weight as myself, prevented me from standing up, and threatened to pin me flat to the floor if I gave in to its persistent pressure. 

The train station in Paris
My sense of humor is somewhat weird, and so I cannot blame the French people around me for backing away when I laughed out loud at my predicament. All they could see was a short, plumb, foreigner pinned to the floor by a large, bulging rucksack, laughing hysterically. The luck that stayed with me since I first decided to apply for the Green Card, didn't desert me then. A large luggage cart had been abandoned close to where I was squatting. I carefully inched towards it, still straining against the weight of the back pack. Once I got my hands on the cart I was able to haul myself to an upright position. Needless to say, I immediately removed the bag from my back. It had a handle on the side, so that it could be carried as a suitcase, the straps neatly folding away into a zipped pouch. 

I managed to negotiate the steps down to the platform, and get on the train with my bags. However, I had not bargained for the long, long walk from the platform the metro arrived at, to the platform from which the Frankfurt train departed—through tunnels, upstairs, down stairs—I thought, like Alice, that I was never going to find a way out of the warren of tunnels. The bags were becoming so heavy that I had resorted to dragging them—one in either hand. I was about to abandon one of them when a very kind woman offered to drag one for me. She could speak no English but I was able to gasp out Merci with feeling and I did get to the Frankfurt train, about twenty minutes before it departed, with both my bags, albeit somewhat the worse for wear—one of the bags had a hole worn in one corner.

Frankfurt train station
When I eventually arrived at Frankfurt station approximately four hours later, once again I had to drag my bags—they seemed to have become heavier and my muscles, already strained by my struggle through Paris, had begun to stiffen up. I had been warned that Frankfurt station was one of the most dangerous places in Europe and so I decided that I would take the first exit from the station and get a room for the night in the first hotel I came across. This turned out to be a most horrifically expensive hotel, but very luxurious and I felt the need for a bit of luxury at that stage. I was to meet with the Camp America representative in Frankfurt Airport at 6 a.m. the next morning, so I arranged for a taxi for 5 a.m. took a long bath and went to bed.

The next thirty-six hours were a blur. Taxi to the airport, I will add that my fondest memory of Frankfurt will forever be the hug goodbye, at 5.30 a.m., from the young taxi driving-alternative-medicine-student who gave me new faith in humanity. He spoke excellent English which he was happy to practice during the drive to the airport. Then a flight to London, where I had to make a twenty minute connection for a flight to Dulles Airport in Washington DC, well officially in Virginia, but 26 miles from Washington DC and referred to as Washington Dulles. With hindsight, it would have made more sense to fly from Toulouse to London and avoid the adventures in the wonderland of Paris train stations. However, at the time of booking my travel I had no idea that I would be flying out of London, I only discovered this when I met with the representative in Frankfurt airport. Also, that would not have made such an interesting story.

I arrived at Dulles at the same time as a number of flights carrying soccer supports in the US for the 1994 World Cup. It was packed! That is where the brown envelope with the dire warning was finally opened by the right people, my thumbprint was taken and I was issued with a temporary visa—the precious green card was to be mailed to me within six weeks. Because I had no clue where I would be at that time, I used the US address of a friend of a friend who lived in New Mexico and was willing to take possession and forward this to me when I had an address. He was also Irish.

At Dulles I had a four hour wait for a flight to Detroit, Michigan. I had been assigned to Camp Maplehurst, in Northern Michigan. I was met in Detroit, by a teenage girl, she was to be my assistant riding instructor at camp. We managed to squeeze my bags into her small sports car, already full to the brim with her own stuff for the two months at camp. We had a six hour drive to the tiny village of Kewadin, just outside Traverse City. Luckily we shared a love of Country Music and horses—so we had a fairly enjoyable drive. It was during this drive that I got my first whiff of skunk as we passed a freshly squished skunk on the highway. I was finally in America.

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