In the busy city of New York, the popular hot dog stands are noticeable on every street corner. What have become just as popular these days are halal hot dog and falafel stands adding an Arabian touch to one of New York””s most prominent features.
The hot dog stand on the corner of 7th Avenue and 52nd Street, approximately 500 meters away from Times Square, continues to attract Manhattan””s inhabitants and tourists alike. The owner, Mostafa, stands at his stall from 7AM to 7PM, selling fast food to his numerous customers.
This was not quite the profession in which Mostafa believed he would find himself when he arrived in the United States three years ago. He told Asharq Al-Awsat, "I simply won the lottery." What Mostafa referred to however was not winning a large sum of money but rather being one of the successful participants of the ”Diversity Visa Lottery,” one of America””s most important schemes. The Diversity Visa Lottery is organized annually by the US State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Services. Millions of people in various countries partake in the draw, which offers fifty thousand potential migrants the opportunity to live and work in the United States.
For Mostafa, winning the lottery was the pathway to a new life after leaving his homeland, Morocco. He said, "I came here to work as this country offers employment to young men like me who are willing to work hard in building their future." Mostafa saved money from his previous job of two years to buy the cart and obtained a license from the Department of Labor and Health. Mostafa is a university graduate who could not find work in Morocco and felt "secluded from the world." He submitted his application for the Diversity Visa Lottery and arrived in the United States, leaving his family of six brothers and sisters and his mother in Morocco.
All applicants must have a high school diploma or two years work experience in the necessary field, however, most applicants are usually over-qualified. The majority are compelled to take jobs that do not require their level of intelligence and qualification.
Alaa Akan, who drives a taxi in New York, came from Pakistan nine years ago where he obtained a Masters degree in Mathematics. He came to the USA with dreams of becoming a teacher, however, nine years later, he remains at the bottom of the American career ladder. Akan told Asharq Al-Awsat, "My aspirations were not low level and I expected difficulties at the beginning, however, my suffering continues even 9 years after obtaining my Green Card."
The division of the State Department responsible for the Diversity Visa Lottery receives applications two years in advance during three months every year. For the Diversity Visa 2007, entries were made between October 5 and December 4, 2005. Therefore, the successful candidate would travel in October 2007. Up to 85% of the world””s population can apply except for a handful of countries that have sent over 50,000 immigrants to the United States over the past five years. This year, the citizens of 16 countries were not allowed to take part including the United Kingdom, Canada, India, China, Russia, Pakistan, Mexico and Colombia.
The application is submitted electronically and is usually long and complicated, providing an opportunity to businessmen who open agencies to complete the application on behalf of the candidate in return for a service fee. The government does not demand an application fee; however, for successful candidates there is a charge for issuing the visa.
Zaki, the owner of ”All Star Tours,” in Queens who is originally Egyptian stated that his office had been permitted by the Immigration Department to receive applications. However, due to the complexity of the application forms, "many unauthorized offices exploit the unawareness of candidates." He added that the number of applicants has not been affected by the September 11 attacks as "the number of candidates has increased continuously." He asks, "Who would not like to come to the United States considering the huge problem of unemployment and living standards in our home countries." The United States received 8.7 million applications for the diversity visa; however, it maintained its limit of 50,000.
The reasons behind migration differ from person to person. Ahmad was the manager of a major bank in Bangladesh, however, certain annoyances at work pushed him to consider a new job. In a local paper, he came across an opportunity to work in the United States and made his request for a permanent visa. He obtained a Green Card, and America has now become been his home for eight years. Ahmad acquired citizenship two years ago for the United States, where he works not as a banker but in his brother””s store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, home to a large Muslim population.
As Ahmad spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat opposite the store ””Mecca Sales,”” he expressed his sadness saying, "I came over here with unfulfilled dreams. I adapted to life here which is difficult and expensive. America is a dream, but not for everyone and certainly not for me." Ahmad””s tone altered when he spoke of his three children who were born and raised in the United States. Optimistically he explains, "My children are the future. My eldest daughter has just begun university and I hope that all my children are successful here in America whilst maintaining their identity as Muslims. I would not return to Bangladesh. My mother has passed away and corruption is widespread. Besides, I have not achieved what I came here for in order for me to return to the past."
However, not all immigrants share the view that they would not return home as many express their hope of returning at some point. As he works the long hours in his taxi, Alaa dreams of the day that he would return to Pakistan. At the same time, nevertheless, he plans to bring his mother and sister to the United States after his brother joined him, also working as a cab driver. Alaa told Asharq Al-Awsat, "I have one son who I dream of enrolling at an American university. After that, I would return home."
Alaa bitterly referred to his dismissal from the American postal services after 9/11."I was fired because I am a Muslim, Ahmad stated. He added that he had filed a lawsuit against the American government for unfair dismissal based on religious discrimination, however, the case was lost. "I lost my job and the lawsuit. I suffered an awful lot. The American government lies to us and I do not feel comfortable here, nevertheless, I am waiting for my citizenship to make my life and the lives of my family easier…I still have a dream and that is to teach Math at an Islamic school. There, work would be better for me because I am a Muslim like them."
On the other hand, the opportunity of coming to New York has opened up many doors for many immigrants, especially those who have come alone. Whilst he prepared a hot dog for one of his numerous customers, Mostafa told Asharq Al-Awsat, "I feel like I am building my future here and that I must seize the opportunity that has been given to me and that is the opportunity to make money and to live in a society that respects differences."
There are conflicting opinions about the Diversity Visa Lottery in America. Those who support the idea believe that it makes the United States more open-minded, tolerant and strong as it hosts different people from different parts of the world. As for American oppositionists, they believe that the scheme deprives American citizens from job opportunities that are given instead to foreigners. Non-American opposition believes that the scheme is a way to take skilled members of society away from their countries for the benefit of the United States, however, the fact remains that those who take part do so as a matter of choice. Furthermore, successful candidates of the Diversity Visa Lottery scheme are compelled to find work immediately as the government provides no financial or social benefits. The US government provides the participants of the scheme with a key to the vast continent where they can establish a future for themselves, by themselves.