By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian –
I entered the green card lottery in the fall of 2010. It was a surprisingly simple form, composed mostly of questions on contact information, but a box that read “Country Claimed” gave me pause. Most applicants write in wherever they were born, but for me it was a bit more complicated; I could not, in good faith, claim any country as my own.
I was born in Canada on July 19, 1986. My Iranian-born parents (of Armenian and Russian extraction) were living in Geneva at the time, but Switzerland grants citizenship only to the children of naturalized citizens. My parents, who both worked for the United Nations, didn’t know if they would live there long enough to meet the residency requirements. I was destined to inherit an Iranian passport, and they knew all too well the lifetime of travel and work restrictions that would entail.
So they came up with a third-country solution. My mother would fly to Vancouver, British Columbia, wearing an oversize raincoat just weeks before her due date. She would give birth at a local hospital, stay with her brother, who lived there, until my paperwork was processed, and return to Geneva with a Canadian baby in tow. It worked so well that she repeated the process four years later with my brother.
My mother was finally naturalized when I was 8, so I was able to become a Swiss citizen after all. But my papers were, once again, misleading. Growing up, I spoke four languages at home — Armenian with my father, Russian with my mother and English and French with baby sitters — and attended international schools in which no one cared where you were from unless it was during the World Cup. I lived in Switzerland, but for all intents and purposes, I grew up on international soil.
When I went to college in New York, I was invited to Armenian events on the basis of my last name and Iranian ones on account of my first name, and I didn’t think too much about where I came from. I was busy making friends and falling in love with the city. I spent summers working here, and it was the first place I’d ever lived that felt like home to me. Having spent my entire (albeit short) adult life here, I couldn’t imagine leaving. So when I graduated, I found myself in need of a work visa.
There are several types of visas under which foreigners can work here, from seasonal farm work programs to O visas for “extraordinary aliens” — Nobel Prize winners, celebrities and occasionally writers. For someone like me, just starting out in a career, this one was a long shot. The most common visa among college graduates is the H1-B. But the application process takes months, and the employer is required to shell out thousands of dollars in legal fees to pay for sponsorship. The foreigner’s legal status in the country also depends on maintaining his or her employment.
When I graduated, right before the Great Recession, no one was sponsoring. I asked a lawyer if there was anything I could do to stay. He took my $100 consultation fee and asked if I had a boyfriend I could marry.
I left. But I had no idea where to go. I felt like a foreigner in Geneva, and most of my friends had left. I’d spent no time in Canada. I had nothing in Iran. I tried out Russia for size, but lasted barely six weeks (life advice: don’t go to Russia if you’re depressed). Eventually, I found a job at an international organization in Paris and spent the year Skyping with my New York friends, listening to WNYC reruns on my laptop and applying to graduate schools back in the United States.
Had I not had the good fortune and the funds to go back to school, I don’t know where in the world I’d be. In 2010, I was able to return to New York for a master’s program in journalism, and I spent that year working harder than I ever had before. I would have to make up for my nationality with labor and talent, a school counselor told me. When I interviewed for jobs, I felt like a leper. My international classmates joked that coming clean about a limited work permit at a job interview was like telling someone you had herpes on a first date.
In the meantime, I entered the green card — also known as the “diversity” — lottery. They call it a lottery for good reason; the odds of winning are minute. But I’d marked the deadline in my calendar the year before, and it seemed like a waste to let it pass. I didn’t have the right-size photograph to attach to my application, so my boyfriend snapped a picture of me standing against a dusty white wall in our kitchen. It was 7 a.m., and head-on, I looked like a sleepy convict. I wrote down my phone number and address, and under “Country Claimed,” settled on Switzerland.
Last summer, when I found out I’d won, I couldn’t believe it could be that simple. I called three lawyers to make sure it was real. They said it was.
Two painful months later, I received a letter from the United States Embassy in Bern. It informed me that I was disqualified from the lottery because I’d claimed the wrong country of origin. Although I had Swiss citizenship, I was not a Swiss native, because I was born in Canada. Canadians typically aren’t eligible for the lottery, but if I’d claimed Iran, where my parents were born, I wouldn’t have had any trouble. I appealed and complained, but nothing could be done. My mother’s trip in the summer of 1986 came back to bite me. The punch line, of course, was that I was too diverse for the diversity lottery. Even I can’t tell you where I’m from.
I used to think of immigration as a problem for the migrant poor, not something that affected college-educated global citizens. I now know that getting a work permit is a complicated and often heartbreaking process, no matter who you are. Thanks to months of pitching articles to whoever would let me write them — not to mention a good lawyer — I finally obtained an O visa this year. I don’t have to get married, to a man or a job, to have a career in the United States. But I was able to stay only because I had the time, resources and support to make it work. For most people, the odds are stacked against them from beginning to end.
*A journalist at Reuters and an editor at The New Inquiry.
Courtesy New York Times